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JD Vance’s VP prospects could rise after he helped deliver Trump a big Ohio win

Sen. JD Vance, R-Ohio, showed up at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in December armed with polling data and a risky proposition.

The largely unknown Bernie Moreno was rising in the Republican primary for Ohio’s other Senate seat, and Vance believed that Trump — whose endorsement elevated him in a crowded field two years earlier — could again be the kingmaker.

Trump was convinced and called Moreno on the spot to offer his backing, three sources familiar with the meeting said. Months later, when polls showed Moreno struggling to put the race away, Trump, again with Vance’s urging, flew in for a last-minute rally.

The gamble paid off for Trump last week, as Moreno won in a landslide that reinforced Trump’s influence in GOP primaries. And it could soon pay off for Vance, 39, who is among those mentioned as a potential running mate for Trump.

“JD has got an incredible future,” said Alex Bruesewitz, a Trump-aligned consultant. “What does that look like? I’m not quite sure at this moment. But when you look at conservatives who are younger and have their finger on the pulse of the MAGA movement, there aren’t many, and JD is certainly one of them.”

Nearly all of the dozen Republicans close to the Trump and Vance political orbits who spoke to NBC News were reluctant to speculate about his chances of being tapped for the vice presidential spot, noting the unpredictability of the process. But most acknowledged that his political stock has risen and described Vance as someone who brings to the table two qualities that Trump prizes: unshakable loyalty and a winning reputation. Moreno’s primary victory cemented Vance’s status as a trusted adviser.

“Trump likes to think of people as the contact person in certain states,” said Ric Grenell, a Moreno campaign co-chair and former Trump administration official who remains close with Trump. “Kari Lake is the person in Arizona, and JD is the contact for him in Ohio. He’s the first person he calls to get advice on Ohio.”

Trump has been effusive in his praise for Vance, calling him “a friend of mine,” “an absolute star,” “a great senator” and “a real fighter” at the rally for Moreno on March 16.

A Trump adviser said in response to a request to comment for this article, “Sen. Vance is a strong defender of the America First movement, and he continues to show how to effectively beat back Democrats and the media from perpetuating lies and falsehoods about conservatives.”

Superlatives aside, Trump allies and other Republicans in the final days of the primary were nervous that Moreno was in danger of losing to state Sen. Matt Dolan, a candidate who was supported by the Ohio GOP’s Trump-skeptical old guard.

“If Moreno loses,” an unidentified Trump adviser told Politico in a quote that became bulletin board fodder for the Moreno and Vance teams, “this will sour [Trump] on JD.”

But Moreno won easily, surpassing 50% of the vote and carrying each of Ohio’s 88 counties. He will face Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in November.

The chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana, characterized the result as a triumph for Vance.

“JD is a rising star in the Republican Party,” Daines said. “He demonstrated political acumen and strength in his state by helping his preferred candidate win a difficult primary in dominant fashion.”

Vance ceded credit to Trump.

“President Trump has the most powerful endorsement in political history,” Vance said in a statement that did not address the vice presidential speculation. “He was the driving force behind Bernie’s victory and conservatives across Ohio are grateful to him for ensuring we nominated someone who actually backs the America First agenda.”

“Not only will I continue doing everything I can to help elect President Trump,” Vance added, “but I will do what I can to help ensure he has more allies in the House and Senate.”

Moreno’s path as a Senate candidate in several ways mirrors Vance’s two years ago. Both were political newcomers who were on record bashing Trump in 2016 and who needed to prove a certain level of viability before they earned his endorsement.

Vance became known as a prominent Trump critic while he was promoting his bestselling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy” — an examination of working-class poverty and his family’s socioeconomic struggles in Ohio and Kentucky. But over the years he evolved in how he talked about Trump, praising him for his trade policies and embracing the culture wars that have energized the modern GOP. He also cultivated a friendship with Donald Trump Jr., who was helpful in pitching Vance to his father as he began showing signs of strength.

Moreno briefly ran in the 2022 Senate primary but dropped out after he met with Trump and agreed that his presence in the crowded race would make it easier for Dolan, who also ran that year, to win. Moreno followed Trump’s lead in endorsing Vance, became a key campaign adviser and played Vance’s Democratic opponent, then-Rep. Tim Ryan, in debate prep. (Moreno also has personal ties to Trump world, through his daughter Emily and her husband, Rep. Max Miller, R-Ohio, both of whom are former Trump aides.)

Vance returned the favor this year, headlining meet-and-greets for Moreno, fighting battles for him on social media and courting high-level donors. He helped corral nearly $1 million in contributions to the pro-Moreno Buckeye Values PAC, an adviser to the group said. The efforts, which also helped pay for Trump’s rally for Moreno, were first reported by Axios.

“I don’t want to talk about the VP race, because I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Grenell said. “But the reality is that what people love about non-politicians is they don’t calculate risk and make it a top criteria for their decision. They’re not risk-averse.”

Moreno recounted this week how Vance once scored them a meeting with “a very well-known Republican donor,” only to run into a child care issue at the last minute. So Vance brought one of his young children along for the pitch.

“It was just JD, [his kid] and a bag of Cheerios in a billionaire’s home,” Moreno said.

“He was invaluable,” Moreno added. “He never turned down a request that we made of him — and I thought we made, honestly, more requests than we would have made to any other person.”

Asked whether Vance would make a good vice president, Moreno did not hesitate.

“He’d be a great vice president,” he said.

Moreno and others also emphasized that Vance seems to enjoy the role he has carved out in the Senate. There, he has tempered his reputation as a culture warrior by developing bipartisan relationships to produce a series of populist proposals.

Vance has worked with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on legislation that would claw back pay from executives at failed banks. He has joined with Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., on a bill to ensure that more products invented with the help of federal funds are made in the U.S. And last week, he and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., introduced a bill to close tax loopholes for large corporate deals.

He is also known for his visibility and responsiveness during local disasters, from the toxic train derailment in East Palestine one month into his term to the recent tornadoes in western Ohio. In Ottawa last week, after Vance arrived late for a Moreno event because he had been surveying storm damage nearby, Putnam County GOP Chairman Tony Schroeder jokingly alluded to the vice presidential chatter.

“The good news is he’s doing a phenomenal job for us in the United States Senate,” Schroeder told the crowd. “The bad news is he’s on President Trump’s shortlist to be vice president. So let’s hope that doesn’t work out.”

Schroeder, in a subsequent interview, said the reception Vance received at that event was a testament to how quickly he has grown as a politician in a short amount of time.

“Everybody wanted to come over and say hello, touch him, see him, get photos — the whole nine yards,” Schroeder said.

“I don’t think it’s escaped the notice of President Trump or of other people who are affiliated with him that he would be a very dynamic choice for vice president,” Schroeder added. “I might take credit for being the first person to say we should be thinking about him as a president of the United States a few years down the line.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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