Vivek Ramaswamy at the Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisc.

Vivek Ramaswamy’s inroads in Ohio politics set the stage for a possible ‘Plan B’

NEW ALBANY, Ohio — Vivek Ramaswamy returned to Ohio in fall 2019 eager to start a family and ponder his next moves after striking it rich in high finance and biotech. 

Two kids and a bestselling book followed. But more quietly and behind the scenes, Ramaswamy was forging and strengthening relationships that would help launch his political career.

It didn’t hurt that an old law school pal — fellow author and Cincinnati-area native JD Vance — was already working Republican circles in the state, laying the groundwork for an eventual Senate run. Through Vance, Ramaswamy met Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, an ambitious GOP officeholder known for cultivating relationships with high-tech entrepreneurs and investors.

Husted quickly became a fan.

“I told somebody last summer — this was long before Vivek said he was going to run — I said, ‘You watch. This guy’s gonna run for president. And he’s gonna do well.’ And they laughed at me,” Husted recalled in a recent interview with NBC News for a deep dive on Ramaswamy’s political origins. “And then they texted me about a month ago, and they go, ‘Oh, my God, you’re right!’”

Ramaswamy’s rise nevertheless remains puzzling to other Republicans in a state where the longtime operatives and activists expect candidates to shake their hands and kiss their rings at chicken dinners and ice cream socials. (Vance, in his successful 2022 bid, was dogged by perceptions that he relied too much on his national celebrity and didn’t do enough retail politicking.)

Many Ohio GOP insiders met Ramaswamy for the first time in 2021, when he was invited to address a state party gathering. It was the year he published “Woke, Inc.,” which would announce his presence as a new right-wing provocateur. 

Ramaswamy was also drawing buzz as a Senate candidate for the same seat Vance was chasing. But Ramaswamy and Vance had been friendly since Yale Law School, where they bonded over their southwestern Ohio roots and watched Cincinnati Bengals games together, said Tricia McLaughlin, a senior Ramaswamy adviser. Vance said in a recent interview with Axios that he and Ramaswamy spent Thanksgiving together in 2019.

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Senate Republican candidate J.D. Vance answers a question during Ohio's Republican primary debate on March 28, 2022, in Wilberforce.Sen. JD Vance had been friendly with Ramaswamy since Yale Law School, where they bonded over their southwestern Ohio roots and watched Cincinnati Bengals games together.Joshua A. Bickel / The Columbus Dispatch via AP file

In the meantime, Ramaswamy had grown close with Husted, leveraging his pharmaceutical industry ties as an informal adviser to the lieutenant governor during the pandemic. When Husted caught flak for referring to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan Virus,” Ramaswamy defended him in a guest column that appeared in Ohio’s most circulated newspapers.

“We were trying to get [Covid] testing so that we could help get things moving faster, and he was very helpful in providing some connections there,” Husted recalled.

Top Republicans believed Ramaswamy was raising his name recognition for a Senate run in 2024, when Sen. Sherrod Brown, a vulnerable Democrat, would be up for re-election.

“Wrote a book, he’s smart, wants to be on TV, he’ll run against Sherrod,” is what one GOP official in Ohio recalled thinking. “It was kind of like JD Vance. If you think about it, JD Vance came out of nowhere. Writes this book and suddenly is everywhere all at once.”

Ramaswamy’s decision to shoot higher than Vance did and leap straight to a presidential campaign surprised many of those same observers. But Ramaswamy made it with the help of some seasoned Ohio professionals, including campaign CEO Ben Yoho, a veteran GOP operative in the state, and McLaughlin, who served as communications director for Gov. Mike DeWine’s successful re-election campaign with Husted last year.

Husted said that he and his wife, Tina, dine occasionally with Ramaswamy and his wife, Apoorva. Husted also emphasized that while he has encouraged Ramaswamy’s candidacy, he has not endorsed it, taking great care to offer kind words for former President Donald Trump, who leads GOP primary polls by wide margins. But Husted also said Ramaswamy has succeeded in moving the conversation in the GOP primary and mentioned specifically the candidate’s attacks on investment strategies that reward companies for progressive environmental, social and governance policies — known as ESG in the shorthand of the culture wars.

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“On ESG investing, now, nobody wants to use that term. And the person who was talking about it most aggressively [and] earliest was Vivek Ramaswamy,” Husted said.

“I’m sorry, but the stuff that Ron DeSantis is talking about is great. It’s fine. I love it,” Husted added. “But Vivek was talking about those things very, very early on. He didn’t have the platform.”

Like Husted, Ramaswamy has also taken great care to not criticize Trump too much, prompting suspicion that he wants to remain in good graces and be under consideration for the vice presidency or another plum administration post. Ramaswamy frequently shoots down speculation that he would accept the No. 2 spot on the ticket.

“When he moved back to Ohio, that was a very strong signal that something along these lines was coming,” one former Yale Law School classmate of Ramaswamy’s said, adding however that they felt it was highly unlikely Ramaswamy would seek elected office in the Buckeye State should his presidential bid fail. 

“It’s more likely that he would go off and do his thing with Ben Shapiro’s media organization or go on Fox,” the classmate added.

Some Ohio Republicans, though, wonder if Ramaswamy might emerge as a threat to Husted, who has already indicated plans to run for governor in 2026, after DeWine is term-limited out of office. 

“Not a consideration in my mind,” Husted said. “No concern.”

Ramaswamy was more circumspect when asked about such a possibility in late September after a campaign speech here in the Columbus suburbs, not far from his home.

“Not really, no,” he began.

“Doesn’t feel like a fit,” Ramaswamy continued. “I’m also not a Plan B person. My heart says we’re going to succeed, but I’m not a guy who makes backup plans. It’s not the way I roll.”

Henry J. Gomez

Henry J. Gomez is a senior national political reporter for NBC News.

Allan Smith and Alex Seitz-Waldcontributed.