Vivek Ramaswamy, a 37-year-old biotech company founder, has moved into third or fourth place in some state and national polls, and he says his opponents are starting to take notice.
“The knives are coming out,” Ramaswamy said in an online video posted before The Wall Street Journal interviewed him for this story. “The opposition research machines are churning.”
As the most prominent nonpolitician in the GOP field, Ramaswamy has a record that is less known than most of his rivals and will inevitably get more scrutiny if he keeps rising in the polls. His self-funding of his campaign could keep him in the race longer than some others.
Ramaswamy has focused heavily on his opposition to business efforts to advance political, social and environmental causes. The son of Indian immigrants is selling himself as an outsider, government skeptic and a next-generation version of Trump.
Late last week, he declined to say if he would have certified the election results as former Vice President Mike Pence did in the early morning hours of Jan. 7, 2021, even though Ramaswamy said on Feb. 6, 2021, that “Joe Biden is our legally elected President.” He also has said he would pardon Trump if the former president is convicted for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Those stances echo the views of many Republican voters, but a detailed look at Ramaswamy’s record of political commentary, dating back to his Harvard University years when he was an occasional rapper, shows some past statements may be out of step with some GOP primary voters and even his own current rhetoric.
Before he was a presidential candidate, Ramaswamy at least playfully praised billionaire Democratic mega donor George Soros, criticized Trump for not conceding the 2020 election and had his name on a joint letter calling for greater diversity and inclusion efforts in business.
He has also made statements in the past that could be problematic in Iowa, where the Jan. 15 caucuses start the GOP presidential nomination process. He has called himself an “animal-rights activist” and said he is a vegetarian—not uncommon for those who practice the Hindu faith as he does—because it is “wrong to kill sentient animals for culinary pleasure.”
Such comments could rub farmers in Iowa, where hogs outnumber humans seven to one, the wrong way. His views on meat also could present awkwardness later this month at the Iowa State Fair, where presidential candidates traditionally take a turn flipping grilled pork.
In an interview, Ramaswamy said he’s unlikely to flip chops at the fair. He said the point he was trying to make when he talked about his vegetarian lifestyle was that he didn’t push his personal dietary views on his employees.
Ramaswamy, who owns roughly $650 million in stock in the company he founded and is heavily financing his own campaign, also expressed interest in, according to one of his books, inheritance tax rates as high as 59% and said passing wealth from parents to children breeds inequality and “hereditary aristocracy.” Rural Iowans often refer to such taxes as the “death tax,” and those who plan to hand down valuable farms to subsequent generations feel especially vulnerable.
“As a thought experiment, I do believe in a vision of bringing income taxes as low as possible, if one could collect it back on the back end,” he said in the interview. “That is a vision of a taxation trade off that I think is something that Americans would welcome.”
Before he entered the race, Ramaswamy played down abortion, a top issue for many of the social conservatives who dominate Iowa’s GOP caucuses. “That isn’t an issue that I have made a core part of my voice or my identity as a writer or as an author,” he said on a podcast in May 2021, while noting that he considers himself “pro-life, you know, not without nuance.”
In the interview, Ramaswamy said he made those comments in the context of being a business leader. “I was talking about what CEOs and capital allocators should and shouldn’t be concerned about in their roles,” he said.
Decisions about abortion, Ramaswamy has said, should be left up to the states, although he’s also said he would support state-level bans “around the six-week mark” of gestation.
Ramaswamy, who has proposed increasing the standard voting age to 25, has little voting history of his own. Election records in Ohio’s Franklin County, where he lives, show he registered to vote there in November 2021 as “unaffiliated,” not Republican.
“I don’t pay attention to partisan affiliations that much,” he said in the interview. “I consider myself a Republican, but I don’t believe in box checking.”
Ramaswamy said he voted for a libertarian presidential candidate in 2004 and then didn’t vote in a presidential election again until the 2020 election, when he backed Trump.
Campaign finance records show Ramaswamy gave $2,700 in March 2016 to the congressional campaign of Dena Grayson, a Democrat running in Florida. He also gave $500 in 2014 to a state senate candidate in Massachusetts who had longtime ties to the Obama administration and was endorsed by Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Ramaswamy’s campaign said the earlier contribution was made to a college friend and didn’t entail a political statement.
Regarding the 2016 contribution, Ramaswamy said he made it at the request of a “friend of a friend” who asked him to attend a fundraiser.
Trump also contributed to Democrats before running for president, including a 2008 contribution to his 2016 opponent Hillary Clinton. He’s said such giving was part of doing business as a real-estate executive.
Ramaswamy also has argued one of the central tenets of his presidential bid, which has focused heavily on what he calls woke capitalism, is best addressed outside Washington.
“It will not be a U.S. president. It will not be the U.S. Congress. It will not be a U.S. Senate that solves this problem,” he said in a July 2022 speech to a conservative group. “It will be state legislatures and state executive leaders across the country.”
In the interview, Ramaswamy said he’s running for president, instead of state office, because “woke capitalism” is just a symptom of a “deeper void of purpose and meaning in our country.”
While chief executive of Roivant Sciences and Axovant Sciences, he signed onto a joint letter in 2017 created by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council that called for “driving diversity and inclusion” in the industry.
“I don’t recall signing that,” Ramaswamy said when asked about the letter. “I never signed or authorized the signing of that.”
Write to John McCormick at email@example.com
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