The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Could these two populist Democrats be a model for victory?

Ohio Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan drinks a beer with Spencer Terrel, a representative for United Steelworkers, in Logan, Ohio, during a campaign visit on Jan. 15. (Maddie McGarvey/For The Washington Post)
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President Biden won the presidency by winning back some Americans who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 — especially White, working-class, Catholic and suburban voters. Those are precisely the people Democrats must hold onto to prevent big losses in 2022.

Fortunately for them, Democrats have two Senate candidates in particular well-positioned to duplicate that success: Tim Ryan in Ohio and John Fetterman in Pennsylvania.

Ohio remains a solid red state, but if any Democrat can win there, it is likely Ryan. He faces off against MAGA convert and right-wing extremist J.D. Vance. Ryan campaigns in jeans and work boots, runs against trade deals that hurt domestic manufacturing and calls out Vance for his dependence on Silicon Valley donors. As The Post’s Dan Balz recently reported, “Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said Ryan has the potential both to win support from working-class White voters who have drifted away from the Democratic Party and potentially gain support from establishment Republicans who have become disenchanted with a party dominated by Trump.”

In some respects, Ryan is following the playbook of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has survived Ohio’s steady drift right by championing “the dignity of work” and bringing manufacturing — and thus union jobs — back to his state.

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“We gotta manufacture. If you’re not making stuff, the economy doesn’t work,” Ryan recently told steelworkers. “To me, if you’re going to build stuff, you’ve gotta have infrastructure, which is why the infrastructure bill was so important.” The Marietta Times reported, “Ryan spoke openly with the meeting participants, occasionally using colorful language to make a point. He said Ohio has led the way from the Industrial Age, as steel came from Youngstown, tires came from Akron, and glass came from Toledo.”

Matt Bennett, of the moderate think tank Third Way, explains: “Voters in places like Ohio will have a clear choice in the Senate race: a principled moderate who has eschewed the radicals in his own party and is entirely focused on making life better for the people of the state or a completely phony proto-populist who decided that the only way to win high office as a Republican is to bend the knee to Donald Trump, lie constantly, and focus on culture war tropes and racist nonsense.”

So far that formula is working. A USA Today Network Ohio-Suffolk University poll released on Wednesday found the race within the margin of error with Vance a mere two points ahead. So long as Vance touts nutty positions, such as blaming school massacres on “the culture of fatherlessness” and drugs, Ryan can make a pitch to a wide swath of working-class and suburban voters. That includes what pollster Cornell Belcher calls the “angry mom” concerned about school shootings, health care and criminalized abortion.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, Fetterman seems likely to face Trump-endorsed Mehmet Oz, who narrowly clings to a lead of less than 1,000 votes in the GOP primary contest. (A recount will decide the race.) Aside from drawing attacks from former secretary of state Mike Pompeo as a security risk, Oz — a TV pitchman for quack cures — is open to attacks as a carpetbagger and unserious MAGA mouthpiece. The Post’s Karen Heller recently described a speech Oz delivered at a campaign rally as “a fusillade of hits from the Trump playbook: America first, gun rights, ‘keeping our borders clean,’ fighting China, fighting Washington, fighting ‘far-left, liberal-woke ideology’ and firing the nation’s other most-famed physician, Anthony Fauci.”

Fetterman seems an ideal foil for the snake-oil salesman. Despite suffering a stroke in the closing days of the Democratic primary, he defied expectations by thrashing centrist Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.). Fetterman, who prefers to campaign in a hoodie and shorts, certainly does not look or sound like a polished politician (though he has a Harvard degree). But he developed a solid base outside of Democratic strongholds. And while he was embraced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the primary, Fetterman displays an “authenticity [that] also shows in his pragmatism, something mainstream progressive and national Democrats tend to put second to ideological purity,” Vox’s Christian Paz writes. “He’s not in line with many on the left flank of his party on climate issues, for example, where he defends fracking as a source for jobs and revitalization of industrial communities.”

Bennett, of Third Way, observes that Fetterman is now situated as a “moderate running in a state that likes their leaders to hew pretty close to the center.” He adds, “Even in a tough year for Democrats, I like the chances for a colorful, relatable moderate taking on a phony Trumpian populist.”

Fetterman and Ryan will benefit by contrasting themselves with the loony Trump acolytes running against them. If Democrats campaign as down-to-earth defenders of the working class and prevail against MAGA extremists, the pundits might have to concede that “polarization” isn’t the problem facing our democracy; it’s a GOP that has plunged into radical nationalism loaded with conspiracy theories.