The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Tim Ryan is playing to win in Ohio

Tim Ryan, U.S. Democrat Senate candidate for Ohio, speaks during an Undecided Voter Town Hall in Lancaster, Ohio, on Aug. 3. (Gaelen Morse/Bloomberg)

CINCINNATI — The White, middle-age congressman in a gray sweatshirt stands on a suburban sidewalk, looks squarely into the camera and says, “When Obama’s trade deal threatened jobs here, I voted against it. And I voted with Trump on trade.”

Just another Republican candidate touting his MAGA bonafides? No. It was Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee for Senate in Ohio, in one of his first campaign ads after winning his party’s primary. After nearly two decades in Congress, Ryan is squaring off against J.D. Vance, the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and onetime Donald Trump critic who did an about face and rode Trump’s endorsement to victory in a crowded GOP primary.

The Senate seat opened when Republican Rob Portman declined to seek reelection, and so far Ryan has seemed to want it more than Vance. As Politico reported last week, “Ryan spent more than $8 million on advertisements, including $6.5 million on television since May. But until this week, Vance’s campaign had been AWOL from the airwaves for that entire time.” While one eye-opening poll this month showed Ryan up by 11 percentage points, a more realistic assessment shows him holding about a three-point edge, according to Politico.

Given Trump’s successes in Ohio, Ryan may feel obligated to tout his embrace of a plank in the MAGA platform, but expect Vance to make sure people know that Ryan has voted with President Biden 100 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. Still, his maverick side was on display just a few years ago when he considered challenging Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for House speaker in 2018, with a call to get “the kind of Midwest, blue-collar progressives back front and center of our party.”

Ohio was long regarded as the ultimate swing state. But Trump carried it twice by eight points, and the GOP dominates Ohio’s state and federal offices. While some observers think the state is now reliably red, conversations with past and current officials from both parties show a consensus among many that Republicans have long enjoyed a statewide ballot advantage of about 3 points — hardly an insurmountable barrier for Democrats.

Just before Trump — who drew atypical voters — Ohioans twice voted for Obama. And Republicans’ statehouse and congressional dominance likely owes more to the GOP’s control of redistricting than to a lopsided party preference among voters. In fact, as of last October (the most recent figures available) registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans, although Ohio’s method of party identification — based on participation in primaries — is misleading.

At this early stage, conventional wisdom still favors Vance, who just recently unveiled TV ads re-introducing himself to Ohio’s general electorate. But the clock is ticking. As Fox News reported recently, Vance has “faced plenty of criticism from Democrats, as well as some Republicans, for what they describe as his absence from the campaign trail in Ohio.”

To keep Democrats enthused, there are frequent comparisons of Ryan with Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Ohio Democrat serving his third term in the Senate. Brown has consistently bucked the state’s Republican trend, and Ryan is clearly trying to follow in Brown’s blue-collar, borderline-populist footsteps. Ryan’s a natural people person, a contrast to Vance’s more elitist persona despite his humble roots. But Brown’s success was bolstered by the good fortune of running in strong years for national Democrats — 2006, 2012 and 2018. And Brown’s last two races were against particularly uninspiring opponents, including Josh Mandel in 2012, who was the GOP front-runner this year until Trump endorsed Vance.

Ryan won’t have Brown’s luck. This election is the first midterm of a new president, which typically boosts the opposition party. High inflation should be the top issue, though the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and, now, the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago are wild cards. Ryan’s current fundraising advantage will likely be short-lived with big donors such as venture capitalist Peter Thiel in Vance’s corner.

But the GOP primary left Republicans divided, with supporters of other contenders who never called Trump “reprehensible” — as Vance once did — still bitter over Trump’s endorsement. Vance’s years outside the state — he attended Yale Law School, then lived and worked in San Francisco — will be contrasted against Ryan’s home-state devotion. And Vance’s flip-flop on Trump does not exactly instill a sense of core principles. Also in Ryan’s favor is the GOP doing and promising to do things few voters really want, from pledging revenge investigations to Republican-controlled state legislatures overplaying their hands on abortion to a Republican senator even suggesting that Medicare and Social Security should be subject to annual renewal.

All things being equal, Vance should win, if narrowly. But one suspects that as it cruises toward November, today’s rickety, rudderless Republican Party may well find a way to sink itself, taking some flawed candidates down with the ship.

All of which means that Ryan and the Democrats have every reason to stay engaged in Ohio, and play to win.