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Opinion Ohio’s Tim Ryan, with a glass of wine, rebrands the Democrats

Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in Ohio, at a campaign event in Cincinnati on Sept. 20. (Megan Jelinger/Bloomberg News)

An earlier version of this column misidentified Nan Whaley. She is a former mayor of Dayton, Ohio. This version has been corrected.

TOLEDO — If you want to know why Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan is within range of an upset victory in Ohio’s U.S. Senate race against Republican J.D. Vance, have a look into a midday meet-and-greet with his supporters here on Tuesday.

First, it was a virtual roll call of the U.S. labor movement. Proudly wearing union jackets, auto workers, steel workers, iron workers, electrical workers and others furnished evidence for Ryan’s “Workers First” campaign signs.

In jeans and running shoes, with his wife, Andrea, next to him, Ryan made sure the point wasn’t lost. “Andrea comes from a working-class family,” he says. “I come from a working-class family. We are going to have an absolute laser-like focus on the economic issues for working families, whether you’re White or Black, whether you’re a man or a woman.”

Ryan, 49, is an old-school Labor Democrat — “a working-class kid who doesn’t forget where he came from,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told me.

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Like Brown, whose successful campaigns here are a model for Democrats, Ryan is making a case to blue-collar voters who backed Donald Trump that he is on their side. He underscores his point by telling them, as he noted during an interview, that, especially on Trump’s trade and China policies, “I agreed with him when I thought he was right. … It’s not about me or Trump, it’s about you.”

At the same time, Ryan is appealing to suburban moderates, including Republicans, who are wary of right-wing extremism. It’s a charge he hurls unrelentingly at Vance, who has been racing away from statements he has made in an effort to appeal to Trump’s base. Ryan sees himself rallying “the exhausted majority,” weary of “stupid fights.”

The result: In a state Trump carried in 2020 by eight points, Ryan is within a couple of points of Vance and is running well ahead of his party’s gubernatorial candidate, former Dayton mayor Nan Whaley. Whatever happens in November, Ryan will have shown that the right kind of Democrat who “doesn’t get distracted by culture wedge-baiting,” as his pollster Molly Murphy said, can compete in states Democrats have written off.

But he isn’t just trying to make a point. He believes he can win. And this is the second message he sent here on Tuesday by opening with a self-deprecating story about one of his early dates with his wife, when he accompanied her to a football game her students had asked her to attend. She was mobbed by grateful kids. He was ignored.

“And I’m thinking, I’m the freaking congressman, no one’s paying attention to me!” Ryan said to laughter.

He’s only too happy now to call attention to the starring role Andrea Ryan plays in a schmaltzy and highly effective commercial in which the twosome creates a permission structure for Republican-leaning voters to back Ryan.

“Some people think that they have to agree with their politicians 100 percent of the time,” Ryan says in the ad, “and I ask these people, are any of you married?"

What follows is a rapid-fire dialogue:

Tim: “But if we have 10 conversations in one day …

Andrea: “And we agree on seven …

Tim: “We crack a bottle of wine …

Andrea: “Yes, we do.”

For many swing voters, the choice they confront is between Ryan, the candidate they like better from the party they don’t trust; and Vance, the candidate they don’t like very much from the party they agree with and would rather support.

While the Vance campaign was largely somnolent after the primary, Ryan cast his opponent as an extremist and opportunist with weak ties to Ohio. So Vance is doing all he can to make the race about party. His favorite words are “Pelosi” and “Biden.” During a debate on Monday, Vance linked Ryan nearly a dozen times to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (though Ryan once ran against her for the House leadership). Ryan shot back: “If you want to run against Nancy Pelosi, move back to San Francisco and run against Nancy Pelosi,” reminding voters of Vance’s work as a venture capitalist in California.

In 18 months of visiting all 88 counties in Ohio, Ryan has done all he could to detoxify the Democratic label he carries. Nonetheless, there are some glimmers in the polling that Vance — like weak Republican Senate candidates in Georgia and Pennsylvania — might be consolidating the Republican vote in the campaign’s final weeks. All three races will test the limits of candidate quality in a polarized time.

Over coffee at the Monroe Street Diner, Tony Totty, president of United Auto Workers Local 14, suggested in two sentences why Ryan has a shot — and how the Democratic brand has soured. “You’ve got to be a different kind of Democrat to win in Ohio,” he said. “You’ve got to be pro-American worker.”

It’s a real problem that the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt needs to prove it is “pro-American worker.” Still, it’s worth noting that Totty thinks Ryan is going to win.