IRONTON, Ohio — Congressman Tim Ryan has been traveling the foothills of western Appalachia with a joke about marriage he hopes will make him Ohio’s next U.S. senator.
“If my wife and I have 10 conversations in one day and we agree on six or seven of them, we crack a bottle of wine and celebrate how great our marriage is,” he said at a recent stop here along the Ohio River, just a few blocks from an empty brownfield where furnaces once burned. “So why would you think you are going to agree with someone 100 percent of the time?”
Ryan’s bet — and the national Democratic dream — is that a few issues still just might matter more than his party label. He lists three whenever he speaks, after talking up his small-town upbringing and all of his union relatives who once worked at steel plants or auto suppliers: rebuilding the country with major public works spending, new government investing in manufacturing industries and beating China.
“They have a 10-year plan, a 50-year plan, a 100-year plan,” he said of the Asian superpower. “We are living in a 24-hour news cycle talking about really dumb stuff, like Big Bird and Dr. Seuss.”
The pitch has made Ryan one of the most consequential Democratic candidates of the 2022 cycle, a test case on whether his party has any hope of reclaiming its erstwhile White working-class voting base, as former president Donald Trump, who sped their flight, waits in the wings. The struggle is, by any measure, uphill — Democrats have just one statewide win in the former swing state since 2012 — and Republicans remain favored to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R) in November.
Republicans during the Trump years ceded strength in the college-educated suburbs to make inroads among Whites and Hispanics without college degrees in more rural areas. Issues like political correctness and disdain for political elites accelerated the drift, hitting the Democratic Party hardest among White working-class voters, who have the ability to decide elections in the presidential swing states that border the Great Lakes.
Republicans nationwide got votes from 50 percent of Whites without college degrees in 2000, when George W. Bush ran, and just 45 percent in 2008 at the end of Barack Obama’s first campaign. Trump won in 2016 with 62 percent of the same voters, with only a slight drop-off to 59 percent in 2020, according to data compiled by the American National Election Studies.
The near-term future of the party, and the next presidential contest in 2024, may well depend on whether the party can reclaim some of its old appeal, much like Sen. Sherrod Brown, the last Democrat to win statewide in Ohio, did in his 2018 race.
“Ohio could be the closest thing to a test run for 2024,” said Aaron Pickrell, a Democratic strategist who helped Obama win the state twice. “You are running against the Trumpiest Trumpers, and you have a moderate pragmatic economic populist, with a well-funded campaign, doing everything you need to do.”
For the moment, that means clocking long hours in a firefighter union leader’s pickup truck, where Ryan dials deep-pocketed national Democratic donors between meetings with whatever is left of the Democratic establishment in his state’s distant corners. He’ll sit an hour to listen to the concerns of four people at a coffee shop in Caldwell, share cinnamon buns with a dozen or so in McArthur, and then work the restaurants in Gallipolis on Saturday afternoon, facing bemused looks of suspicion as he goes table to table.
At the end of last year, he had more than $5 million in the bank, according to his campaign, a strong start for a statewide effort, where the first step will be defeating Morgan Harper, a more liberal primary challenger who had just over $400,000 on hand at the end of the third quarter.
With less than 10 months to go before the general election, Ryan has already visited 72 of the state’s 88 counties in a full-press effort to try to persuade the hinterlands, a handful at a time, that Democrats like him are human beings who breathe the same air. He is “1,000 percent for” President Biden’s Build Back Better bill, but he quickly becomes frustrated when discussing how Democrats talked about the agenda, just as he is quick to complain about the Biden team’s inconsistent coronavirus messaging.
“The only way to break though that is to look someone in the eye and shake their hand and let them see that you don’t have eight heads,” Ryan said. “You’re sitting there talking about their job, and China, and bringing these manufacturing jobs.”
Not too long ago, Ryan’s economic pitch was Democratic scripture, the common-man fire kindled in the New Deal that kept working-class Whites in the fold. Obama won Ohio twice by railing against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and talking up coal’s clean future. Biden campaigned in 2012 as vice president along the Ohio River by coloring Republicans as cartoon Daddy Warbuckses. “I don’t think these guys understand us,” Biden would thunder.
Then Trump arrived, a billionaire magician from New York who could conjure new voters and turn people against their parents’ party. In places like Noble County, one of the smallest and poorest in the state with a stable population of about 14,000, Biden received 912 fewer votes in 2020 than Obama in 2012. Trump, by comparison, turned out 1,637 more supporters than Republican Mitt Romney.
In small-town Ohio, many of the last vestiges of Democratic power, after weakening for years, collapsed.
“It was sort of like a contagion that took place when he came on the scene,” former Ohio governor Ted Strickland (D), who used to represent parts of the state’s southern border in Congress, said of Trump. “He has an ability to communicate in a way that I think uncovered a lot of pent-up and repressed anger and hostility.”
The state’s GOP leaders tell a different story, one they are quite certain will lead to Ryan’s defeat, no matter whom Republicans choose to run against him in a crowded and combustible primary largely focused on aping Trump. They point out that Ryan has moved to the left in recent years on issues such as gun control and abortion, matching his party.
“The loudest voices in the Democratic Party right now are those identity politics voices,” Ohio Republican Party Chairman Robert Paduchik said. “Anybody can parrot a campaign message, but you are going to have to have some credibility to make it stick, and I just don’t think Tim Ryan has enough credibility to pull that off.”
After an incidental 2020 presidential run and a symbolic bid for House leadership in 2016, Ryan has been doing his best to show he is willing to put in the work. A former high school quarterback, he played briefly at Youngstown State University before blowing out his knee and becoming a congressional intern for Rep. James A. Traficant Jr. (D-Ohio), an irreverent populist from the northeast part of the state who was expelled from Congress after a conviction on taking bribes and other charges. Ryan ran against Traficant in 2002 — with the former congressman campaigning from a cell — and won at age 29.
He focused on bringing money home to this struggling corner of the country — supporting a program to teach mindfulness in local schools, a research program for hypersonic missiles, federal loan programs for electric vehicles. With Portman and Brown, he strengthened the “Buy American” provisions in the recent infrastructure bill in a boost for the state’s last lingering steel manufacturers.
Asked how he would fight the seemingly inevitable Republican claims that he is a socialist, he had a quick answer.
“We don’t do socialism in Youngstown,” he said.
Last year, Ryan met Dale King, 42, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, who owns a CrossFit gym and other small businesses in Portsmouth, a once-proud manufacturing hub now better known as an epicenter of the opioid crisis. King voted for Trump twice and was looking for a congressman to lay into for the Biden administration’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
King said he was impressed when Ryan flat-out admitted that the government had bungled the withdrawal. Ryan was delighted to find that King had made shirts for his workers, many of whom he recruits from a nearby recovery program, that read “Portsmouth vs. China.”
“Then we jointly went on a U.S. versus China rant. That was just refreshing,” King said. “I made him swear that he is going to come back and work out, and then he is going to get on the grinder with the guys and buy me a beer.”
Months later, on another swing south, Ryan drove a couple of hours extra on a Friday night to make good on the beer, purchased at Patties and Pints, a restaurant that has Trump’s face painted into a mural on the wall. King, whose best friend died of an overdose last October, has agreed to speak for Ryan at veterans’ events.
“If I look hard at his policies, I probably wouldn’t agree with him,” King said. “But I can tell you that he does care, and he is willing to listen, and I don’t think I have seen that from anybody in a long time.”
Such small victories are more the exception than the rule in the early stages of the campaign. At five stops over a January weekend, the largest crowd Ryan could muster was 14, all of them Democrats, most of them wanting to talk about their economic struggles and declining influence. “I don’t think there is anybody in this county that is a Democrat that is not in this room right now,” joked Dale Whitt, one of the attendees in Gallipolis.
Ryan heard about water treatment issues, owing to decades-old industrial pollution, and about the high school kids who had to commute to relatives’ homes or local libraries every day during the coronavirus pandemic to find broadband access. He heard ubiquitous pleas for more jobs and warnings about the power of Fox News, which broadcasts all day long from the doctor’s offices and car repair shops.
One man in Ironton had stories about his failed run for a county seat in 2018, when many of the doors he knocked on just wanted to talk about the Trump-touted immigrant caravans coming from Mexico.
“It is extremely hard to even have conversations,” said Cathy Suiter, another attendee in Gallipolis, when Ryan asked them to go door to door. “How would you like us to do that?”
Ryan told the people he met that he lacked a magic potion that would solve their problems or return Democrats to power, but he did promise them his focus. He said it was possible to get more government help to create jobs in their area and backed Biden’s legislative agenda as a potential boon to struggling people. When confronted about the failures of the Biden administration to better manage inflation or the coronavirus, he did not hide his frustration.
“The signals that we are getting are so mixed one day to the next. There is a constant shift of what the policies are,” he told a crowd in Jackson when asked about the pandemic response. “There needs to be a clearer message coming from the administration.”
Asked what had surprised him on his travels, he didn’t have to think too hard.
“The level of hopelessness, I think, in some areas, it’s just really … it’s out there, you know?” Ryan said. “And it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be.”
It’s a pitch to empathy and understanding, not knowing for sure whether the people he hopes to reach are ready to hear what he is saying. But he is not aware of any other way, at the moment, than speaking to four or five people at a time.
“In about four days, there are going to be about 500 people that know you were there. They are all going to go to the barber shop, the beauty salon, family dinner on Sunday,” he said. “You just grind it out.”