The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can Democrats win back working-class voters? Watch Ohio.

The Senate race between Republican J.D. Vance and Democrat Rep. Tim Ryan will test whether Democrats can woo disaffected voters who found Trump’s message appealing in 2016 and 2020 and notably shifted the state to the GOP.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) drinks a beer with Spencer Terrel, the Logan Staff representative for United Steelworkers in Logan, Ohio, during a campaign visit on Jan. 15, 2022. (Maddie McGarvey/For The Washington Post)

Few issues have vexed Democrats more than the long-running defection of White, working-class voters to the Republican Party. Ohio’s upcoming Senate race will test whether Democrats have a formula to win some of them back.

Ohio Republicans have just come off one of the most expensive Senate primaries in history, with a fractured field and a fractious, months-long debate. The winner was J.D. Vance, a Yale-educated, Silicon Valley venture capitalist who surged at the end of the campaign after securing the endorsement of former president Donald Trump. The author of a best-selling book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” Vance had pilloried Trump back in 2016 but learned to see Trump in a new light as a candidate for the Senate.

The Democratic nominee is Rep. Tim Ryan, a 10-term House member who represents a district in northeast Ohio that has suffered through the decline of manufacturing in the United States and the shipment of jobs overseas. He is a graduate of Bowling Green State University and Franklin Pierce School of Law.

Ryan once challenged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for the post of House Democratic leader and unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020. He is a centrist who has become more progressive, once was opposed to abortion rights and now supports them. He has consistently opposed free-trade agreements that have hurt his district and the whole state and has come out of the gate denouncing those in his party who have called for defunding the police.

As the race sets up today, it will feature two candidates who both will try to claim the mantle of populist ally of the working-class voter.

In his victory speech Tuesday night, Vance said: “The people who are caught between the corrupt political class of the left and the right, they need a voice. They need a representative. And that’s going to be me.”

The next morning, Ryan told CBS News: “I’m from just outside of Youngstown. And I take on whoever needs to be taken on — China, corporate interests, anybody who’s coming after my people.”

The two will be competing to succeed Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who is retiring after two terms in Senate and a long career in Washington that has included service in the House and the executive branch.

Ohio once was a swing state in presidential campaigns, although with a slight Republican tilt. Democratic presidential nominees generally saw their vote percentages in Ohio fall only a couple of points below their national percentage. Since Trump arrived on the scene, that has changed dramatically. The former president twice carried Ohio by margins of eight percentage points, which by the state’s standards is a landslide.

Ryan's plea to Ohio voters: Trust Democrats again.

The shift has come in the areas outside the major cities, in the northeastern part of the state, in Appalachian counties in eastern and southeastern Ohio, and in the rural areas in the western portions of the state. Trump rolled up huge margins in those counties and juiced turnout as well. Even as urban and suburban areas were shifting toward the Democrats, the other parts of the state were more than compensating. Some Democrats now consider Ohio a red state.

Unlike neighboring Michigan and Pennsylvania, which share some of its demographics but have been friendlier to Democrats overall, Ohio has appeared out of reach for Democratic candidates running statewide. The lone exception is Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), whose progressive populism has helped him to counter the trends.

Which brings the story back to the Senate race and the populist rhetoric that will be featured. But if both Vance and Ryan will make the claim that they best represent the working-class voters, they are likely to do it from different perspectives and with different emphases.

Vance has become a disciple of Trump’s anti-elite posture. From the viewpoint of his campaign team, the core appeal will be to voters who they believe have lost trust and faith, who feel not just economically stressed but, more important, left behind and disrespected by the ruling political powers in Washington and the cultural and economic elite — what one Vance adviser called government, media, big business, universities and nonprofits.

“The middle class and working middle class feel like everyone has turned their back on them,” said the Vance adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about campaign strategy. “It’s not just stupid decisions [by government and others]. It’s just, ‘You really don’t care about us.’”

Vance’s advisers do not think the candidate’s conversion from Trump foe to Trump acolyte will be an issue of concern in the general election, although they anticipate that the news media and Democrats will try to keep it in focus. Their view is that the media and Democrats are out of touch with those disaffected voters.

Vance wins Ohio Senate primary, with backing from Trump

That’s the challenge for Ryan, to find some way to appeal to and connect with voters who’ve lost faith in the Democratic Party and who feel the party no longer reflects either their values or their interests. “There’s no question that those folks have drifted away,” said a Ryan adviser who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the campaign. “We have to be there, we have to talk with these folks. They have to meet Tim. His ads have to be on target. People need to feel that he has their interests and their backs. We have to contrast J.D. Vance.”

Ryan already has signaled in his ads how he hopes to do this. He will try to separate himself from those aspects of the Democratic Party that have alienated working-class voters. Beyond the issue of crime and funding the police, he will highlight problems on the border and the issue of immigration. He will run hard against China and free-trade pacts generally.

And he will try to portray Vance as the elitist in the race, someone who had left Ohio to make his money and whose candidacy was aided by millions of dollars from the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Some Democratic strategists say Ryan will have to make the issue of money and corporate power a central part of his message against Vance to appeal to disaffected working-class voters.

Ryan also hopes to skirt the issue that has been a major reason Democrats have lost support among working-class voters. “You want culture wars? I’m not your guy,” he says in one of his ads. But that doesn’t mean cultural issues won’t be part of the campaign and potentially to the detriment of the Democrat.

The one wild card there will be abortion. Ryan once called himself pro-life but gradually shifted to support abortion rights. The possible overturning of Roe v. Wade will inject the issue into virtually every campaign this fall, and both the Vance and Ryan teams will have to navigate the new landscape. For Ryan, it’s a potential help in the state’s suburban areas.

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. But, like others, Greenberg sees Ohio’s overall landscape as challenging for a Democrat and the national trends in this election year as formidable for Ryan’s candidacy.

Given those two factors, plus the fact that twice as many Republican ballots were cast Tuesday as Democratic ballots, Vance begins the general election campaign as the favorite, although both sides expect a tough and competitive race.

Ryan appears better positioned than some others in his party to bid for the support of voters whom the Democratic Party has lost over the years. But he will need to raise buckets of money, find consistency in his campaign message and hope that voters find him more personally appealing than Vance. Even then, he’ll have to execute everything with precision.

Still, there will be few races that will more fully explore the issue of why Democrats have lost ground with voters who once were an essential part of their coalition, and whether there’s any way to halt and reverse those trends.