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Ohio Senate debate filled with contentious exchanges

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), left, and Republican J.D. Vance. (AP)

A second debate in Ohio’s Senate race was filled with heated exchanges as Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee, sought to frame his unexpectedly close race with GOP rival J.D. Vance as a choice between a moderate and an extremist, while Vance tried to tie his opponent to national Democratic leaders.

Ryan zeroed in on Vance’s praise for conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, his about-face on former president Donald Trump and his support for far-right lawmakers such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), saying he was “running around backing these extremists, the most extreme people in the country.” Vance said Ryan had voted in lockstep with President Biden and his party, trying to undermine the centrist persona that has helped Ryan remain competitive in a solidly red state.

The men sometimes talked over each other as they clashed on immigration, allegations of racism and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob in a race that will help determine control of the evenly divided Senate. Vance, a first-time candidate who pulled ahead in the GOP primary with Trump’s endorsement, is neck-and-neck with Ryan in a state that went decisively Republican in 2016 and 2020. He has struggled to raise money and match his Democratic opponent on the airwaves, leading national Republicans to divert millions to a seat many had considered safe.

One of the most contentious back-and-forths Monday erupted over “replacement theory,” a racist trope that Jews, racial minorities and immigrants are actively seeking to replace White, native-born Americans through higher fertility rates and migration.

Greene recently echoed the conspiracy theory at a rally with Trump, saying Biden paved the way for undocumented immigrants “on the verge of replacing you, replacing your jobs and replacing your kids in school and, coming from all over the world … replacing your culture.” And Vance has made unsubstantiated claims that Democratic politicians are allowing undocumented immigrants into the country because they have “decided that they can’t win reelection in 2022 unless they bring in a large number of new voters to replace the voters that are already here.”

Asked about replacement theory, Ryan said of his opponent: “This is who he’s running around with, talking about replacement theory …”

“It’s shameful for you to accuse me of that given my family,” Vance said. “It’s shameful for you to accuse me of that — ”

“My turn, pal,” Ryan said. “My turn.”

“Oh, buddy,” Vance replied, as the candidates spoke over each other.

Vance pointed to his biracial children to rebut criticisms that he has echoed the conspiracy theory. Vance’s wife is Indian American.

“This is exactly what happens when the media and people like Tim Ryan accuse me of engaging with the ‘great replacement theory,’ ” Vance said. “… What happens is that my own children, my biracial children, get attacked … online and in person because you are so desperate for political power that you’ll accuse me — the father of three beautiful biracial babies — of engaging in racism.”

One of Vance’s top campaign promises is bolstering security at the U.S. border. He frequently connects Biden’s immigration policies with increased fentanyl trafficking in the state, suggesting this year that fentanyl crossing the border might be “intentional” on Biden’s part and declaring that this would be effective “if you wanted to kill a bunch of MAGA voters in the middle of the heartland.”

Vance said at the debate Monday that you “can believe in a border without being a racist.”

Ryan said he “struck a nerve with this guy.”

“I’ve never talked about your family,” Ryan said. “Don’t spin this because you don’t want to talk about the fact that you’re with the extremists.”

The candidates also clashed over Vance’s September 2021 tweet calling Infowars founder Alex Jones “a far more reputable source of information” than the liberal TV host Rachel Maddow. “One of them is censored by the regime,” Vance wrote. “The other promoted by it.” Jones was ordered this month to pay $965 million to the families of eight victims of the Sandy Hook shooting for suffering caused by his lies about the massacre.

“He’s like, ‘You know, he’s credible!’ ” Ryan said.

“Complete fabrication,” Vance said.

“J.D., you’re on tape, brother,” Ryan replied. The tweet remained up Monday night, though Vance told Fox News last year that he “was just kind of trolling everybody” with the comment.

Vance and Ryan both sounded open to having Trump testify before the congressional committee probing the Jan. 6 insurrection. Vance said it would be “enlightening” to hear what Trump had to say to the panel.

But like other Republicans, Vance dismissed the committee’s work, accusing the panel of being overly partisan and decrying what he called the “media obsession” with the deadly riot.

He compared the Jan. 6 probe to allegations that Trump had colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election; a special counsel investigation found Russian interference but no collusion between Russia and Trump or his campaign.

“There’s been a nonstop political effort to not honor the election of 2016. And I think that’s just as much of a threat to democracy as the violence on January the 6th,” Vance said.

Vance’s attacks on Ryan focused on his votes in alignment with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), whom he invoked early on.

“If you want to run against Nancy Pelosi, move back to San Francisco,” Ryan said, referencing Vance’s time in Silicon Valley after growing up poor in Ohio and attending Yale Law School — a life story that gained a national audience with Vance’s best-selling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy.”

Ryan argued he had stood up to Pelosi by challenging her leadership post. “I stood toe to toe with her,” he said.