One Moderate Against the Red Wave

Tim Ryan might be a dream Democratic candidate in Ohio. But he will need a lot of luck.

Tim Ryan
Joshua A. Bickel / The Columbus Dispatch / AP

About the author: David Catanese is a senior politics writer in McClatchy’s Washington bureau.

If Democratic strategists could engineer a candidate to test their approach to statewide campaigns in Ohio, the lab might pop out something very close to Tim Ryan. A high-school quarterback who grew up among the Irish and Italian working class in Appalachia’s Mahoning Valley, Ryan can mix comfortably with the kinds of small-town voters who are fleeing his party. Now in his 10th term in Congress, he also holds the experience to navigate tricky political terrain.

“I would argue that Tim Ryan is one of the most skilled candidates of his generation,” says Andrew Ginther, the Democratic mayor of Columbus. “There is no place in Ohio where Tim can go where he won’t connect with folks—whether it’s a church, a labor hall, a corporate boardroom.”

In his campaign for Ohio’s open U.S. Senate seat, Ryan has completed stops in every one of the state’s 88 counties and broken in-state fundraising records, centering his message on economic empowerment for communities left behind by the tech boom and globalization. In his first television ad of the campaign, he called out China half a dozen times in a refrain that could’ve come out of the mouth of a certain ex-president. A Republican strategist working on the race, who asked to remain anonymous so he wouldn’t be seen as praising an opponent, told me it was “the perfect message for Ohio.”

“I’ve not seen a Senate candidate more on message than him,” adds Justin Barasky, an Ohio native who ran Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown’s last campaign in the state.

But will any of it matter?

Political strategists love to invoke the refrain that candidates matter. And since the 2016 presidential election, a segment of the Democratic Party has pushed for politicians in the mold of Ryan, 48, to help the left regain ground in the Rust Belt and among the non-college-educated working class. Yet it’s not clear whether even the optimal Democratic candidate, conveying the most targeted message and running the smoothest campaign, will be enough to win in the current midterm year in Ohio, a state some Democrats believe has fallen out of their reach for the foreseeable future.

President Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in 2020 buttressed the case for the moderate Democrat. Yet many of those moderates are fighting off extinction as national polarization nudges places like Ohio further away from the Democratic Party. After Barack Obama carried the state twice (by four points in 2008 and two points in 2012), Trump assembled back-to-back, eight-point victories built on high rural turnout.

Redistricting factored into Ryan’s decision to abandon his House seat for a Senate run, but Ryan himself already had been losing the support of some white working-class voters. He won his northeastern congressional district with just 52.5 percent of the vote in 2020, after capturing 68 percent in 2016 and 72.5 percent in 2012. (Ryan faces two opponents in the Democratic primary on Tuesday but is considered the clear front-runner.) It doesn’t help that the political environment looks exceptionally disastrous for Democrats this midterm cycle.

Tony Fabrizio, one of Trump’s pollsters who has conducted surveys in the state, told me, “Ryan is a good campaigner and formidable candidate.” But Fabrizio believes that Trump’s performance pushed Ohio off the map for Democrats: “Let me put it this way, even the strongest and best swimmer can’t overcome a tidal wave.”

There’s scant talk among Democratic leaders about improving their political fortunes this fall. One Democratic operative, who asked for anonymity to avoid offending members of his own party, categorized Ryan’s race as a “third tier” priority in 2022, behind the Senate incumbents who need vigorous defending in Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, and New Hampshire, and the party’s best-looking pick-up opportunities in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, both states Biden won in 2020.

“We’ve got a tough case to make,” a top Ryan-campaign aide admitted to me, speaking anonymously so he could be candid about his candidate’s chances. “If Biden is at 38 percent [approval] on Election Day, we’re not going to win. But if he’s at 42 percent, 43 percent, we definitely have a shot at this.” Morning Consult recently measured Biden’s approval rating in Ohio at a perilous 39 percent.

Ryan professes to be undaunted by the task before him: defying the GOP’s midterm momentum in a red state—and doing it as a non-incumbent.

“There’s always the Harry Reids in 2010. There’s always the Schwarzenegger,” he told me recently.

Yes, Reid, the Nevada senator, survived a GOP rout a dozen years ago. But he also was the sitting majority leader in a state that had voted for Obama two years prior. Arnold Schwarzenegger won a recall election nearly two decades ago as a moderate Republican in deep-blue California, but the Terminator would probably not fare well in a GOP primary in today’s Ohio.

“I’m not really overly obsessed with all of the dynamics swirling around. It’s just like—look, I’m from outside of Youngstown. I know what’s going on in Ohio. Ohio voters know my record,” Ryan said, snapping into candidate mode. “We’ve got to at least have a conversation about how messed up this is for Democrats to keep bleeding working-class people … whether they’re white or Black or brown. We’ve got a lot of work to do, so I want to be a big part of trying to repair that.”

Realistically, for Ryan to succeed, he will have to run an error-free race. He will also need to draw a deeply flawed opponent. That seems distinctly possible. The Republican candidates in Ohio are producing the wildest primary in the country, deploying tens of millions of dollars against one another in a competition that has featured bitter insults, accusations of sexism, and a near-physical altercation between two candidates—Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons—at a public forum in March. Trump’s surprise endorsement of the Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance has created even more uncertainty and infighting in the race as the primary approaches.

Some Democrats have suggested that Mandel, the 44-year-old former state treasurer who lost a 2012 Senate challenge to Brown, would be the best draw for Ryan, who could sharply contrast his willingness to challenge his own party on issues like trade with Mandel’s absolutism, particularly on cultural issues like teaching about race and sexual identity in schools. Mandel’s mask burning and call to eliminate public schools are the types of stunts that rev up partisan ideologues but risk alienating casual voters.

“Most Democrats don’t think Josh can win a statewide election, and there’s a lot of Republicans who feel that way, too,” Gibbons, a businessman who was polling ahead of Mandel and Vance earlier in the race, told me. “He’s a real risk for the party if he ends up the nominee.”

Mandel’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on the record. But David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth, the biggest outside group supporting Mandel, assured me that Mandel would handily defeat Ryan in a general election. “Democrats have created this platform for themselves that’s just untenable with independents and moderate voters,” McIntosh said, referring to issues like critical race theory, defunding the police, and government spending.

Ryan’s strategy, according to the campaign aide, who would discuss it only on the condition of anonymity, will be similar regardless of who emerges from Tuesday’s primary: Talk incessantly about creating a manufacturing policy designed to compete with China. Argue that the Republican Party is more consumed by the fate of Dr. Seuss books than job creation, and be prepared for the GOP’s attempts to nationalize the race, accusing him of wanting to defund the police or contributing to inflation by supporting Biden’s spending. Remind voters that Ryan agreed with Trump’s more protectionist trade policy. Stress his opponents’ wealth—nearly all of the Republicans running are millionaires, and some have links to the off-shoring of jobs.

Ryan plans to devote considerable time to the rural Ohio counties where both Trump and Brown have succeeded, according to the aide—even if it means he just loses those counties gracefully, with 30 to 35 percent of the vote, instead of the 25 percent Biden and Hillary Clinton netted. Maybe by the fall, polls will show a single-digit race, the thinking goes, and the national political environment will be ever so slightly improving for Biden and Democrats. A late investment by an outside spender could provide Ryan enough cover from national attacks to meet his goal of just over 2 million votes.

It would be a shocking result, an aberration really. And if it sounds too good to be true, it just might be.

The stakes are bigger than Ryan’s individual candidacy; his performance might also help determine Ohio’s relevance to the future of the Democratic Party.

When Priorities USA, the dominant Democratic super PAC, announced its $30 million digital investment for 2022 at the beginning of the year, Ohio was not among the seven states included. A representative for the PAC declined to even offer a comment on the record about Ohio to avoid provoking second-guessing about the decision. Ohio also didn’t make the list of spending targets for Senate Majority PAC, which supports Democrats in Senate races. (A spokesperson for the group noted that its plans could change as the midterm cycle progresses.)

Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor who embraced a 50-state strategy when he chaired the Democratic National Committee, thinks it would be an enormous tactical mistake for his party to write off Ohio. “This is nuts not to do this,” he said of national Democrats’ dismissal of the state in the current election cycle. “The voters of Ohio are conservative, but they’re not crazy … This is criminal misconduct in politics if we don’t fund this race.”

Regardless of what outsiders think, Ryan believes someone has to try to win over the white non-college-educated voters who threaten his party’s hold on not only the Senate but the presidency. And he still has hope—at least some.

“If the effort put forth in Pennsylvania and Michigan and Wisconsin was put into Ohio,” he says of the 2020 presidential result, “we would’ve done a hell of a lot better.”