“It was pretty much a consensus, even among Republicans, that he could have beat DeWine,” says David Betras, a Ryan ally and, until recently, the chairman of the Mahoning County Democrats.
Ryan, whose district includes the longtime steelmaking hub of Youngstown, has centered his presidential run on appealing to working-class voters of all genders and races whom, he argues, the Democratic Party has forgotten. In a phone interview last week, Ryan told me he is “solely focused on winning the race” and noted that after the first round of debates, his campaign had been getting calls from activists in early-primary states who were leaning toward Biden but were interested in talking to him. We spoke after he left a campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa, where he said the coffee shop was “packed” for his speech at 9 a.m.
Still, Ryan has not registered higher than 1 percent in a single poll, and he could struggle to clear the stiffer threshold for the fall debates. “The plan is to be in until the voting starts,” he told me. “That’s the plan.” As for a potential fallback plan of seeking statewide office in Ohio, Ryan said: “I’ve not gotten that far ahead. We are literally focused on this race right now. So I have no idea what 2022 or whatever looks like.”
At 45, he’s trying to win over Democrats who are looking for a younger version of Biden with less baggage, and his supporters have suggested that he could be a potential running mate for a coastal senator like Kamala Harris of California or Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who might want to balance their ticket with a candidate who could appeal to white men in the Rust Belt. Yet they also acknowledge that the enhanced name recognition Ryan gets from even a losing national run could make him a stronger statewide candidate back home, where despite having served 17 years in the House, he is not well known across the entire state. Both DeWine and Republican Senator Rob Portman will be up for reelection in 2022.
“Obviously, if he holds himself out very well, that certainly opens up opportunities in the House, statewide in ’22, you name it,” David Pepper, the chairman of the state Democratic Party, told me. “That can be especially true in Ohio, because it’s such a big state that a lot of Ohioans from other parts of Ohio still don’t know who Tim Ryan is. Not even close. That’s just the nature of the state.”
Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of the Crystal Ball website at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and the author of a book on Ohio politics, also noted another possible consideration for Ryan: His House district, which has long been safely Democratic, could get carved up in the next round of redistricting, when Ohio is likely to lose one of its seats in Congress. “Ryan may well have to find a way out,” Kondik told me.