Key figures in the Democratic Party increasingly view Rep. Tim Ryan’s campaign in Ohio this cycle as an important test case for a slew of critical and challenging 2024 Senate races — even if many remain skeptical Ryan can actually pull off a victory on Tuesday.
Ryan’s U.S. Senate campaign, which has kept him neck and neck with Republican venture capitalist J.D. Vance despite Ohio’s conservative lean, the poor overall political environment and a massive outside spending advantage for the GOP, has already become an object of fascination for key operatives and donors. They’re hoping to replicate his economic-focused strategy and his approach to breaking with the national party and progressives.
Vance has opened up a clear but small lead in public polling over Ryan, though the Democrat is persuading a significant number of voters to split their tickets: Polls typically show him running 5 percentage points or more ahead of former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, the party’s gubernatorial nominee.
That skill is going to be crucial for Senate Democrats in 2024, when they will have three incumbents — Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio — running for reelection in states Donald Trump won by more than 8 percentage points in 2020. The party has another four incumbents running in states Trump won in 2016 before losing four years later. And it has few obvious pickup opportunities, with Republican-leaning Florida and Texas hosting the most vulnerable senators.
Politics in Ohio, like almost all of Democrats’ tough Senate seats in 2024, is dominated by white working-class voters, who have moved sharply toward the GOP during the Trump era. Their prevalence in key presidential swing states and dominance of the nation’s less-populated states has put Democrats at a significant disadvantage in the Electoral College and Senate.
“We can’t write off big areas of the country and expect to win the Senate,” said former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who ran 5 points ahead of President Joe Biden as a Senate candidate in 2020 but lost regardless. “I think people are excited about what Tim has been doing.”
Ryan has also won admirers among almost the entire Biden-era Democratic coalition, from Never Trump figures such as Republican Accountability Project founder Sarah Longwell to the major labor unions who funded a super PAC backing Ryan to progressives in the orbit of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The donor network that’s built up around LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman has been particularly intrigued by Ryan’s campaign, three Democratic sources said.
It amounts to a massive personal political turnaround for the Youngstown, Ohio, native, who long seemed to have far more star potential than actual political direction. A challenge to Nancy Pelosi for leadership of the Democratic caucus fell flat on its face; his presidential run in 2020 fizzled, its most noteworthy moment potentially a misplaced phone call in which he told a reporter Biden was “declining”; he looked and repeatedly passed on statewide bids; and his ideology was difficult to pin down — he once appeared at confabs for the progressive Netroots Nation and the moderate group Third Way in the span of the same month.
All Economics, All The Time
If you’re looking for a quick way to separate Ryan from every other major Democratic Senate candidate this cycle, try this: His campaign never aired a TV ad focused on abortion rights.
That isn’t to say it shied away from the issue. Ryan targeted liberal and persuadable voters with digital ads on the topic, and Republicans have attacked him for not outlining what abortion restrictions he would support in interviews. But for the messages his campaign was quite literally broadcasting to Ohioans, he stuck to economic issues, attacks on Vance and pledges of independence.
“Lots of people have bet on abortion as their get-out-of-jail-free card, and Tim didn’t,” said Irene Lin, a Cleveland-based Democratic strategist who now works for Welcome PAC, which is wooing Republicans on Ryan’s behalf. “He knew kitchen table issues were the winner here.”
His opening ad of the general election is a classic example: Walking through the Youngstown neighborhood he grew up in, Ryan boasts of voting against a trade deal supported by former President Barack Obama and with Trump on trade deals.
“I don’t answer to any political party,” he says in the 30-second spot. “I’ll work with either party to cut costs and pass a middle-class tax cut, because you deserve some breathing room.”
To some Democrats, Ryan’s simple acknowledgment of economic struggle goes a long way, especially in comparison with attempts by many leading members of the party to spin the economy as stronger than how Americans perceive it to be.
“You need to show respect for the economic plight of the working class,” said Bullock, who is now the co-chair of the Democratic super PAC American Bridge. “If you don’t show up and talk about kitchen table issues, there’s a vacuum. And if there’s a vacuum, voters will go for the GOP’s culture war issues every time.”
Breaking With Biden
Ryan has been a steadfast supporter of Biden’s legislative agenda, voting for the bipartisan deals on gun safety and infrastructure, Democrats’ failed attempt to overhaul voting laws, and the Inflation Reduction Act.
But he’s also broken with him on key issues, most recently and notably Biden’s move to cancel $10,000 or more of student debt for borrowers who make less than $125,000 a year. While the administration worked to make sure nearly all of the benefits went to people making less than $75,000 a year, Ryan nevertheless agreed with critics who said it amounted to a slap in the face to working-class voters who would not benefit.
“I think a targeted approach right now really does send the wrong message,” Ryan said on CNN at the time. “There’s a lot of people out there making $30,000 or $40,000 who didn’t go to college, and they need help as well.”
Ryan wants Democrats to talk more about vocational education and bringing back manufacturing jobs — ideas that are regularly featured in Democratic campaign ads in the Midwest, but not as frequently by the party-aligned pundits on MSNBC or CNN.
And some of Ryan’s past missteps have aided him in breaking with the party: Linking him to Pelosi, a favorite Republican tactic, is harder when he challenged her for party leadership. His suggestions Biden shouldn’t run for reelection seem more authentic when he first raised issues around Biden’s mental acuity in 2020.
“If you don’t show up and talk about kitchen table issues, there’s a vacuum. And if there’s a vacuum, voters will go for the GOP’s culture war issues every time.”
As important as any break with Biden, however, may be Ryan’s decision to ignore criticism from some liberal and Asian American groups after he aired an ad sharply criticizing the impact free trade with China had on manufacturing communities in Ohio. The groups argued the ad was xenophobic and risked inflaming violence against Asian Americans. (Ryan noted he spoke out against violence against Asian-American communities in 2020, and supported a House resolution
“It is us versus China,” Ryan says in the ad, which aired in April and was a compendium of his speeches. “And instead of taking them on, Washington is wasting our time on stupid fights.”
Lin, who is Asian American, said Ryan’s ads were not perfect — he should have specified the Chinese Communist Party rather than simply condemning the country — but said his decision showed seriousness about standing up both to China and to the left wing of the Democratic Party.
“The fact that most Democrats have allowed Trump to have a monopoly on being anti-China is political malpractice,” Lin said. “And it’s maddening to see suburban wine moms and some of my fellow Asian Americans lecture Tim on xenophobia and racism instead of taking seriously all the Ohio towns that have been hollowed out thanks to jobs moving overseas.”
The ability, and desire, of Democratic senators up for reelection in 2024 to replicate what Ryan has done will vary from race to race. Manchin, for instance, does not need to take lessons on how to separate himself from the national Democratic brand. Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, on the other end of the spectrum, has a more progressive voting record than Ryan and experience selling it to the Badger State electorate.
And while Republicans’ struggles to nominate high-quality candidates are likely to continue, not every Democrat will get to face a Republican as troubled as Vance — a gaffe-prone millionaire who left Ohio for an extended period of time and seems to be incapable of raising money for his campaign — as their opponent.
Still, 2024 has long loomed over Democrats as a zero year for their problems with the white working class, a year where Republicans could assume long-term control of the Senate. David Shor, the internet-controversial Democratic data scientist, once suggested Republicans could easily win a filibuster-proof 60-seat Senate majority that year while earning a minority of the vote.
The 2024 class of senators has always had plentiful red-state and swing-state Democrats, in part because their elections have occurred in strong years for the party: the 2006 and 2018 midterm waves, and former President Barack Obama’s successful 2012 reelection. But the decline of ticket-splitting saw three of those Democrats fall even amid the Democratic wave of 2018: North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill.
Manchin, who has made his affection for Ryan clear by campaigning with him, is already getting started on his reelection, demanding Biden apologize for suggesting coal plants around the country would soon shut down.
“Being cavalier about the loss of coal jobs for men and women in West Virginia and across the country who literally put their lives on the line to help build and power this country is offensive and disgusting,” Manchin said on Saturday. “The president owes these incredible workers an immediate and public apology.”