COLUMBUS, Ohio — Republicans have a pretty standard closing message in Ohio a day out from the midterm elections: a focus on the economy, family values and an unpopular Democratic president.
But there is one aspect of their message that stands out, and that’s reminding undecided voters that the Democrat running for U.S. Senate in Ohio is actually a Democrat and not a Republican. If it sounds a little weird, that’s because it kind of is.
Ohio’s Senate race pits Republican J.D. Vance, an author and venture capitalist who won his primary with Donald Trump’s backing, against Democrat Tim Ryan, a congressman whom some outside the state might know better for his blip of a 2020 presidential campaign.
Or, if you’re a right-leaning voter who doesn’t follow Ohio politics especially closely, you might still know Ryan from Fox News, where he’s been running ads highlighting moderate stances on economic issues.
Republicans in at least one “deep red” Ohio county are taking notice, Ryan told a rally audience outside the Cleveland headquarters of an ironworkers union Sunday night. “People are calling the Republican county office and they’re asking for Tim Ryan yard signs. We’re gonna win this race,” he said.
Ryan has subtly positioned himself as welcoming to Republicans who don’t share what he calls Vance’s “extremist” sensibilities. “We have to fight the extremist movement in this country,” Ryan said, a message he’s hammered relentlessly throughout this contentious race. “The exhausted majority has to step up. Democrats, Republicans and independents against the extremists. It’s the extremists that are preventing us from rebuilding the middle class. It’s the extremists that are preventing us from getting good trade deals. It’s the extremists that are preventing us from protecting Social Security.”
Given the political shifts in white America that accelerated under Trump, Democrats are becoming outnumbered by Republicans in the nation’s former presidential bellwether. So Ryan has adapted: praising Trump when it makes sense to — like conceding that he had some good ideas on trade and manufacturing — and running ads on Fox News in a naked attempt to siphon GOP votes from Vance. It’s all tactical, to a degree: The math just doesn’t work for Ryan unless he picks up some crossover votes. (And even then it may be a stretch: A poll released Sunday found Vance leading Ryan by 10 percentage points, while earlier polls forecast the race as much tighter).
Ryan doesn’t go as far as to fully embrace Trump or the right’s social posturing. But in one commercial, Ryan’s camp mashed together clips of Fox News personalities like Bret Baier, Maria Bartiromo and Peter Doocy praising the Democratic congressman as acceptably moderate on “kitchen table” issues and immigration. “You’re very moderate. You’re hanging out in the middle like most of us are,” Bartiromo is seen telling Ryan in one of the clips.
Ryan described this to reporters as “creating an environment that’s a soft landing for Republicans.” Last month, Ryan participated in a Fox News town hall. “J.D. Vance would never go on an MSBNC town hall,” he said. “He only goes on conservative talk shows. I go on conservative radio. I go on Fox. It’s about who’s ready to have this broader conversation to pull the country together.”
Vance’s response has been to remind GOP voters that, despite what Ryan says, the congressman’s voting record still aligns seamlessly with the Democratic Party. “I’m running against a guy, of course, who pretends to be a Republican, even though on every single issue he votes with Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden,” Vance told an audience Saturday in Columbus, where he was joined by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.).
At an earlier stop in Circleville, a small city in central Ohio known for its annual pumpkin festival, Vance quipped about Ryan being absent from the Ohio Republican Party’s bus tour since, you know, he’s a Republican now. “I thought to myself, ‘You know, we’re missing Tim Ryan,’ because he’s running as a Republican, it turns out,” Vance said, eliciting laughter from the room.
Naturally, Vance supporters aren’t buying Ryan’s attempt at meeting in the middle. Several who spoke to HuffPost were skeptical or just plain angry about what they see as Ryan’s attempt to downplay the fact that he’s a card-carrying, Nancy Pelosi-loving Democrat — even though Ryan once launched an unsuccessful challenge against Pelosi for her leadership role.
“If there was an award called the Pinocchio award, Tim Ryan would get it,” said Lisa Chaffee, a local GOP official who supports Vance and worries that Ryan’s commercials might actually do what they’re designed to and sway undecided voters. “I’ll be honest with you, if I didn’t know what I know, and I saw his ads, I would vote for [Ryan].”
Geoff Hatcher, a 56-year-old real estate appraiser who waited in line to meet Vance and Hawley after an event, said it’s clear to him Ryan is a career Democrat. He brought up that Ryan began working for the late Mahoning Valley Rep. Jim Traficant — who was later expelled from the U.S. House following his conviction on corruption charges — when he was barely out of college. Ryan followed in Traficant’s footsteps, quite literally: running for and winning his seat after Traficant was forced to leave Congress.
“He’s not fooling anyone,” Hatcher said of Ryan. “Maybe apathetic voters in the state who might not be paying attention. That’s what it comes down to, unaffiliated voters.”
Vance’s supporters, who have varying degrees of familiarity with the popular memoir and movie adaptation chronicling his tumultuous Ohio upbringing, said they were impressed with his character, values and life story. “He’s from this area. He’s had struggles. He grew up in an impoverished family and he knows what it’s like,” said Jane Lynch, a retired 70-year-old. Lynch said her son works in an emergency room where the vast majority of cases result from the chronic opioid abuse that Vance describes in his book. “Sometimes it’s the same person, multiple times a day,” said Lynch, who — similar to Vance’s own grandmother — is raising a great-grandchild due to addiction in the family.
Ryan’s supporters have a more positive view of his strategy to woo Republicans. They see Ryan as the real deal, a populist with personality like Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who made a surprise appearance at Ryan’s rally Sunday in Brown’s own figurative backyard. Brown, who’s up for reelection in 2024, told the audience that it’s important to recognize the differences between Ryan, who has “always stood up for workers” and Vance, who has “made a lot of money from workers, but never stood up for workers.”
To Democrats, at least, Ryan is the perfect candidate for this moment, said Anthony Fossaceca, a 52-year-old from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, who works in communications. Fossaceca told me he’s confident Ryan’s message is strong enough to pick up those storied Ohio swing voters who voted for both Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
“I think Tim Ryan appeals to a lot of those same voters for the same reason,” he said. “They want someone who is going to fight for them. I don’t think Trump was that guy, but they did. I think a lot of those folks think that Tim Ryan will fill that mold. I don’t think J.D. Vance is even close to anything that represents them.”
Brian Poindexter, a 43-year-old union ironworker, said that under “normal circumstances” Ryan should “run away with this election,” but he might not get the support he needs because Republicans are more concerned about rejecting so-called “woke” culture and being able to say racially insensitive things in public. “That’s what people want. That’s what Ohio seems to want,” Poindexter huffed from the back of Ryan’s loud rally.
In a brief gaggle with reporters, Vance again emphasized that he thinks Ryan is playing fast and loose with the truth. “Tim Ryan has run a campaign where he pretends to believe things that his own record clearly shows he doesn’t believe,” Vance said, standing beside Hawley, the second-youngest member of the U.S. Senate. Vance and Ryan have at least one thing in common: Either will be among the youngest lawmakers in the chamber.
After his speech in Cleveland, Ryan expanded on the story about the Republicans in one very red Ohio county in his conversation with reporters outside a “Workers First” tour bus emblazoned with his name, which rolled up to the union hall alongside a procession of noisy motorcycles as the sun set over an industrial stretch of the city.
“Everywhere we go, our grassroots people have lots of stories of Republicans who are taking yard signs, Republicans who are voting for us, who have already voted for us,” said Ryan, who was visibly a little worn out at the end of a long day of campaigning on the eve of election eve. “I meet them every single day, Republicans who have already voted for me. I think our positions on trade and workers’ issues appeal to the working-class union worker who probably voted for Trump a few times and who are coming back home to vote for me.”