Key figures in the Democratic Party increasingly view Rep. Tim Ryan’s campaign in Ohio this cycle as an important test for a series of critical and difficult Senate races in 2024 – although many remain skeptical Ryan may in fact pick up a victory on Tuesday.
Ryan’s U.S. Senate campaign, which has kept him neck and neck with Republican venture capitalist JD Vance despite Ohio’s conservative leanings, poor overall political environment and a huge outside spending advantage for the GOP, has already become an object of fascination for major agents and donors. . They hope to replicate his economy-focused strategy and approach of breaking away from the National Party and progressives.
Vance has opened a clear but weak lead in the public polls on Ryan, despite the Democrat persuading a significant number of voters to split their tickets: Polls typically show him 5 percentage points or more ahead of former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, the party’s nominee for office of governor.
That skill will be crucial for Senate Democrats in 2024, when they have three incumbents — Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio — running for re-election in the states that Donald Trump has won. by more than 8 percentage points in 2020. The party has four other incumbents in states Trump won in 2016 before losing four years later. And he has few obvious pick-up opportunities, with Republican-leaning Florida and Texas hosting the most vulnerable senators.
Politics in Ohio, like almost all of the Democrats’ tough Senate seats in 2024, is dominated by white working-class voters, who have shifted heavily to the GOP during the Trump era. Their prevalence in key presidential swing states and the dominance of the nation’s least populous states have placed Democrats at a significant disadvantage in the Electoral College and the Senate.
“We can’t write off large parts of the country and expect to win the Senate,” said former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D), who was 5 points ahead of President Joe Biden as Senate candidate in 2020 but lost regardless. “I think people are excited about what Tim has done.”
Ryan has also won admirers among nearly the entire Biden-era Democratic coalition, from Never Trump figures such as Republican Accountability Project founder Sarah Longwell to major unions that funded a super PAC backing Ryan to progressives in orbit. of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). The donor network that has sprung 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 has long seemed to have far more star potential than actual political leadership. A challenge to Nancy Pelosi for Democratic caucus leadership fell flat on her face; his presidential race in 2020 failed, his most significant moment potentially a misplaced phone call in which he told a reporter that Biden was “in decline”; he repeatedly watched and forwarded statewide offers; and his ideology was hard to pin down — he once appeared at confabs for the progressive nation Netroots and the moderate group Third Way in the same month.
All the savings, all the time
If you’re looking for a quick way to separate Ryan from all the other major Democratic Senate candidates this cycle, try this: His campaign has never aired a TV ad focused on abortion rights.
This does not mean that he has turned away from the problem. Ryan has targeted liberal and persuasive voters with digital ads on the subject, and Republicans have attacked him for not outlining the abortion restrictions he would support in interviews. But for the messages his campaign literally delivered to the people of Ohio, he stuck to economic issues, attacks on Vance and promises of independence.
“A lot of people have bet on abortion as a get-out-of-jail card, and Tim hasn’t,” said Irene Lin, a Cleveland-based Democratic strategist who now works for Welcome PAC, which woos Republicans on on behalf of Ryan. “He knew the kitchen table issues were the winners here.”
His general election opening ad is a classic example: Strolling through the Youngstown neighborhood he grew up in, Ryan boasts that he voted against a trade deal backed by former President Barack Obama and with Trump. on trade agreements.
“I don’t answer to any political party,” he says in the 30-second spot. “I will work with either party to cut costs and pass a middle-class tax cut, because you deserve a break.”
For some Democrats, Ryan’s mere acknowledgment of the economic struggle goes a long way, especially when compared to attempts by many leading party members to make the economy stronger than Americans perceive.
“You have to show respect for the difficult economic situation of the working class,” said Bullock, who is now co-chair of the Democratic American Bridge super PAC. “If you don’t show up and talk about the kitchen table issues, there’s a void. And if there is a vacuum, voters will opt for the GOP’s culture war issues every time.
Break up with Biden
Ryan has been a strong supporter of Biden’s legislative agenda, voting for the bipartisan gun safety and infrastructure deals, the Democrats’ failed bid to overhaul election laws and the Cut Inflation Act.
But he’s also broken with him on key issues, most recently including Biden’s decision to forgive $10,000 or more in student debt for borrowers who earn less than $125,000 a year. While the administration worked to ensure nearly all of the benefits went to people earning less than $75,000 a year, Ryan nonetheless agreed with critics who said it amounted to a slap in the face to voters in the working class who would not benefit.
“I think a targeted approach right now really sends the wrong message,” Ryan said on CNN at the time. “There are a lot of people making $30,000 or $40,000 who didn’t go to college, and they need help too.”
Ryan wants Democrats to talk more about vocational education and the return of manufacturing jobs — ideas that are regularly featured in Democratic campaign ads in the Midwest, but not as frequently by party-aligned pundits on MSNBC or CNN.
And some of Ryan’s past missteps have helped him break with the party: Tying him to Pelosi, a favorite Republican tactic, is more difficult when he challenged her for party leadership. His suggestions that Biden should not run for re-election sound more genuine when he first raised issues regarding Biden’s mental acuity in 2020.
“If you don’t show up and talk about the kitchen table issues, there’s a void. And if there is a vacuum, voters will opt for the GOP’s culture war issues every time.
– Former Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D)
As significant as any rift with Biden, however, may be Ryan’s decision to ignore criticism from some liberal and Asian American groups after running an ad sharply criticizing the impact of free trade with China on Ohio manufacturing communities. The groups argued that the ad was xenophobic and risked stoking violence against Asian Americans. (Ryan noted that he spoke out against violence against Asian-American communities in 2020 and supported a House resolution
“It’s us against China,” Ryan says in the ad, which aired in April and was a collection of his speeches. “And instead of facing them, Washington is wasting our time in stupid fights.”
Lin, who is Asian American, said Ryan’s ads weren’t perfect – he should have specified the Chinese Communist Party rather than just condemning the country – but said his decision showed he was serious about standing up to both China and the left wing of the Democratic Party. .
“The fact that most Democrats allowed Trump to have a monopoly on opposing China is politically wrong,” Lin said. “And it’s infuriating to see suburban wine mothers and some of my fellow Asian Americans lecturing Tim on xenophobia and racism instead of taking seriously all the towns in Ohio that have hollowed out thanks to the jobs transferred abroad.”
The ability and desire of Democratic senators re-elected in 2024 to replicate what Ryan did will vary from race to race. Manchin, for example, doesn’t need to take lessons on how to part ways with the Democratic national brand. Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, on the other end of the spectrum, has a more progressive voting record than Ryan and has experience selling it to the electorate in Badger State.
And while Republicans’ struggles to nominate high-quality candidates are likely to continue, not every Democrat will face a Republican as troubled as Vance — a gaffe-prone millionaire who left Ohio for an extended stretch. and appears to be unable to raise funds for his campaign – like their opponent.
Still, 2024 has long loomed over Democrats as a year zero for their issues with the white working class, a year when Republicans could assume long-term control of the Senate. David Shor, the controversial Democratic internet data scientist, once suggested Republicans could easily win a 60-seat majority in the Senate that year while securing a minority of votes.
Manchin, who has clearly shown his affection for Ryan by campaigning with him, is already starting his re-election campaign, demanding that Biden apologize for suggesting that the country’s coal plants would close soon.
“To be cavalier about the loss of coal jobs for the men and women in West Virginia and across the country who are literally putting their lives on the line to help build and power this country is offensive and disgusting” , Manchin said. “The President owes these incredible workers an immediate and public apology.”