Democrats aspire to flip US Senate seat in solid red Ohio

Nov 8, 2022, 3:00 AM | Updated: 7:00 am
This combination of photos shows Ohio Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, on March 2...

This combination of photos shows Ohio Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, on March 28, 2022, in Wilberforce, Ohio, left, and Republican candidate JD Vance on Aug. 5, 2022, in Dallas. (AP Photo)

(AP Photo)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A coveted open seat in the U.S. Senate has sparked a closer-than-expected faceoff to be decided Tuesday between Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and Republican “Hillbilly Elegy” author JD Vance.

When GOP Sen. Rob Portman announced he’d be vacating the seat last year, it was considered Republicans’ to lose. After former President Donald Trump won a second, historic victory in the state in 2020, pundits declared the state’s status as a political bellwether state “unrung.” Republicans’ extended lock on every state elective office, the Ohio Supreme Court and both legislative chambers drove Democrats to regroup.

But then came this spring’s brutal seven-way Republican Senate primary, a competition for Trump’s endorsement that one insider likened to “The Hunger Games.” Tens of millions of dollars were spent on TV and social media attacks, many of them aimed at Vance’s earlier self-description as a “never-Trumper,” as his rivals jockeyed for who was “Trumpiest.” Two even came to near-blows.

When word leaked that Trump would endorse Vance, a 38-year-old venture capitalist and political newcomer, establishment Republicans rebelled. They organized a desperate appeal to the former president to reconsider. When he didn’t, Trump himself became the target of the negative ads. Vance has said he changed his mind about Trump since making those statements.

In the meantime, Ryan, 49, refused to debate his lesser-known progressive rival and skated to an easy primary victory. The 10-term congressman from Ohio’s blue collar Mahoning Valley has since run a well-organized, well-funded campaign noted nationally for appealing to voters across the political spectrum — including working-class white men who backed Trump — on such common ground issues as job creation, energy independence and protecting democracy.

“No one expected him to be in the position he is right now when the campaign started,” longtime Democratic strategist Jerry Austin said of Ryan. “At a minimum, he’s in a dead-heat race, and he has done a real good job over the summer — when Vance was not on the air — in basically introducing himself to the populous and also branding Vance.”

Austin said he still viewed the seat as winnable for Democrats, even as Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund poured $28 million into 11th hour Ryan attack ads. Ryan backers tried for, but did not get, a similar infusion from national Democrats.

Republican consultant Robert Clegg said “there’s no way” Ryan can win in a midterm cycle tilted toward Republicans, as the party without control of the White House. He said Democratic President Joe Biden’s persistently low approval ratings, combined with Ryan’s Democratic voting record, are insurmountable hurdles for the candidate what is now a strongly Republican state.

He said Trump “sealed the deal” for the GOP in 2016 by turning long-time Democratic-leaning working class strongholds red, including the Toledo suburb of Maumee and the Cleveland suburb of Parma.

“The problem Ryan’s got is the fact that he’s running in Ohio with a Democrat label in a Republican year,” Clegg said. “Tim Ryan knows the only way he can win Ohio is if people think he really is sort of Republican; he’s trying to sound as Republican as possible. At least, he’s making the race for Senate sort of close.”

Greg Haas, a Democratic consultant who ran Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign in Ohio, said Ryan’s is the first Democratic campaign in years whose message hasn’t been nationalized, but is being tailored to Ohio’s complex urban-suburban-rural mix.

“It’s a no-stone-unturned strategy to win Ohio,” he said. “It’s facetime in a lot of counties where Republicans have told them, ‘Democrats don’t care about people like you; they only care about the West Coast.'” Trimming Democratic loss margins in those counties to 10 or 12 points, as opposed to the 30 or 40 points gained by Trump, could be key this year, he said.

While Ryan has sought to distance himself from Biden, Vance has embraced being backed by Trump, who campaigned for him. Vance has worked to tie Ryan to the national economic climate he blames on Biden, which has surged as a priority issue for voters since summer, and to paint Ryan’s record in Congress as a failure.

Ryan has taken aim at the questionable record of Vance’s anti-addiction charity, which did little to achieve its mission before being shuttered ahead of his Senate run, and labeled him an extremist on issues such as abortion, where he supports Sen. Lindsey Graham’s national 15-week abortion ban, and on the 2020 presidential election, which Vance has said was stolen from Trump.

Both candidates have said they will honor the results of the election.

___

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Democrats aspire to flip US Senate seat in solid red Ohio