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The Great Blue Hope: Can U.S. Senate Candidate Tim Ryan Win Over MAGA Ohio?

The U.S. representative from the Mahoning Valley searches for a Democratic path to victory in Donald Trump’s Ohio.

Aaron Marshall
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (center) is running for a U.S. Senate seat against J.D. Vance, who is backed by former President Donald Trump.

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan is getting an earful. As the U.S. Senate hopeful scans the crowd at the American Institute of Alternative Medicine off Schrock Road—a four-dozen-deep throng peppered heavily with recent immigrants, progressive activists and Asian Americans—help is not on the way.

Several crowd members give Ryan holy hell for his television ad that ran this spring as part of a $3.3 million buy focused on China. In Ryan’s first ad, China is the first word out of the Youngstown-area rep’s mouth as he repeats the word “China” in a variety of campaign settings. “It’s definitely China,” says Ryan, wearing a T-shirt that says “Workers First.” “One word: China,” he says to kitchen workers. “China is winning,” he tells a high school gym filled with construction-site types. You get the idea.

Jona Hilario, a 40-year-old Filipino immigrant and member of the Asian American Midwest Progressives, tells Ryan that his ad is scapegoating people like her and promoting an “us-versus-them” mentality as Asian Americans see a national rise in hate crimes. “What we are saying is that this [anti-China] rhetoric affects people in Ohio,” Hilario says, noting that her group asked Ryan to kill the ad months ago. He has refused to do so.

Jona Hilario challenges Tim Ryan on his China campaign ad at a town hall event held Aug. 23, 2022, at the American Institute of Alternative Medicine.

Sleeves rolled up and the top two buttons on his dark blue dress shirt undone, Ryan asks the exasperated members of the crowd to consider his record of support for Asian Americans and condemnations of violence directed at them. “One is I love you and will always defend you and never let anybody hurt you,” Ryan implores the crowd. “But we have got to absolutely and decisively defeat China economically. If we don’t do that, you’re going to have these countries dictating the rules of the road for the entire world and continue to try to weaken and displace the U.S.”

Afterward, as the event breaks up and spills out into the hallway, Hilario is far from convinced by Ryan’s attempted tightrope walk. “They are definitely taking a risk with this strategy, which isn’t making sure the base is taken care of but instead going after what I think is a less predictable voter, the Trump-Obama voters,” she says. “At the same time, just the idea that he’s willing to treat our community as collateral damage in this election is not sitting well with people.”

Indeed, the 10-term Congressman’s China message isn’t aimed at the progressive-minded Democrats in this room. Instead, it’s aimed squarely at the kind of voters who’ve abandoned the Democratic Party in Ohio (and elsewhere) in droves. And despite the concerns expressed by Hilario and other loyal Democrats, Ryan’s unorthodox tactics seem to be working, at least for now.

Tim Ryan speaks at a town hall event at the American Institute of Alternative Medicine on Aug. 23, 2022.

Ryan’s Campaign Takes a Gamble

As spring came this year and baseball season began, 2022 looked like it would be a banner year for Republicans. Democratic President Joe Biden’s job approval ratings were in the tank as sky-high inflation and soaring gas prices grabbed headlines. And GOP forces were in a midterm year when voters traditionally revolt against the party holding the White House.

In this difficult environment, Ryan launched a blunt-talking, unconventional campaign that has made a race out of what most saw as a comfortable win for Republicans. How unconventional? When’s the last time you saw a Democrat running ads on Fox News that brag about standing with President Trump and against President Obama on trade? “A Joe Manchin-like Senate candidate is the only one who could win in Ohio,” says Paul Sracic, the chair of Youngstown State’s Political Science Department, referring to the conservative Democratic U.S. senator from West Virginia. “It makes sense what he’s doing.”

Ryan also has gambled by pouring millions of dollars into ads targeting disaffected blue-collar workers during what’s normally a sleepy summer season. Meanwhile, his opponent, Republican nominee J.D. Vance, was absent from the airwaves as he struggled to match Ryan’s fundraising and looked to mend GOP fences after a divisive primary. “Clearly, Vance has been slow to come out of the primary, but you can also say that you should be saving your money until September and October, when most voters are paying attention,” says Terry Casey, a Republican political consultant from Columbus. Whatever the reasons, polls have consistently been showing Ryan running neck-and-neck with Vance, the Donald Trump-backed survivor of a bruising GOP primary.

These surprising dynamics have gotten the attention of the political world as forecasters now give Ryan a fighting chance against Vance, the venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author who’s never run for public office before. The pair are vying for the seat left open by two-term U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, a Cincinnati-area Republican. In perhaps the most obvious sign that Republicans recognize a clear and present danger in Ryan, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pledged in August 2022 to drop as much as $28 million from his National Republican Senate Campaign Committee coffers to support Vance.

Despite these developments, it still appears the upper hand belongs to Vance, who declined to be interviewed for this story. One Democratic operative advising a 2022 statewide candidate says Ryan’s most significant hurdle could come from a lackluster statewide ticket outside of Ryan. “The biggest factor that bodes poorly for the Democrats is the weakness of Nan Whaley’s gubernatorial candidacy,” says the longtime operative, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly. “History tells us that can have a significant down-ticket depressive effect.”

History also shows that the Democrats’ record statewide over the past 30 years is downright dismal—save for current U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has been elected to three terms. Outside of Brown, Democrats have won just four nonjudicial races and lost 31 dating to 1992. That’s a record not even a Cleveland Browns fan like Ryan could love.

J.D. Vance shakes hands with former President Donald Trump during a rally at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23, 2022.

Yet Ryan and his team think they might have found a path to victory in this unfriendly territory—a path that runs through the place that he knows best: the Mahoning Valley, the former Democratic stronghold that has shifted sharply to Republicans since the emergence of Donald Trump. Ryan’s China rhetoric might not fly in at a liberal town hall in Columbus, but Youngstown is a different story.

Early Days: From Warren, Ohio, to the Statehouse

Tim Ryan is looking for his seat. It’s 1991, and Warren’s John F. Kennedy High School senior star quarterback is at the winter football banquet when an old signal caller in attendance—Youngstown Congressman James A. Traficant—asks about his whereabouts. The two sit next to each other, swapping football stories as the night wears on. “You don’t meet so many people like that who are so down-to-earth, and I thought he was pretty cool,” Ryan says, remembering the night that “1,000 percent” turned the trajectory of his life toward politics. “He gave me his card and said, ‘If you ever need me, give me a call.’ That was the beginning.”

After a knee injury cut short Ryan’s football career at Youngstown State, he took Traficant up on his offer and began working as an intern, and then, after graduating from Bowling Green State University, as a staff member for the combative Congressman. While Traficant was infamous for his colorful, one-minute House floor tirades—“Beam me up, Mr. Speaker!”—with his toupee piled high on his head, Ryan absorbed instead how his boss dealt with people far away from the camera lights. “We would be at fundraisers when I worked for him in D.C., and he would be sitting there with the shoeshine person and the custodians that he invited to come to his fundraiser,” Ryan recalls. “They called him a lot of things, but they never called him arrogant.”

A similar everyman quality is an integral part of Ryan’s success as a politician, says the Rev. Ron Nuzzi, a former Youngstown Catholic parish priest who grew up in Ryan’s neighborhood. “When you meet him, you get the sense that you are meeting a real flesh-in-blood person,” Nuzzi says. “That’s not always the case with politicians, but there’s no pretension about him.”

Columbus U.S. Rep. Joyce Beatty greets Tim Ryan before he speaks at the Columbus Fire Fighters Local 67 union office after the polls closed on primary election day May 3, 2022.

Ryan’s large, Italian-Irish family and the political contacts he made in Traficant’s office were his main assets as he decided to run for an Ohio State Senate seat in 2000. Well-known in the area from his days as a star athlete, Ryan shook hands outside of factory gates, charming his way to an easy win in a district drawn favorably for Democrats.

Two short years later, with Traficant now convicted of 10 felony corruption charges, including bribery, racketeering and tax evasion, Ryan entered a six-way Democratic primary against sitting Akron Congressman Tom Sawyer. With so little money for the primary that he needed his high school basketball coach to co-sign for a campaign loan, polling showed Ryan as a heavy underdog just weeks before the primary in the redrawn district.

But Ryan came away with a narrow victory over Sawyer, and then romped over Republican Ann Womer Benjamin (and Traficant running as an independent) in the general election to become the nation’s youngest member of Congress. It was a stunning rise to the halls of power for the 29-year-old Democrat.

“Everything seemed to jell for him at the same time,” recalls Bob Hagan, a former state lawmaker from Youngstown who says Ryan has “evolved” into a mature, understanding politician from his first days in the state legislature. “Some people are blessed with those kinds of opportunities. In the state of Ohio, the handsome, first-team quarterbacks always seem to have one up on the rest of us. He used that enthusiasm that people had from his old quarterback days.” (Ryan continues to play up this gridiron connection; in September, he debuted an ad that featured him throwing footballs at TV screens that represent his “enemies,” including Vance.)

Ryan has evolved politically over the past two decades while staying rooted, he says, to the values and people of the Mahoning Valley. His dark, tousled hair now going gray, Ryan flipped to supporting abortion rights in 2015 and moved toward backing gun control after the Newtown school massacre in 2012. In his personal life, he married an elementary school teacher in 2013 and became a father (and stepfather) to three.

In 2016, Ryan grabbed national headlines when he took on Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a short-lived revolt. Another loss—his first as a political candidate—came when Ryan announced a long-shot bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president that faded long before the snow fell in New Hampshire.

While some of the 49-year-old’s politics have shifted over the years, the economically battered Mahoning Valley that he represents has undergone a radical transformation from a rock-solid Democratic district to one where Republicans can and do win. “The shift in Tim Ryan’s district has provoked what has happened in Ohio as the state has gone from being a purple state to a light red state at this point,” says Sracic, the professor who studies working-class political movements. “That has been driven by what’s happened in Mahoning County, Trumbull County and the whole upper east coast of Ohio.”

Nowhere was that more obvious than on election night in November 2016 as Donald Trump pulled off a shocking win in the Mahoning Valley en route to an eight-point win in Ohio and the White House. It marked the first time that a Republican had carried the valley as a whole—that’s Trumbull and Mahoning counties combined—since 1972’s blowout win for Richard Nixon, when he carried 86 of Ohio’s 88 counties. And in Trumbull County—where Trump won by six points in 2016—it was nearly a 30-point swing from four years before when Democratic President Barack Obama carried the county easily.

Dave Betras, a former Mahoning County Party chairman, saw the Trump wave coming as his loyal Democratic party central committee members defected to support the Republican. “They wanted Trump because Trump gave them water. It was s----- water, but it was water,” Betras says. “When I’m thirsty, I don’t care if there are a couple of bugs in the water—I need something to drink. Someone is recognizing that the establishment is screwing me.”

Corruption among local Democratic elected officials that stretched back decades and Trump’s rise as a plain-spoken, anti-trade-deal Republican both took their toll, says Jaladah Aslam, a Youngstown-based political consultant and former trade unionist. “The reality is that we didn’t do a really good job of making sure that people knew we were fighting for them,” Aslam says.

For his part, Ryan agrees that Democrats have failed to show working people they are in their corner. “For sure, the Democratic brand is terrible across the board—you either have a negative feeling about Democrats or you don’t know,” Ryan says. “And both those things are bad.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, left, and Sen. Rob Portman attend the groundbreaking ceremony for Intel’s $20 billion semiconductor project in Licking County on Sept. 9, 2022.

Ryan says deals like NAFTA have helped set off the political landslide that has moved working-class voters of the Mahoning Valley to the Republican side. “This f------ factory that was in Warren, Ohio, that had 13,000 people working at it is now in Mexico,” he says. “And they are shipping the product back, and our own workers had to go down there and train them. There is no lack of clarity here; it hurt Hillary [Clinton] a lot, and it hurt Democrats a lot.”

As Ryan fights to regain the voters who have left his party, professor Sracic wonders if Ohio’s blue-collar voters can still be swayed. “One of his problems is that I don’t know that these working-class voters in places like Northeast Ohio are winnable,” he says. “It used to be that Dems could grab those voters with an anti-trade message—but Republicans have occupied that position with Trump, so they have nullified that classic Democratic advantage.”

Feelings of abandonment among blue-collar workers in the Mahoning Valley still linger, Betras says. In early 2018, Betras was bellied up to a shot-and-a-beer bar in Youngstown. As the TV news flipped to covering how Congressional Democrats were shutting down the government in support of so-called Dreamers—undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children but are now stuck in immigration limbo—one bar patron had heard enough. “This steelworker guy says, ‘F--- the Democrats. No one shut down the government when I lost my job. They didn’t care about my job and didn’t do anything for me.’”

Asked about what he would say to this steelworker, Ryan acknowledges the pain that laid-off workers face. On his cousin Donnie’s last day at the Delphi Automotive plant, Ryan’s relative, in his final act, unbolted a machine from the factory floor to be shipped to China. “Working-class voters don’t see us as absolutely getting in a street fight for them,” Ryan says. But if they did, he adds, then blue-collar folks wouldn’t care if politicians also supported Dreamers.

The Impact of Roe v. Wade

On June 26, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court gave Democrats a new cause to rally around. The court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has meant, in Ohio, a ban on abortion down to six weeks—the so-called heartbeat bill that is now state law. Ohio Democrats point to signs that the ruling has galvanized their base and could spark crossover votes from GOP women. In Ohio, women have out-registered men by six points, according to a New York Times data analysis covering the two months since the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision.

But Aslam, the Democratic consultant, is unsure that abortion politics will flip white women to the Democratic column. “I would love to believe that women in Ohio are going to vote all the way down the ticket,” she says. “I want them to make a liar out of me, because the reality is that white women in Ohio voted for Trump twice.”

While Ryan hews largely to an economic message on the stump, at a labor rally in Toledo in late August, he brought the crowd of union faithful to their feet by saying that Republicans “want to be in everybody’s bedrooms, in everybody’s doctor’s office.” Referencing the case of a 10-year-old Columbus girl who was forced to travel to Indiana for an abortion after being raped, Ryan channels his best Traficant tone, attacking Republicans, including Vance, for supporting the rollback of abortion rights. “You’re going to tell a 10-year-old girl … that you have no choice? … These guys are going to tell you what to do? No! That is the most un-American thing I have ever heard of in my entire life.”

Hearing Ryan’s message on this day is Tondalaya Calhoun, a former union member from Toledo. This summer, Calhoun has been out walking Toledo neighborhoods as part of The Movement, a grassroots voter registration and educational group, and says abortion is on a lot of women’s minds. “There’s a lot of talk about Roe v. Wade and the fact that you can get your rights taken from you without a say so,” says the 64-year-old Black woman.

That same weekend that Ryan is in Toledo, Vance travels to Ryan’s backyard in Youngstown for a high-profile event with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a rising GOP star. In his speech, Vance says he sees voters facing a choice of whether Ohio will “continue to be a state that provides opportunities for patriotic Americans or will we continue to go down the path of Joe Biden and Tim Ryan, of failure, of loss of opportunity and loss of what makes this country great.”

Vance takes aim at Ryan and Biden for illegal immigration and drugs flowing through the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as for jobs moving overseas and weakening America’s manufacturing sector. He throws shade at both Democrats for “disgusting” vaccine mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Joe Biden and Tim Ryan said that in order to work, in order to make a living, in order to put bread on the dinner table of your children, you had to get Big Pharma’s vaccine,” he says as the crowd lustily boos.

Ron Verb, a longtime conservative radio host for Youngstown 570-WKBN-AM radio, says inflation and the economy, as well as the crisis at the Mexican border, are the topics on his listeners’ minds. The radio host sees a clear edge for Vance but says it could slip away.

“I think J.D. Vance has a big advantage because Ohio is a center-right state, but he shouldn’t take that for granted,” Verb says. “J.D. is not a politician. He needs to be on his A-game to handle Tim Ryan, so he better step it up.”

Though Vance declined an interview for this story, his campaign offered up as a surrogate Bob Peterson, a state lawmaker who represents Southern Ohio. Peterson made the case that Ryan’s “100 percent voting record” with President Biden would be a fatal flaw, as would a “lackluster” record of accomplishments for the Youngstown-area U.S. representative. (While Ryan did appear with President Biden at a ribbon-cutting for Intel’s new computer chip manufacturing plant in Licking County in early September, he’s taken pains to separate himself by dissing Biden’s recent student debt relief forgiveness plan and even suggesting that the 79-year-old shouldn’t run for reelection in 2024.)

A former Ohio Farm Bureau president who lives on a Fayette County farm, Peterson also says Vance’s “only-in-America” compelling life story connects with voters as they learn about his childhood in poverty, his mother’s drug-addiction issues, his service as a U.S. Marine and his successful career as an author and investment banker. “I guess I always pick a successful person in the real world over a career politician,” he says.

Peterson says he expects Trump to be an effective advocate for Vance, especially in pockets of Ohio that are Trump Country. “There are a lot of places President Trump has great support—the Mahoning Valley, Southern Ohio, Northwestern Ohio,” he says. “It’s because of his policies, the economy was booming as good as it’s been in my lifetime. Our foreign policy was strong, and we were a leader in the world. I think we all miss his policies—maybe not his tweets—but what he did for our country.”

But Ryan and his backers portray Vance as an outsider, a California venture capitalist who hasn’t connected well with Ohioans. “I’m more capable than J.D. Vance by leaps and bounds,” Ryan says. “You can’t carpetbag and come to Ohio—it’s not going to happen.”

Betras says he sees political skills with Ryan that Vance—a first time candidate—can’t match. “Tim has political athleticism, and J.D. Vance doesn’t,” he says. “Tim can walk into a room and, no script and off the cuff, put people in the palm of his hand. J.D. Vance comes across as insincere and has none of that.”

“He Still Has to Close the Deal”

At the Toledo union hall, Tim Walbolt sits in a back row, waiting for Ryan to speak. Walbolt, 47, works at the Chrysler Toledo Machining plant, putting steering columns and torque converters on cars. Wearing a black UAW shirt and a Harley-Davidson hat turned around backwards, Walbolt says he likes Ryan’s down-to-earth style. “What more can you ask for than somebody who is going to represent you in D.C. who has taken the time to understand you?” Walbolt says.

Walbolt, who has worked at the plant for 28 years, says talk frequently turns to politics as workers have watched the factory shrink from 2,000 employees to 500 due to technological advances and job-killing trade deals over the past few decades. “With many of the guys, it’s not that they are hard-line Republicans. … They are really concerned about their jobs and our future,” Walbolt says.

Does Ryan’s approach have a chance to reach the GOP voters at his plant? “I think they will listen to Tim, and hopefully he can move some of them,” Walbolt says. “He still has to close the deal with them; it’s not a done deal either way.”

This story is from the October 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.