Analysis: Youngstown Democrat Tim Ryan breaks with Biden, targets Trump base
Posted On July 25, 2022
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U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan is just the kind of politician to win in Ohio. He’s a local boy. He grew up in a working-class family of Italian and Irish descent. His grandfather was a steelworker for 40 years. He was a quarterback in high school.
But he’s also a Democrat.
That’s a significant burden in a state Donald Trump won handily in the previous two presidential elections. To stand a chance here at flipping a U.S. Senate seat currently held by a retiring Republican, the affable 49-year-old congressman from Youngstown is distancing himself from his party ahead of the November election, including by actively dodging appearances with President Joe Biden.
He’s also praising Trump’s trade policies and running an ad on Fox News with clips of Tucker Carlson and other high-profile network presenters lauding him in the past as a moderate who has been tough on China and speaks to “kitchen-table issues.”
One Ryan ad touted his opposition to defunding the police, while another highlighted that he “agreed with Trump on trade.” His TV spot about inflation echoed Trump’s “America First” mantra, saying, “We can’t afford to be Democrats and Republicans right now, we have to be Americans first.”
By running as a populist in what is no longer the quintessential swing state, Ryan hopes to claw back blue-collar voters and vanquish his Republican rival: Venture capitalist JD Vance, who has Trump’s backing. Ryan has been on the road visiting every Ohio county, outspending the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and raising more money, too.
Ryan raised $8.6 million in the second quarter, more than doubling his first quarter haul and easily eclipsing the $1.5 million that Vance raised in the past three months. Vance was supported in his primary by a super PAC funded with $15 million from Peter Thiel, the billionaire entrepreneur.
Limited available polling of their race to replace retiring Senator Rob Portman showed the contest essentially tied some four months before the election. The Suffolk University/USA Today survey from May 22-24, has Vance leading Ryan 42% to 39% with 17% undecided.
With the Senate currently deadlocked at 50-50, a Ryan victory would be a major coup for Democrats.
Wearing jeans, white sneakers and an untucked shirt with rolled-up sleeves, Ryan talked on a recent campaign swing through Northern Ohio about changing a “toxic” culture and ending “stupid fights” in Washington by dealing with issues in a bipartisan way and treating opponents as human beings.
In an interview, he said he’s convinced his approach will work because voters respect politicians willing to take on their own party on issues important to them and their constituents.
Ryan is calling on Democrats to do more to combat soaring prices as Republicans blame them for the increases. Inflation was at or just above the national average in every major Ohio metro area in May, according to Moody’s Analytics estimates. Ryan wants a “working-class tax cut” to ease the sting and criticizes Republicans for not supporting measures to address the problem.
The White House has been relentlessly upbeat about the economy, which has dragged Biden’s approval ratings to fresh lows. A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows that Americans want new blood, not a replay of the 2020 election that pitted Biden against Trump.
In fact, a strong undercurrent of Ryan’s campaign is to appeal to the “exhausted majority” of voters tired of political tribalism and culture wars.
Democrat John Fetterman is running a similar playbook in his Senate race in Pennsylvania, which, unlike Ohio, is a genuine swing state. He is trying to occupy a seat that’s being vacated by retiring Republican Senator Pat Toomey by playing the anti-establishment card, eschewing the progressive label and campaigning in gym shorts and an oversized Carhartt hoodie.
In Ohio, Ryan has used his cash advantage over Vance to blast his message. He began advertising heavily even before Vance won the May 3 GOP primary and has spent $16.2 million since then — including $13.1 million on broadcast ads — compared to about $400,000 in ad spending by Vance since the primary ended, according to AdImpact.
Dale Butland, a longtime Democratic strategist in Ohio, said Ryan is nailing the approach that helped Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown easily win re-election in 2018 despite the state becoming more Republican: “He’s telling people: ‘I’m going to be your senator. I’m not going to be beholden to a party or a president or anyone else. I’m going to do what I think is right for people in the state.'”
Butland added: “And that’s what you have to do when you’re in a state like Ohio where Trump is still a pretty popular presence.”
Vance, speaking in a telephone interview, disagreed that Ryan’s positioning is effective and said his opponent’s record — including voting with Biden 100% of the time — doesn’t match his rhetoric.
“It would be an effective approach if that’s how he had actually governed for the last 20 years,” Vance said. “He’s basically betting on his ability to fool Ohio voters, and I think Ohio voters are smarter than that.”
Alicia Wagner is the kind of voter Ryan is hoping to win over. The 41-year-old Toledo restaurant owner who hosted Ryan’s roundtable with small business owners on July 8 said she’s an independent but likes Ryan because she’s tired of both parties fighting and putting politics over principles.
But Karen Root, a 76-year-old retiree from Hubbard in Ryan’s home Trumbull County, is going to be harder to sway. She keeps an inflatable Trump figure on her front porch to show her support for the former president.
“I used to like Tim Ryan but I’m a Republican all the way,” Root said. “He’ll say anything he wants to get elected.”