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Democratic Ohio US Senate candidate Tim Ryan eschews party to find an 'exhausted majority'

Running toward the center isn't a novel strategy, but the way the 10-term congressman from Niles is pursuing it might be.

CLEVELAND — Tim Ryan has a problem.

Gas and groceries are both spiking. Ongoing supply chain disruptions mean shelves are bare, and getting inflation under control with the Fed raising interest rates is going to sting as well. Consumers will pay more for everything from credit cards to mortgages. Homeowners looking to sell are going walk away with much less than they would've a few months ago.

Meanwhile, Democrats are having trouble selling their achievements to voters. President Biden's $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and a long-awaited infrastructure package have underwritten many of the investments touted by Republicans like Gov. Mike DeWine, but those successes soured amid a fight over the filibuster in the U.S. Senate.

Add to that the traditional midterm headwinds, and the 10-term congressman from Niles really has his work cut out for him.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court may have provided an opening with its Dobbs decision overturning Roe v. Wade. A few generic ballot polls suggests a swing away from the GOP, but the trend still favors Republicans and November is a long way away. At the same time, many are already voicing frustration with the Democratic nostrum "go vote" when the party already controls Congress and the White House.

To navigate this landscape, Ryan is betting big on winning voters in the middle.

Running toward the center isn't a novel strategy, but the way Ryan is pursuing it might be. In a series of campaign ads, he pitches tax cuts and his affinity with police. He emphasizes where he departs from his own party as well as where he agrees with perhaps the most toxic political figure in living memory.

"When Obama's trade deal threatened jobs here, I voted against it, and I voted with Trump on trade," he said in one ad. "I don't answer to any political party. I answer to the folks I grew up with, and the families like yours all across Ohio."

Instead of simply distancing himself from an unpopular Biden administration, Ryan appears to be going a step further, distancing himself from the party as well. He's aiming to establish himself in the minds of voters as a singular figure whose personal politics, or record, or brand supersede party designation.

"Yeah, I mean, I think the Democratic Party has made some big mistakes," he said in an interview a few weeks ago.

He argued the party's trade and economic policies have left working class voters out of the equation.

"I just feel like both parties are in many ways, outdated," Ryan explained. "I just fear that both parties right now are not connected to what the vast majority of the people are going through, and I talk a lot about the exhausted majority, and I think that's where most people are."

Despite Donald Trump notching back-to-back 8-point wins in Ohio, initial polling puts the race far closer to a toss-up, suggesting there is a path, albeit narrow, for a Ryan victory. But his approach means betting on not just identifying this "exhausted majority" coalition, but that Ryan's own personal charisma can appeal to them.

Run to the Rock

Ryan shows up for most events in a dress shirt unbuttoned at the collar and rolled loosely at the cuffs. Although he’s pushing 50 and greying, he's energetic and easygoing. People who know him regularly bring up his time as a quarterback in high school to explain his leadership or dependability. That also probably explains his bearpaw handshake. Central casting would send him in as a little league coach or maybe the dad yelling "Who wants cheese on their burger?" in a backyard barbecue scene.

Credit: Graham Stokes, Ohio Capital Journal
COLUMBUS, OH — JUNE 17: Ohio Democratic nominee for U.S Senate Tim Ryan (center) takes a picture with supporters at the Rally for Respect organized by the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (OCSEA), June 17, 2022, at the Ohio Statehouse, Columbus, Ohio.

Former Mahoning County Democratic Party chair David Betras praised his retail politics. "I've seen him talk to a room and you can hear a pin drop," he said. Karen Zehr, the party's secretary in Trumbull County, described him giving his card to an 8-year-old supporter on election night, and telling him to call about helping on a campaign when he turned 18.

Trumbull County Democratic Party vice chair Kathy DiCristofaro emphasized his ability to connect with a crowd. After an event in Ashtabula she remembered audience members coming up to ask about his grandpa's garden because Ryan referenced it in the speech.

"You're going up to a U.S. Senate candidate and you're not asking him about a political issue?" she said. "You're asking him something personal because you connected with that."

Father Ron Nuzzi has known Ryan all his life. He retired in 2017 as an emeritus professor at Notre Dame after helping set up and run a program for aspiring Catholic school leaders. He's a close Ryan family friend and confidant. At about 15 years his senior, Nuzzi was a mentor and something like an older brother as Ryan grew up.

Shedding light on how Ryan approaches difficult problems, Nuzzi brought up their whitewater rafting trips on the Youghiogheny River. He described how the current sometimes forces the boat toward large rocks.

"When you're in a situation like that, you have to do something counterintuitive—you have to run to the rock," Nuzzi said.

If you shy away, Nuzzi explained, the boat will be too light where it makes contact, and you run the risk of getting stuck on the rock and eventually capsizing.

"So that expression 'run to the rock,' we use it today to mean to face danger, to go into a difficult situation—but you've got to get everybody to come with you," he said. "You've got to try to bring people along, face the issues; it's the only way to get by it."

I'll meet you over there

On two of the hottest button issues in national politics, however, Ryan initially staked out positions where his party wouldn't follow. Abortion and gun policy have experienced arguably seismic shifts in just the last few weeks, but early on in Congress, Ryan was an abortion opponent and even earned an A rating from the NRA. He's since changed his tune on both issues, and he's earned the endorsement of prominent organizations like NARAL and the Giffords PAC.

The weekend after the Dobbs decision, Ryan joined Ohio Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Nan Whaley at a rally in Columbus. Organizers estimated a crowd of 3,000 swelled the west side of the Ohio Statehouse.

Credit: Nick Evans, Ohio Capital Journal
Tim Ryan addressing the crowd outside the statehouse.

Ryan described learning about the decision during a committee hearing, and getting a text message from his daughter, who's doing an internship in D.C. His daughter said she was going to the Supreme Court to protest.

"18 years old," he said, as if still not quite believing it. "I texted her back something I never thought I'd text her — I said 'I'll meet you over there.'"

In a 2015 op-ed, Ryan explained his change of heart on abortion as a re-assessment of beliefs inherited from his Catholic upbringing. He emphasized the need for policy changes to provide education, contraceptives and affordable health care to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies.

"I have come a long way since being a single, 26-year-old state senator, and I am not afraid to say that my position has evolved as my experiences have broadened, deepened and become more personal," Ryan wrote.

The shift came gradually, as he described it, after numerous conversations with people facing difficult, and at times, life-threatening circumstances. It's too complex, Ryan argued, "to be anything but a personal decision."

When it comes to guns, Ryan has little trouble identifying the Sandy Hook school shooting as the turning point. He's quick to mention that his wife is a school teacher, and although he grew up hunting and still enjoys it, he believes restrictions on gun ownership are necessary.

Shortly before Congress passed a bipartisan gun violence prevention measure last month, he voiced support for the plan, zeroing in specifically on heightened background checks for younger gun buyers and federal support for states establishing red flag laws.

At the same time, Ryan chastised Gov. DeWine's signature of a measure arming teachers.

"We've seen the videos of these things," Ryan said. "You need years of training, years of experience to be able to handle a firearm in a school full of kids with someone firing semi-automatic rifle. The last thing you want are teachers who accidentally shoot kids."

He went on to highlight opposition from law enforcement. "I'm with the cops," he said. "It's a bad idea."

To some on the left, Ryan's movement on two major issues feels opportunistic, and it seems notable in a race where the chief attack against his opponent J.D. Vance is his rapid, 180-degree turnaround on Donald Trump—going from describing him as cultural heroin to calling him "the greatest president of my lifetime."

"Well, the English language does not yet have a word to cover the level of fraudulence that comes from J.D. Vance," Ryan quipped.

He argued his voting record shows the shift happening as a slow progression rather than the flip of a switch. "It's about listening and learning," he said.

He suggested supporting gun control and abortion access doesn't help his case in the way a GOP primary candidate pledging fealty to Donald Trump might.

Whatever motivated Ryan's moves, his calibration on both issues is another bet on the middle. In both cases, Ryan couches his position in common sense rather than strident partisanship—leaning on the fact that the majority of voters favor access and limits when it comes to guns and abortion.

And that approach has helped, at least among those who know him. Father Nuzzi and others don't necessarily agree with Ryan on abortion or guns, but nevertheless count themselves supporters.

Cleaned his clock

From his start in politics as a state senator in 1999, Ryan's core constituency has been organized labor, and he's quick to remind that trade was the key issue when he faced long-serving U.S. Rep. Tom Sawyer in his first congressional primary.

"Tim cleaned his clock," former Mahoning Country Democratic chair David Betras recalled, "because that guy voted for NAFTA and Tim has been against NAFTA since day one."

Trade is familiar territory for a congressman who can recite local plant closures like a litany, and the issue has an established track record as part of Sen. Sherrod Brown's campaign playbook. What's more, it's a place where Ryan can distinguish himself from party leaders, potentially bolstering his stock with centrists.

Marty Loney wears a lot of hats in the Mahoning Valley, heading up the building trades, working for the plumbers and pipefitters local and chairing the western reserve port authority, and that means he and Ryan have gotten to know each other.

"You fall in love with a politician and you're going to be disappointed," he told me. "But on the other hand, I know I can pick up the phone and say, 'Tim, I need to do this,' or whatever, and it'll get done."

But Ryan's first foray toward making trade the defining issue in this election underscores just how fine a line he needs to tread.

His first campaign ad featured Ryan saying "China" repeatedly. The ad alienated some Asian voters who heard a racist dog whistle rather than a critique of another country's economic policies.

"Playing to right-wing nationalism and fanning anti-China hate will come at a cost at the ballot box in November, while writing off the fastest growing ethnic group in the state as acceptable collateral damage," Asian American Midwest Progressives wrote in an open letter condemning the ad and urging Ryan to take it down.

Ryan insisted his ire was directed at the Chinese government, and not people of Chinese or any other Asian descent. But the ad did come down shortly afterward. The campaign described it as a pre-planned traffic change, and since then, Ryan has attempted to mend fences a bit. He issued a statement on the 40th anniversary of Vincent Chin's murder—a Chinese American man killed by two white autoworkers.

"As we work to rebuild our state and revitalize manufacturing," Ryan wrote, "I'll keep working to recognize the contributions of Asian Americans and make sure law enforcement has the resources they need to prevent and prosecute hate crimes."

To Loney, Ryan's biggest liability may be his longevity in office. But then again, he said, you don't get reelected for 20 years if you aren't doing something right. He has watched as the Mahoning Valley has gone from what he described as heavily Democratic to more like 55%-45%, and he doesn't see anything wrong with Ryan’s positioning on trade.

"If you really go through that, he says he voted against Obama's trade deal and voted for Trump's," Loney said. "So, what's that tell you? It tells you, 'I'm going to do what I think is best for Ohio,' right? And his constituents here, which I'm in agreement with."

Cutting that path between the parties could help Ryan build a broad coalition, but it could just as easily leave him out on island, energizing neither major party's base and delivering a message that may not move the needle for undecided voters.

Can't fault him

Ohio's recent electoral history offers mixed results. Trump won the state back-to-back, but political scientists are quick to warn Barack Obama did, too, and those wins aren't exactly ancient history. In 2018, Republicans picked up every statewide executive position from governor to auditor, but in the same election Sherrod Brown outperformed all of them on his way to reelection.

The Cook Political Report grades the Ohio Senate race as "leans Republican" and Sabato's Crystal Ball puts it at "likely Republican."

"I can't fault what he’s doing at a campaign level," Republican strategist Mike Hartley said of Ryan's pitch to centrists. "I mean, God, that ad, 'I agreed with Trump on trade,' I'm like, 'Holy s***, he realizes the math.'"

The equation is pretty simple, as Hartley sees it: Democrats are in control in Washington, D.C. and inflation is high. Meanwhile, with the Senate balanced at 50/50, the election could determine which party is in control going forward. He acknowledges the Dobbs decision could have an impact, but he believes economic frustrations will drown it out.

"Not all of them," Hartley said of Republican voters, "but ultimately the majority of them will put aside who they were for in the primary to make sure that remains a Republican seat."

Credit: Joshua A. Bickel/The Columbus Dispatch via AP, Pool
U.S. Senate Democratic candidates Morgan Harper, left, and Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio,, right, shake hands at the end of Ohio's U.S. Senate Democratic Primary Debate on Monday, March 28, 2022 at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio.

But longtime Democratic political consultant Jerry Austin senses weakness in J.D. Vance's GOP primary win.

"With Trump's endorsement, he won the race for the nomination," Austin said, "even though almost 70% of the voters voted for somebody else."

He's realistic about those who backed conservative firebrands like Josh Mandel or Mike Gibbons—those voters are likely to vote for Vance. But Austin thinks the traditional, Reagan-style Republicans who voted for Matt Dolan might be a different story.

"Those people have a real decision to make," he said. "Will they now come back and vote for who won their primary, Vance, or will they consider voting for Ryan, who they probably know better than Vance anyway, or do they sit out the election?"

"Ryan can win this," Austin insisted, "but he needs votes from non-traditional Democrats, independents, people who voted for Dolan."

While Austin emphasizes the negative space in Vance's GOP primary win, Ohio State political scientist Paul Beck notes Vance had the worst marks among any candidate, Democrat or Republican, when pollsters asked respondents who they found "unacceptable" ahead of the primary.

Like Austin, Beck sees a path for Ryan, but it's a difficult one. He raises the now-familiar Democratic formula of win urban counties, fight hard in the suburbs, and lose—but lose better—everywhere else.

"They've left votes on the table in rural areas," Beck said of Democrats in recent races. "By the way, Sherrod Brown has been successful in appealing to them. He's not going to win these small towns and rural areas in the aggregate, but he's done a good 10 points better than either of the two elections with Biden and then Hilary back in 2016."

If Ryan is correct—that there is some untapped coalition of voters out there exhausted by partisan fighting—that coalition will likely look a lot like the one that sent Sherrod Brown back to the Senate in 2018.

Beck, Austin and other political observers agreed that to the extent Ryan can put together a Brown-style campaign, he has a chance of winning in November. But they were also clear that Brown is a singular figure in today's politics.

Ryan has four months to see if his pitch to the "exhausted majority" can forge a similar coalition.

Read More: Ohio Capital Journal


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