Tim Ryan tries to overcome Democrat headwinds in Ohio
Ohio has changed since Tim Ryan first ran for Congress in 2002 — and so have the prospects for a Democrat running for office in the state.
“The perception of the party,” Ryan said bluntly in an interview, “is very different now than it was when I started my career.”
Ryan is the presumptive Democratic Senate candidate in Ohio who will almost certainly win his party’s primary on Tuesday against Morgan Harper, an attorney and former senior adviser to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. While the Republican race is far murkier — author JD Vance is thought to be the front runner after securing support from former President Donald Trump, but a number of candidates are vying for an upset — Ryan is bracing himself to come in November a significantly more difficult task to accomplish: running for the party as a Democrat in a red-trend state in what is likely to be a difficult election cycle.
For years, Ohio Democrats have tried to reassure national party officials that the state is not a lost cause, but election after election has complicated that pitch. No Democrat other than Senator Sherrod Brown has won nonjudicial state office in Ohio since 2008, and President Barack Obama was the last Democratic presidential nominee to win Ohio in 2012. In 2020, Democrat Joe Biden became the first candidate in the past 60 years to win the White House without winning the state.
The trends have left many Democrats questioning whether Buckeye State is still worth fighting for state office and writing off a state that was once seen as a key political innovator.
The blame, Ryan said, rests with the same national Democrats who now paint Ohio as a lost cause.
“We haven’t done a good job as a party in letting people know we’re fighting for them and we haven’t done the politics over the years that we absolutely had to do. And so a lot of Democrats in key counties have defected,” said Ryan, who is doing his first statewide run.
In many ways, Ryan’s political history is Ohio history. First elected to Congress in 2002, the Democrat represented a northeast Ohio district that included his hometown of Niles and the union-heavy Democratic bastions of Youngstown and Warren. While Ryan initially dominated his races — including in his home district of Trumbull — his margins began to shrink as Ohio Republican strength increased. In 2020, Ryan won with just 53% of the vote, his lowest result in his district since his first election in 2002 (when his Democratic predecessor James Traficant ran as an independent and skimmed 15% of the vote).
The shift was most noticeable in Trumbull County. For much of Ryan’s tenure, Democratic presidential candidates won around 60% of the vote there — until Trump ran for president. In 2016, Trump surprised the Ohio political world by winning Trumbull County by 6 points. He followed four years later by carrying the county by 10 points.
For Trumbull County Democratic Party leader Dan Polivka, Trump was a sign of how slow political change could accelerate in just a few cycles.
“The national issues were leaked in some local elections,” Polivka said of 2016 and 2020. “I still think there is a democratic base here and a lot of support for a good democrat. But the national problems are now seeping down locally and that has never happened before.”
Ryan has had his eye on a jump out of the house for years. After winning another term in 2018, he explored a presidential bid, which he eventually made official in 2019. The bid was short-lived — Ryan only qualified for two Democratic primary elections due to low poll numbers, and his candidacy ended less than a year after it began.
There is plenty of blame for Ohio Democrats to explain the state’s shift.
Former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, one of two Democrats running for governor this year, said she recently tried to reassure staffers at the Democratic Governors Association that Ohio is still up for grabs for the right Democratic nominee .
“I think my husband says it best: Democrats like to keep resumes, not people who are really connected to people,” Whaley said. “We’ve been doing that for a long time. We managed really smart people and not people associated with the working class.”
Whaley praised Ryan’s appeal to working-class voters, arguing that she had the same appeal to voters in the eastern reaches of the state.
“We both come from communities that are forgotten and ignored, both by the state government and at the federal level,” Whaley said. “We both come from places forgotten and ignored. We both have a working-class chip on our shoulders.”
As Ryan considers his chances in November, the issues are both personal and atmospheric.
He has been one of Ohio’s highest profile democratically elected officials for years. But Ryan is largely unknown outside his corner of Ohio, which is what he’s been trying to address, completing an 88-county tour in his first year as a Senate candidate.
And Ryan is running his first statewide run at a time when unified Democratic control of Washington has angered voters in Ohio and across the country against the party.
Ryan is confident he has the profile Ohioans are looking for. When asked if he wanted to run as a Democrat right now, he touted his past actions, such as running against Nancy Pelosi for Democratic House Speaker in 2016. Dispute with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont during Ryan’s ill-fated presidential bid and against then-President Obama on trade policy in 2015. He then noted that while he took on Trump, he also stood by him on trade, the creation of the space force, and the fight against China.
“I have my own record,” Ryan said. “I’ve been doing this for a while, and so I’m not that committed to the Biden agenda just because I have a 20-year track record. … I have a really good story to tell Ohio voters that has nothing to do with Biden. And so I have some space.”
Ryan crafted that message in a recent TV ad, in which he accused “both parties” of “wasting time on stupid fights.” That’s where the Republican Senate primary comes in for Ryan.
This competition was fierce. Before Trump endorsed Vance, most candidates openly fired endorsements for the former president and exchanged attacks on who best represented the MAGA agenda. After Trump gave his endorsement to Vance, the contest became a microcosm of struggle for the Republican Party, with several outside groups drawing Trump’s ire for endorsing former Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel, and a candidate in form by Senator Matt Dolan, who accused his opponent of degrading himself to seek the former president’s support.
“You know, the Columbus TV network doesn’t just go to Republicans,” Ryan said, joking that a range of voters, from moderate Republicans to Democrats, were activated by what he called a “divisive” GOP primary, referring to “very tight issues.”
Regardless of who emerges from the Republican primary, Ryan plans to address the business-populist issues he believes can still win over voters who backed Trump just two years ago. That path looks like this: focus on the economy, avoid culture wars that Republicans want to highlight, and be prepared to stand against your own party.
Also central to this plan is standing up to China, something that has done so drew the ire of Asian-American groupswho recently accused Ryan of using a 30-second ad to spread “Sinophobic rhetoric” that pits “nativists against those within the #AAPI community.”
“It’s us against China, and instead of taking on them, Washington is wasting our time fighting stupid fights,” Ryan says in the ad.
Ryan hasn’t backed down from the controversy, telling CNN the response worries him that Democrats are unwilling to do what it takes to win in a state like Ohio.
“That’s the competition,” Ryan said. “And if we can’t have a national conversation about the communist government in Red China trying to evict us, looking the other way when Russia invades Ukraine and trying to outwit us at every turn…then we’ll all be speaking Mandarin 10 or.” 15 years.”