For decades, Ohio was considered a swing state, but it’s now moved well to the right; Donald Trump won the state by about eight points in both 2016 and 2020, and Senator Sherrod Brown, the hoarse-voiced and scraggly-haired progressive now in charge of the Senate Banking Committee, is the only Democrat elected statewide.
But this year’s election for the open Senate seat feels different – and last night, the two candidates, Democratic Representative Tim Ryan and Republican author JD Vance, squared off last night in their first debate on Fox’s Ohio affiliate, Fox 8.
In a sign of how the state’s politics have changed, Mr Ryan spent much of the encounter attempting to separate himself from his party’s national leadership, saying out loud that Joe Biden should not seek re-election while breaking with Kamala Harris to declare that the US-Mexico border is not secure. One moderator asked him about his changing of position on abortion.
Underpinning this interrogation was a fact Mr Vance pointed out: according to FiveThirtyEight, Mr Ryan has voted with the Biden administration 100 per cent of the time. (In fairness, as a member of the House, he’s often had to swallow whatever the Senate proposes – or more specifically, whatever Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema deem acceptable.)
Mr Ryan, who has so far never sought higher statewide office until now, probably recognizes that Ohio’s political climate has changed over the years. He has historically been able to move with the times: while he previously received more than $15,000 from the National Rifle Association, he and I talked after 2018 Parkland massacre about how he changed his mind on guns and had since given the money away to groups focused on combating gun violence.
In 2016, he was floated as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton, a notion that I remember one high-up Democratic aide scoffing at a year later. Incidentally, when Ms Clinton made her notable gaffe where she said “because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right, Tim,” it was Mr Ryan she was addressing.
While Ms Clinton’s next words were that “we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people”, the remark was immediately taken out of context and has circulated in clipped form ever since, with many holding it up as a sign that the Democratic Party is no longer in touch with the white working class.
After the Democratic meltdown that followed that November, Mr Ryan launched a quixotic campaign to challenge Nancy Pelosi for the position of House Minority Leader. It inevitably ended in failure. Afterward, he traveled the country for Democrats; in 2017, I caught him at an Iowa steak fry (an indicator someone is thinking of a White House run), which is when I saw his real skill for talking to white midwestern voters.
Instead of running for governor in 2018, he chose to run for president in 2019. But his campaign landed with a faint thud, his most notable moment coming when he told Bernie Sanders, “You don’t have to yell”. Like several other candidates in that year’s overstuffed field, he returned to his day job having made little impact.
All the while, his district has become redder and redder. In 2012, he won reelection with 72 per cent of the vote, but in 2020, he only won with 53, a sign that his re-election to the House was no longer all-but-guaranteed. And when the chance to run for an open Senate seat presented itself, he abandoned the idea of another House term and decided to go for the upper chamber instead.
Last night, Mr Ryan secured the debate’s most viral moment with a riff on Mr Trump telling a rally that “JD is kissing my ass.” But whether that – or anything else for that matter – will be enough to put him over the top is to be determined. For the Republicans, for whom Mr Vance is one of several extreme Trump-backed candidates who are struggling to pull ahead, it could help decide whether they get to control the Senate again; for Mr Ryan, it could determine whether his years of being a promising young Democrat will have come to anything.