The stakes of Ohio’s Senate race go beyond whether Rep. Tim Ryan can somehow upset JD Vance in a state that’s gone as crimson as a Buckeyes jersey over the past decade.
The result counts. But also the margin.
Many Democrats point to Mr. Ryan’s surprisingly energetic run as a blueprint for how her party can win back working-class voters in America’s industrial heartland. This argument will gain momentum if he defeats Mr. Vance, a Navy veteran and author of Hillbilly Elegy who has become a Trump acolyte, or even if he just keeps it quiet.
But if Mr. Ryan loses by the same 8 or 10 percentage point margin that Democrats failed to close in the last Ohio election, post-mortem debates within the party could become chaotic — especially if Mr. Ryan leaving recent history behind. That could provide fodder for those who say pursuing Trump voters is a lost cause and the future of the Democratic Party lies elsewhere.
“He ran the kind of races that I think Democrats should run in every working-class state or district,” said Mike Lux, a longtime Democrat strategist. “If he surpasses Biden in a year with that kind of headwind, it will send an important signal to the party that it’s possible to win more working-class votes.”
Mr. Ryan, a former high school quarterback who speaks industrial Mahoning Valley slang, has forced Republicans to divert millions of dollars from other states to prop up Mr. Vance’s anemic campaign. The National Democrats, meanwhile, have focused on defending at-risk incumbents in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire, leaving Mr Ryan largely alone against Mr Vance.
When Mr. Ryan blasted China and spoke about how he agrees with former President Donald J. Trump’s views on trade, he lashed out at Mr. Vance as an Ivy League con man who has made millions of dollars as a California venture capitalist — and then put on a flannel shirt and reinvented himself as a tribune of the people.
Mr. Ryan has made a meal out of Mr. Trump’s bitter comment – made as Mr. Vance stood silently by at a rally in Youngstown: “JD kisses my ass, he wants my support so bad.” In one of his ads, Mr .Ryan for example: “I’m Tim Ryan and I agree with this message because we need an ass kicker, not an ass kicker.”
Mr Ryan has also at times rebuffed his own party leaders. He often stiffens Mr. Biden’s arms and says he shouldn’t run for re-election. And he trumpets his challenge to Rep. Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House in 2016.
In ads and campaign breaks, Mr. Ryan barely mentions his affiliation with the Democratic Party and distances himself from activist slogans such as “defund the police” with the line “I’m not that guy.”
This is no coincidence. Mr. Vance has hammered into Mr. Ryan’s long political career and his congressional voting records to anchor him with Mr. Biden and Ms. Pelosi, both of whom are unpopular in Ohio.
But in a year when the emotional register of swing voters, who tend to decide elections, ranges from angry to furious, Mr Ryan is a rare Democrat who seems to share the public’s anger — at inflation, at China, about companies that “sent jobs abroad,” to the venal politicians they believe made it possible for them.
He follows a path started years ago by Sherrod Brown, a rugged, pro-union Democrat who has represented Ohio in the Senate since 2006. Ryan’s campaign team is littered with his students.
However, the Brown-Ryan strategy is likely to be difficult to export. Mr. Ryan threw soccer balls at television screens and donned Ohio State garb. He has acted heavily on his bio, while Brown has long positioned himself as a friend of unions and an enemy of globalization.
Mr. Ryan is also struggling against the pull of political gravity in a state that has turned hard on Washington and a Democratic Party that is viewed by many in Ohio as culturally elitist and outspoken.
Dayton’s Democratic Mayor Nan Whaley has been campaigning against Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican who has emerged relatively unscathed from the pandemic and its political aftershocks. Even as Mr. Vance rails against Washington’s elites, billions of federal dollars sent to Ohio by the Democrat-held Congress have enabled Mr. DeWine to establish himself as a successful steward of the economy.
David Pepper, former Ohio Democratic Party leader, said he will look for signs that Mr. Ryan is able to narrow the gaping gaps Republicans have opened up in rural areas, as Mr. Brown has has done while raising the score in cities like Cleveland and Columbus.
Mr Ryan, Mr Pepper said, has done a “phenomenal” job reaching out to Trump voters in a difficult political environment.
But if Ohio returns to its recent form, Mr. Lux said, “it will show that we need a broader, deeper, long-term organizational and communications strategy.”