Ohio was once the pivot of American politics. For most of the first two decades of the 21st century, it was the pivotal spinning state. John Kerry’s narrow defeat there in 2004 prompted the re-election of George W. Bush. In 2012, Fox News viewers watched in awe as the state called for Barack Obama, dooming challenger Mitt Romney’s hopes.
After Donald Trump won it twice by eight points, its swing state status was called into question. The only remaining Democrat elected statewide is Sen. Sherrod Brown to three terms, while Republicans, aided by sharp gerrymanders, have maintained an iron grip on the state legislature and the delegation of the Congress.
In recent months, however, the state Senate race has captured the imagination of national Democrats. Democratic candidate, 10-term congressman Tim Ryan mounted a surprisingly strong race against Republican candidate, Trump-backed author JD Vance, and kept the race close in public polls. Ryan had a strong summer as Democrats rose in national polls and Vance was off the air recovering from a brutal primary. Currently, FiveThirtyEight given Ryan has a one-in-four chance of winning as the longtime rep to complain the lack of investment from national democrats. Does Ryan have a chance for red? Or is there vain hope in a Republican-leaning state in a Republican-leaning year?
What Ryan has going for him
First and foremost, the race is tight. Ohio polls still have Ryan within the margin of error against Vance. As Justin Barasky, one of the Ryan campaign’s top strategists, told Vox, “It’s not like there’s a bunch of polls showing Vance in the ’50s, and he’s not making any doubt that Tim has to convince the people who vote for [Republican incumbent Mike] DeWine for Governor and [has] clearly did that.
Most observers agree that Ryan ran a solid campaign. Danny O’Connor, the Franklin County recorder and former congressional candidate, hailed Ryan’s campaign chops and his effective pitch to voters as a moderate populist in favor of a more protectionist trade policy. “For him to break through in a state with so many media markets, you have to be a compelling candidate. He’s put in the work, has a message, and that message moves voters.
Both O’Connor and Barasky criticized the campaign Vance was running, arguing that the author and venture capitalist had failed to connect with voters; they both noted how dependent the Ohio Republican was on outside money from groups like the Senate Leadership Fund, a Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC. By contrast, bolstered by MSNBC appearances and a firehose of small dollars encouraged by viral clips on Twitter (like the recent scripted moment in a debate where he told Vance that “you kiss [Trump’s] ass”), Ryan raised nearly $40 million. That’s a stunning tally for a Senate campaign in a midterm election, and trails only Democrat John Fetterman in Pennsylvania among the 2,022 Senate candidates.
O’Connor also expressed skepticism about how Republican Ohio is. “I think it’s more Trumpy,” he said. He pointed out that although Trump has won the state twice, “normal Republicans have never really won it by much.” In particular, he noted that in 2018, Mike DeWine only won the election by 3%, albeit in a Democratic surge year, when Brown won re-election by 7%.
Vance also stumbled as a first-time candidate. National Republicans have clutched on the amount of outside money they had to spend in the state to bail it out after facing a long, ugly and expensive primary. Democrats and Republicans agree, however, that he was still a better bet for the GOP than Josh Mandel, the former state treasurer who finished second in the primary. By contrast, Ryan secured the Democratic nomination and faced no serious opposition.
Where Ryan comes up against harsh political realities
For Luke Thompson, who heads the pro-Vance Protect Ohio Values super PAC, the race comes down to double digits: 39 and 45. Stuck in neutral in all public polls.
Thompson compared the campaign to a race for the Senate in Iowa eight years ago. So-Rep. Bruce Braley was locked in a close race against then-state senator Joni Ernst. Polls showed a close race throughout but never showed Braley reaching 50%. On Election Day, undecided voters overwhelmingly battled for the relative unknown over the Democratic congressman, and Ernst won by 9.
Thompson and other Ohio Republicans who spoke to Vox also pushed back against the idea that Ryan’s campaign had been maximally effective. A Vance campaign adviser, who was granted anonymity in order to speak candidly about the campaign, argued that Ryan’s attempts to portray himself as a pragmatic moderate did not match his voting record in Congress, where he voted as a party-line Democrat. Ryan also embraced far more progressive rhetoric during his abortive 2020 presidential campaign on issues such as criminal justice.
Vance’s adviser argued the strategy was doomed once it was challenged on-air, in ads and messages that Ohio voters saw he was legislating like a Democrat typical, and that no amount of additional outside spending would make much difference at this point. indicate. He also noted that Ryan had moved from message to message throughout his campaign and seemed hesitant to fully commit to organizing a race that would appeal to suburban voters who tended to lean towards the Democrats or courting blue-collar voters who had moved away. in the Trump era.
And despite the amount of money Ryan raised, the Ohio Republican had nearly $2 million more on hand at the end of September.
None of this means anyone thinks Ohio was now unwinnable for Democrats, even if it moved to the right. But Thompson noted that, in the hierarchy of swing states, Ohio was “redder than North Carolina and maybe even redder than Florida.”
By any conventional standard, Ryan is the underdog
There is little reason to think there will be a change in the historical pattern this year, where there is a backlash against the ruling party in a midterm election. Democrats have four incumbents facing tough re-elections in states Joe Biden won (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire) and two other Democrats vying for Republican-held Senate seats in states Biden won (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). On top of that is the open Senate race in North Carolina, a state with a Democratic governor, where Trump won by just 1.5% in 2020.
Republicans are relatively confident as voters focus more on the economy and rising inflation. As Vance’s adviser noted, “the abortion issue peaked a few weeks ago” and isn’t as potent an issue in favor of Democrats in the home stretch as it was during the summer. It felt like Ryan had hit his ceiling in the polls.
O’Connor was still convinced that Ryan was in good shape as a “classic retail politician”, unlike Vance, a first-time candidate. He thought Ryan could appeal to the pragmatic streak of voters in a state where many would split their ticket. “Ohioans love people who put the ball in the end zone,” he said.
However, in a conservative-leaning state like Ohio, that probably won’t matter: Its recent right-wing swing and electoral demographics mean every Republican is spotted in the lead.