Ohio has changed since Tim Ryan first ran for Congress in 2002 — and so has a Democrat’s outlook in the state.
“The perception of the party,” Ryan said bluntly in an interview, “is very different now than it was when I started.”
Ryan is the presumptive Democratic Senate candidate from Ohio, almost certain to win his party’s primary on Tuesday against Morgan Harper, a lawyer and former senior advisor to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. With the Republican race much murkier — author JD Vance is seen as the frontrunner after winning former President Donald Trump’s endorsement, but a string of candidates are vying for the upset — Ryan is gearing up to accomplish a significantly tougher task in November: Running as a Democrat in a red-leaning state in a likely tough election cycle for the party.
For years, Ohio Democrats have sought to assure National Party officials that the state is not a lost cause, but election after election has complicated that terrain. No Democrat other than Senator Sherrod Brown has won a nonjudicial statewide mandate in Ohio since 2008, and President Barack Obama, in 2012, was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win the Ohio. In 2020, Democrat Joe Biden became the first candidate in 60 years to win the White House without winning the state.
The trends left many Democrats wondering if it was still worth fighting for a statewide position in Buckeye State, effectively undoing a state once seen as a key political bellwether.
The blame, Ryan said, lies with the same National Democrats who now view Ohio as a lost cause.
“We haven’t done a good job as a party of letting people know we’re fighting for them and haven’t done the policies over the years that we necessarily had to. And so a lot of Democrats in key counties walked away,” said Ryan, who is making his first statewide run.
Ryan’s political history, in many ways, is Ohio’s history. The Democrat was first elected to Congress in 2002, representing a northeast Ohio district that included his hometown of Niles, as well as the union-heavy Democratic strongholds Youngstown and Warren. While Ryan initially dominated in his races — including his home county of Trumbull — his margins began to slip as Republican strength grew in Ohio. In 2020, Ryan won with just 53% of the vote, his weakest performance in his constituency since his first election in 2002 (when his Democratic predecessor, James Traficant, ran as an independent and siphoned off 15% of the vote).
The change was most dramatic in Trumbull County. For much of Ryan’s tenure, Democratic presidential candidates won about 60% of the vote there — until Trump ran for president. In 2016, Trump surprised Ohio politics by winning Trumbull County by 6 points. He followed that four years later by carrying County by 10 points.
For Dan Polivka, chairman of the Trumbull County Democratic Party, Trump was a sign of how slow political change could accelerate in just a few cycles.
“The national issues have trickled down to some of the local elections,” Polivka said of 2016 and 2020. “I still think there’s a Democratic base here and a lot of support for a good Democrat. But the national issues are now reverberating locally and this has never happened before.
Ryan has been considering a jump from home for years. After winning another term in 2018, he explored a presidential race, eventually making it official in 2019. The bid was short-lived – Ryan only qualified for two Democratic primary debates due to low polling numbers and its run ended less than a year after it began. .
For Democrats in Ohio, there’s a lot of blame to be had for the change in the state.
Former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, one of two Democrats running for governor this year, said she recently sought to reassure Democratic Governors Association operatives that Ohio is still winnable for the right Democratic candidate.
“I think my husband says it best: Democrats like to deal with resumes, not people who are really human-connected,” Whaley said. “That’s what we’ve been doing for a long time. We ran really smart guys and not people who are connected to the working class.
Whaley praised Ryan’s appeal to working-class voters, saying she had the same appeal to voters upstate.
“We both come from communities that are forgotten and ignored by both state and federal government,” Whaley said. “We both come from forgotten and ignored places. We both have a working class chip on our shoulder.
As Ryan considers his chances in November, the issues are both personal and atmospheric.
For years, he was one of Ohio’s most prominent Democrats. But Ryan is largely unknown outside of his corner of Ohio, something he tried to address by touring 88 counties in his first year as a Senate candidate.
And Ryan is making his first statewide run at a time when Washington’s unified Democratic control has embittered voters, in Ohio and across the country, over the party.
Ryan is convinced that he has the kind of profile that the people of Ohio are looking for. When asked about running as a Democrat right now, he bragged about his past actions, like running against Nancy Pelosi for Democratic House Leader in 2016, feud with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders during Ryan’s ill-fated presidential bid and oppose former President Obama on trade policy in 2015. He then noted that while he confronted Trump, he also supported 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 so tied to Biden’s agenda just because I have 20 years of experience in this. … I have a really good story to share with the voters in Ohio who is unrelated to Biden. And so, I have room.
Ryan put this message in a recent TV commercial, in which he accused “both sides” of “wasting time on stupid fights”. This, for Ryan, is where the Republican Senate primary comes in.
This contest was fierce. Before Trump endorsed Vance, most candidates openly aimed for the former president’s support, trading attacks on who best represented the MAGA agenda. Once Trump threw his support behind Vance, the contest became a microcosm of the struggle for the Republican Party, with several outside groups infuriating Trump for supporting former Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel. and a candidate in the form of state senator Matt Dolan accusing his opponents of debasement to seek support from the former president.
“You know, Columbus TV isn’t just going to Republicans,” Ryan said, joking that a spectrum of voters, from moderate Republicans to Democrats, were turned on by what he called a primary. “divisive” GOP that focused on “very narrow issues.
Regardless of who emerges from the Republican primary, Ryan plans to run on the populist economic issues he says can still win over voters who backed Trump just two years ago. That path looks like this: focus on the economy, avoid the culture wars Republicans want to highlight, and be prepared to stand up to your own party.
At the heart of this plan is also resistance to China, something that has attracted the ire of Asian American bandswho recently accused Ryan of using a 30-second ad to push “Sinophobic rhetoric” that pits “nativists against those in the #AAPI community.”
“It’s us against China, and instead of taking them on, Washington is wasting our time in stupid fights,” Ryan says in the ad.
Ryan didn’t shy away from the controversy and told CNN the response worries him that Democrats aren’t willing to do what’s necessary to win in a state like Ohio.
“It’s the competition,” Ryan said. “And if we can’t have a national conversation about the Communist government of Red China trying to displace us, looking the other way when Russia invades Ukraine and trying to outsmart us at every turn…then we’ll all speak Mandarin in 10 or 15 years.