TOLEDO, Ohio — Tim Ryan is arguably running the country’s most valuable Senate campaign. Even if he doesn’t win.
The self-described Democratic “underdog” is neck-and-neck with J.D. Vance in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). And Ryan’s doing it without the help of the national party while forcing Republican groups to spend more than $30 million countering him rather than on Democratic-held seats in places like Arizona and Colorado.
While Ryan absorbs Republican attacks, Democrats are mostly focused elsewhere — a boost to their broader effort to hold the 50-50 Senate against midterm headwinds that leaves the 10-term congressman essentially on his own. Democrats love Ryan for keeping it close, yet as Vance keeps a slim lead in public polls, Ryan isn’t favored by … pretty much anyone except himself.
The blunt, staccato-voiced 49-year-old insists he’ll surprise everyone and join Sen. Sherrod Brown as the only Democrats to win Senate races here since former Sen. John Glenn won his last race in 1992. Democrats think he has an outside chance at winning, according to interviews with congressional lawmakers and party strategists.
If he can pull it off, Ryan says he’ll operate outside of his party leadership when necessary — contrary to the Pelosi-loving image Republicans are pushing, citing his recently reliable Democratic voting record.
“I don’t know if I’m going to vote for Chuck Schumer” as leader, Ryan said in an interview on his campaign bus. “I will get to the Senate and be beholden to absolutely nobody, right? And I will be, probably, a royal pain in the ass when I get there. And that may be a reason why we’re not getting help.”
Should he lose but help keep the Senate in Democratic control by diverting national GOP resources, he allowed that he’ll “be glad that the inmates aren’t taking over the asylum. But you know, I won’t be happy. That’s just not in my DNA.”
Republicans now project confidence about Vance, but the Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund super PAC is spending about $3 million per week to boost Ryan’s foe and has kept its ad reservations. It’s a sign that the race remains close enough to not take chances and a far cry from where things stood in Ohio at this time six years ago.
Last time this seat was in play, Portman had dispatched Gov. Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) already. It’s escaped no one’s notice that Ryan is overperforming, despite a midterm cycle that’s working against him.
“Tim Ryan has forced national Republicans to spend roughly $40 million in a general election in a state that they had no plans to spend in,” said Justin Barasky, who managed Brown’s winning 2018 reelection bid. “He is going to be responsible, one way or the other, for helping Democrats hold the Senate. Win or lose.”
Ryan’s doing it by peppering his candid rhetoric with mild expletives and not emphasizing that he’s a Democrat. In a state Donald Trump won by 8 points, Ryan must claim a significant slice of Republican voters to prevail. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that his campaign bus is bright red.
The Buckeye State’s progressive senior senator agreed that Ryan is lifting Senate Democrats nationwide but pointedly added that “my interest is that he wins and has done that service. Not that he loses and has done that service.”
“I would make one prediction. Maybe I shouldn’t,” Brown said in an interview. “But a year from now, J.D. Vance will be living back in California.”
The close race is getting more intense as Election Day nears. Vance dubs Ryan a “total scumbag” and a “fake moderate.” Ryan calls Vance “lazy as can be” and barely tolerates him: “I don’t hate him. I don’t respect him.”
Vance is professorial on the stump but shows a hard edge as he rails against the media, and he too adds a swear here and there. He does press gaggles, but his campaign did not make him available for an interview. Ryan clearly enjoys back-and-forth with reporters more; a planned 10-minute interview ends up at 25 minutes as he pushes more middle-class tax cuts and vows to steer his party in a new direction.
Ryan’s biggest strength may prove his exploitation of internal GOP divisions after Vance’s primary win. Those splits dried up fundraising and curbed enthusiasm for Vance among Republican voters who supported other candidates as Ryan railed against China on TV.
“He spent his money running as a conservative Democrat while the Republicans were beating each other up,” Rep. Mike Carey (R-Ohio) said of how Ryan kept the race close. “His ads, I mean, they’re very populist. I wouldn’t even say middle of the road. They’re right-leaning.”
Democrats disagree that Ryan is running as a quasi-Republican. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said his campaign is “close to the winning message of Sherrod Brown.”
The GOP’s betting that Ryan will shed cross-aisle support as Vance and the GOP super PAC focus tightly on his recent voting record in support of Democrats’ agenda. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said Vance spent the summer running as a “Trump Republican” but the ground shifted this fall and Vance is “beginning to pull away.”
Democrats wonder whether the Schumer-aligned Senate Majority PAC could change that with an ad barrage. At this moment, Ryan’s lonely battle is a point of pride as he posts big fundraising numbers, advises big-name surrogates like former President Barack Obama to stay away and revels in being the “face of this campaign.”
“We don’t necessarily need them to come in here,” Ryan said. “We’re raising enough money to do this on our own.”
Still, some Ohio Democrats feel snubbed. Cindy Dempsey, who chairs the Ohio Democratic Women’s Caucus, said she’s “frustrated there’s not more help” and called the GOP deluge “painful.”
Senate Majority PAC hasn’t ruled out helping Ryan, and its chief J.B. Poersch praised his “remarkably strong campaign.” The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also coordinated an ad buy with him.
Largely solo in his message, Ryan argues that GOP hits on his “votes with Pelosi” numbers are misleading because the speaker rarely brings legislation to the House floor without all Democrats in favor. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t use” the attack line, Ryan acknowledges, “if I was him.”
Notably, Ryan declined to pull a Manchin this Congress by threatening to stop Democratic priorities in order to win leverage for his own. The Ohioan said it wouldn’t have made much difference, that he instead fought to get his priorities added to must-pass bills.
The one-time presidential candidate highlights past votes against fast-tracking new Obama trade deals and supporting some of Trump’s trade agenda as examples of willingness to buck his own party. He’s with most Democrats in other ways: He supports axing the Senate’s legislative filibuster and expanding abortion access after Roe v. Wade was struck down.
“Tim Ryan has, in many respects, tried to run like a Republican, which is an appeal to those more conservative independent voters in Ohio,” Portman said in an interview. “It’s not ultimately going to be successful, I don’t think. Because it’s not consistent with his record.”
Perhaps the biggest clapback Ryan offers to Vance’s accusations of rote party-line behavior is his 2016 leadership race against Pelosi. He likened that long-odds challenge to the one he’s attempting now.
“My whole thing there was, like, this is our fault. The Trump creation is our fault,” Ryan said of Democrats’ fraying dominance with working-class voters. “We lost our connection, and that’s how Trump was able to like swoop in. And I think this is a chance for us to, right here in the heart of the country, reclaim it.”