Ohio Senate candidates look to debate to stand out in tight race

Ohio Senate candidates Tim Ryan (D) and J.D. Vance (R) are set to face off in a televised debate on Monday as polls show an increasingly narrow race in a state that has been considered reliably red in recent years.  

While Republicans were seen as having the advantage in Ohio, a number of recent polls show Ryan, a 10-term U.S. representative, closing the gap with Vance, a venture capitalist and author of “Hillbilly Elegy.” A Marist Poll released on Wednesday showed Vance leading Ryan 46 percent to 45 percent, while a Spectrum News-Sienna College survey released last week showed Ryan leading Vance 46 to 43 percent. 

With the race tight and just a month until Election Day, Monday’s debate will be an opportunity for both candidates to stand out — or land a lasting blow. 

The race has also received notable attention from outside groups from both sides of the aisle. On Thursday, the Trump-sanctioned super PAC MAGA Inc. placed $276,000 in broadcast television reservations in the Columbus and Cleveland media markets, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact, Additionally, the Senate Leadership Fund, a group aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) bought $28 million worth of airtime beginning last month, spanning from September 6 to Election Day. 

On the Democratic side, Ryan has flexed his fundraising and spending muscle throughout the course of the campaign. Ryan’s campaign announced on Thursday that it raised a whopping $17.2 million in the third quarter, largely from small donors. The Democrat’s campaign did not say how much money he had in the bank, but his most recent federal filing from July showed him with just under $3.6 million on hand, suggesting a high burn rate. 

The race for the Buckeye State’s Senate seat on Capitol Hill was always going to be a steep climb for Democrats given the state’s Republican tilt. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as “lean Republican.” Former President Trump handily won the state by 8 points in 2016 and 2020. 

Democrats say they are “cautiously optimistic” about the race, crediting what they say is Ryan’s brand and well-run campaign. 

“To me, it’s more complicated than Trump won by 8 points, so therefore J.D. Vance is going to win,” said Aaron Pickrell, a Columbus-based Democratic strategist. 

“Having been a congressman from Youngstown, Mahoning Valley, he’s represented folks that were sort of that Obama-Trump voter,” Pickrell added. “Tim knows those folks, it’s the voters that he’s represented for years and he knows how to communicate with them.” 

Democrats also say Vance is a flawed candidate. 

“He comes across as somebody that’s very ambitious and wants to do something and will say and do whatever he needs to in order to be successful and voters see that,” Pickrell said. 

Even Republicans credit Ryan with having narrowed the gap between him and Vance. 

“As a former operative, he’s run a very good campaign. His ads have been very good,” said one Ohio-based GOP strategist referring to Ryan. 

“I know the ads are full of shit, but he’s doing what he needs to do and he’s done that from the day after the primary. And that’s why he’s overperforming expectations,” the strategist added. 

However, outside groups like the Senate Leadership Fund have come to Vance’s aid, helping to hit back against Ryan. And GOP strategists said Vance is now on the right track and expect him to pull further ahead in the coming weeks.

“He’s a first-time candidate, so there’s a learning curve, but I think he’s righted the ship,” said the Ohio-based Republican strategist, referring to Vance. 

“I think he’s doing what he needs to do to win,” the GOP strategist said. 

Another strategists pointed to the primaries to explain Vance’s relatively slow start.

“Vance won a very bruising primary and struggled in some ways to find his footing after that,” the Republican operative said. “Ryan had the summer airwaves almost exclusively to himself.”

Much of the campaign has been defined by Ryan and Vance working to paint the other as out of touch with Ohio. 

Last month, Ryan’s campaign rolled out a six-figure ad buy on Facebook and Instagram referring to Vance as a “Silicon Valley J.D.” going up against “Politician J.D.” Just days later, the Vance campaign rolled out an item titled “Two Tims,” juxtaposing what it called “TV Tim” and “DC Tim.” 

Ryan, who represents constituents who voted for Trump, has long walked a line between Washington’s Democratic establishment and appealing to economic populists. Ryan, much like Sen. Sherrod Brown, Ohio’s only statewide election Democrat, has been critical of jobs being shipped overseas to China from parts of the country like the industrial Midwest. 

Republicans say they are zeroing in on debunking that narrative about the Ohio congressman. 

“He’s clearly tried to paint a picture of himself as nonpartisan, certainly not a member of the rank-and-file Democratic Party, and our efforts have largely been to counteract that and demonstrate to voters that he has voted for all of these things that they hate,” said the Republican operative. 

The Vance campaign also indicated it would focus in on that point Monday.

“The upcoming debates will force Tim Ryan to answer for the two faced persona he has been using to trick Ohio voters his entire campaign,” Luke Schroeder, Vance campaign spokesman, said.

However, Democrats are using a similar strategy with Vance, seeking to paint him as a political opportunist and hypocrite. 

“[Voters] see someone portraying themselves in a way that may not be exactly accurate,” Pickrell said. “Vance is trying to be this sort of everyman like I’m off doing these things, and he’s not. Voters see through this facade that he’s been putting on.” 

A person close to the Ryan campaign agreed, saying “People have a lot of intensity positively towards Tim and a lot more negative intensity toward J.D., which makes it a lot harder to sway those folks.” 

The line of insults between the two candidates is likely to take center stage in Monday’s debate. Republicans say Vance will likely work to tie Ryan to the Biden administration and rising gas prices while Ryan will portray Vance as someone who is out of touch on major issues like abortion access in the state. 

Ultimately, it remains to be seen how much the Monday night forum will move the needle in the contest. 

“In my experience these debates like a US Senate race, governor’s race, congressional debates, it’s a very small echo chamber that it affects and those people already know who they’re voting for,” the Ohio-based GOP strategist said. 

“I think probably J.D. wants to have a nice boring debate,” the strategist added. “Tim wants to have a back and-forth.”

Tags Ohio Ohio Senate debate Ohio Senate Race Tim Ryan
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