Senate race in Ohio poses crucial test for Democrats

Rob Portman and Tim Ryan
Greg Nash

Ohio’s open Senate race presents a key test for Democrats, who boast that the stage is well-set for likely nominee Rep. Tim Ryan and say his performance could gauge the party’s appeal among blue-collar voters. 

Democrats are bullish that Ohio is in play, pointing to the retirement of Sen. Rob Portman (R) and a chaotic GOP primary to succeed him, along with an expected easy primary for Ryan. And the party insists that Ryan, who represents a working-class district in northeast Ohio, could chart out a playbook for winning back white voters without a college degree who historically voted Democrat but defected to former President Trump. 

Winning in Ohio would dent the theory that blue-collar Americans are fleeing the Democratic Party, but doing so will be no easy feat. Ohio gradually drifted Republicans’ way over time before swinging to Trump by 8 points in 2016 and 2020. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) won reelection their by 6 points in 2018 but remains the only Democrat in statewide office. 

“It’s as well as the stage could be set for Democrats in 2022,” said David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati. “If you read that scenario off to me in 2006, I would say, ‘The Republicans should give up now.’ If you had read that scenario off in 2012, I’d say, ‘Boy, that’s awfully favorable for Democrats.’ You read that scenario to me for 2022, I say, ‘The Democrats have a chance.’ ” 

While far from a slam-dunk, Democrats view next year’s Senate race as their best chance in a statewide Ohio contest outside of Brown’s seat, and winning it would likely guarantee the party’s Senate majority. 

“I think this is our best chance to win this Senate seat in a long time,” said Justin Barasky, whose media firm is advising Ryan. “While Ohio is not seen as competitive of a state as, say, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania, the dynamics in this particular race because of who the candidates are actually vault it into that upper tier of competitive states.” 

Chief among the dynamics aiding Ryan is Republican turmoil. Portman’s retirement leaves the GOP without a heavyweight incumbent, and the party’s primary has devolved into a slugfest among Trump acolytes. 

The primary candidates have lurched to the right in a bid for Trump’s endorsement while bashing each other as insufficiently conservative. Former state Treasurer Josh Mandel in September compared a vaccine mandate for businesses to the “gestapo,” and this week entrepreneur J.D. Vance said, “We should shut down the government until the vaccine mandate ends.” 

While appealing to the GOP’s hard-line base might make sense in a state Trump won twice, Democrats argue voters could be turned off by platforms they view as extreme. 

“It’s extremely helpful because at the end of the day, there may not be a Republican candidate standing,” said Jeff Rusnak, a former campaign official for Brown. 

“They’re pandering to the most extreme edges of the Republican Party, and I think that’s going to cost them in end.” 

Ryan, meanwhile, faces an easier path to the nomination.

There are other Democratic candidates, including progressive Morgan Harper, but Ryan is broadly perceived as the likely nominee. And while Republicans duke it out on cultural issues, he has a wider lane to discuss his 10 terms representing a blue-collar district. 

Ryan is expected to walk a path drawn by Brown’s successful campaigns, focused largely on trade, wages and other issues that appeal to working-class voters. 

“Ohio is an economic populist state. I think it’s one of the reasons that Sen. Brown does as well as he does in Ohio. It’s one of the reasons that Donald Trump did as well as he did,” said Aaron Pickrell, a former top Ohio adviser to former President Obama’s campaign. “And I think Tim, who he is and how he operates and connects with voters, fits the mood of Ohio now.” 

Ryan’s campaign has shown early signs of life, raising $2.5 million in the third quarter of 2021 and ending September with $3.6 million in the bank. 

Still, flipping Portman’s seat remains a tall order. 

“I don’t see a Democrat having a chance at the seat, no matter who the Republican nominee is coming out of the primary,” said Ohio GOP strategist Mike Hartley. “Democrats can wish in one hand and crap in the other, but a Republican’s going to win that Senate seat.” 

While Democrats boast of Ryan’s strengths, he still faces an environment that is anticipated to overwhelmingly favor Republicans, particularly after the GOP’s victory in last month’s Virginia gubernatorial race. 

“I’ve rode that wave before in my career, and I’ve been crushed by it in 2006 and 2008, so I know how strong that is,” Hartley said, referencing Democratic wave years. “And next year is shaping up to be a larger wave than probably I’ve ever seen in my career.” 

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, there will be lessons for Democrats to take away from the Ohio contest. 

The party hemorrhaged working-class voters in recent cycles, and Ryan, with his blue-collar bona fides, could be the candidate best situated to win them back. If he fails, it could be an ominous sign for Democrats’ chances to retake ground. But if he succeeds, he could chart a playbook for other candidates down the road. 

“I think a good argument could be made there’s no better Democrat in the entire Ohio Democratic Party to speak to those blue-collar voters. This is a make-or-break stand for folks who were not very long ago the backbone of the party,” Niven said. “There’ll be tea leaves with regard to Democratic competitiveness in Ohio.” 

Those lessons will be crucial for Democrats as the party looks to remain competitive in other states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. 

“From the perspective of having a majority in the U.S. Senate and from an Electoral College perspective,” Pickrell said, “it seems that it’s a real challenge if we’re not able to relate to white, working-class voters.”

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Rob Portman Sherrod Brown Tim Ryan

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