Union halls are like a second home to Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan, so it’s fitting he began a long recent day of campaigning chatting with carpenter apprentices at a union training facility outside Columbus.
“Where you working?” Ryan asked one of the trainees. When the reply came about a school in Athens, the congressman lit up. “That’s Joe Burrow country!”
Burrow, the star quarterback of the Super Bowl-bound Cincinnati Bengals, grew up about an hour away from the union hall.
Ryan, who’s the leading Democratic candidate for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat this fall, seemed more than happy to let the conversation veer back and forth between football and jobs and back to football. The workers seemed good with that too.
GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s announced retirement has opened up a pickup opportunity for Democrats, but it’s an uphill fight in a state that’s trended more Republican in recent years. There’s a crowded field of GOP hopefuls, with lots of jockeying to land an endorsement from former President Donald Trump.
On the Democratic side, Ryan is running an all-out, statewide campaign that has the kind of urgency that makes it feel like Election Day is right around the corner.
On a swing last week through central and southern Ohio — wrapping up in small towns along the Ohio River that voted overwhelmingly for Trump — he kept his pitch focused. Ryan, who tells voters of his upbringing in Ohio’s steel country, says he understands the economic worries people have in a state that has hemorrhaged manufacturing jobs over the past half-century. That the U.S. needs a tough trade policy with China. That investment in the communities — in broadband, clean energy and skilled trades — can again allow them to compete economically.
Jamel Kendrick, 33, was part of the group of carpenter apprentices who met with Ryan. Kendrick said he’s an independent voter who’s not really paying attention to the Senate race yet.
“It’s been really busy — all year — fighting the pandemic, trying to stay healthy,” he said.
He says he doesn’t even know who’s running, at one point asking for a reminder of Ryan’s name. Kendrick voted Democratic in the past two presidential elections, but did give Trump serious consideration, for economic reasons.
He agrees with Ryan that the big issue is jobs. “Hopefully, he can go ahead and push some things forward and keep us working,” Kendrick said. “Keep us happy.”
It’s voters like this that Ryan absolutely needs. And it’s why he spends so much time talking about rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure (he supports the bipartisan law, and the Biden administration’s stalled Build Back Better proposals), attracting investment in manufacturing and taking on China on trade. It’s a very basic economic message — but one he says Democrats don’t often make emphatically enough.
“Nobody comes here”
Ryan also makes the point at every stop that he is not afraid to challenge other Democrats when he disagrees with them. He points to the time he unsuccessfully challenged Nancy Pelosi for leadership of House Democrats in 2016.
Don Crane, director of the carpenter’s union, said that’s an important thing for union members to hear, “So when a person like Congressman Ryan comes in wearing the Democrat badge, that doesn’t necessarily make him a staunch liberal or a staunch leftist or a socialist.” (Ryan also had a failed presidential bid in 2020.)
On the topic of taking on members of his own party, Ryan likes to tell audiences it’s unrealistic to think that a candidate needs to agree with you on every single issue.
“Are any of you married?” he said during a visit to county Democratic Party headquarters in Marietta. “If my wife and I have 10 conversations in a day and we agree on six or seven of them, we like crack a bottle of wine and celebrate how great our marriage is, right? So why in God’s name would we think we’re going to agree with our senator 100% of the time?”
In all Ryan had five stops on this day — some more than an hour drive on snowy state roads. The schedule started right after sunrise and didn’t end until after 9 p.m. There was a tour, by the CEO, of a century-old Ohio company that makes custom clay roof tiles. Next, late lunch and conversation with a handful of voters at the Chatterbox Tavern in the river town of McConnelsville. Talk there was about how stretched city services are, and about the lack of broadband internet service in the county. Ryan toured the beautifully restored local opera house, noting it’s just the kind of small town workers who are now free to work remotely might love to live in — if the basic infrastructure is in place to support them.
At one stop Ryan talked of how working people in places like Ohio often get left behind. The candidate — now 48 years old — says he’s heard it his entire life.
“We’ve had a lot of politicians come through and we’ve had a lot of economic policy decisions that have been made for the last 30 or 40 years that have wrecked the middle class,” he said. “The trade deals, the outsourcing, then automation, all of these things and nobody cared. Nobody cared.”
He says both political parties have had a hand in that. To that end, he says he understands why so many people in the state found Trump’s message appealing. And he says Trump was right to say that the North American Free Trade Agreement was a bad deal for places like Ohio.
“You know, I didn’t agree with Donald Trump on a whole lot,” Ryan told the audience at Democratic HQ in Marietta, “but the renegotiation of NAFTA, I supported.”
Heath Stevens, a 43-year-old heavy equipment operator, was standing in the back listening — and nodding affirmatively as Ryan spoke. Stevens is a Democrat, but said he was convinced that if his mostly Republican coworkers could hear Ryan’s message, they’d agree with much of it.
“It’s hard for me to see why some people wouldn’t vote for him,” he said. “But you know, some guys I work with, they’ll never hear his name and will never get to hear him talk to a crowd.” It’s because people live in their own political bubbles.
Ryan says that’s why he’s campaigning everywhere in Ohio, not just in Democratic strongholds. He’s looking to share his ideas with the kinds of voters Stevens is talking about.
“We have to get to these communities. These communities feel left behind,” he said in an interview with NPR, “I mean, if I heard it once I’ve heard it a thousand times, when I go to a community and people just stop. And it’s sad, but they say, ‘Thank you for coming here. Nobody comes here.’ “
There is a template for the kind of jobs-focused campaign Ryan is running. Three-term Sen. Sherrod Brown is a Democrat who’s found continued success in Ohio, even as the state has turned more red.
“Sherrod Brown is an economic Ohio Democrat, and so am I,” Ryan said.
And Brown has demonstrated how a Democrat wins Ohio, Ryan said: “Strong support from unions, strong support from workers, laser-like focus on economics, pocketbook issues and then growth.”
A state Trump won easily
Still, recent political trends provide real headwinds for any Democrat running statewide in Ohio these days. The state was long considered a battleground in presidential contests, but in the past two elections Trump won Ohio easily.
Then there’s the fact that midterm elections are historically very tough for the party that holds the White House. President Biden’s low job approval doesn’t help.
The president has indicated he’s ready to campaign for Democrats on the ballot this year, making the case for his policies. Ryan says he won’t be looking for such help from Biden.
“So I don’t need proxies,” he said. “I don’t need anyone to help me.” He then added for emphasis: “It’s that I want Tim Ryan to be the main messenger of this campaign.”
The next morning Ryan walked into a coffeeshop on the Ohio River in Meigs County — a place that Trump carried by a 3-1 margin. A group of local Democrats had gathered by the time the candidate walked in. The talk was familiar — broadband, vocational training, attracting corporate investments.
But Ryan also talked to residents who’d simply come in for breakfast. He had a long chat with a woman seated in the corner who had a newborn in a car carrier on the chair next to her. The woman, Lynsi McKinney, is a stay-at-home mother of three boys. She told NPR she liked what she heard from Ryan, and they mostly talked about the economy and the child tax credit.
She’s a Republican, but said she’d vote for the right Democrat. “I am going to vote for whoever I believe is going to do right by my family and my friends,” she said.
McKinney did vote for Trump, but said she doesn’t like Trump’s obsession with the 2020 result. Nor does she believe the election was stolen.
“Going back and counting the votes, I think that everybody did their best to make sure that it was fair and all the votes were counted correctly,” she said.
That said, McKinney still likes Trump and wouldn’t mind seeing him seek the presidency again. As for this year’s Senate election, she said she’s not really plugged into the race yet; she doesn’t really know who’s running. But she said that if Trump makes an endorsement in the race, that would be a plus for her.
So it’s a Republican voter with a positive first impression of the Democrat Ryan. But it’s also a reminder of how big a task Ryan has as he tries to win over votes in Trump strongholds.