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Fight for Ohio's U.S. Senate seat shaping up to be battle between populist contenders

A person casts a vote in German Village in Columbus.
Daniel Konik
Statehouse News Bureau
A person casts a vote in German Village in Columbus.

After months of mudslinging and mass debates, J.D. Vance is the Republican nominee for Ohio open U.S. Senate seat, being vacated by the retirement of twice-elected Republican Sen. Rob Portman. The Trump-backed venture capitalist and author will face longtime Congressman Tim Ryan, a Democrat who’s won elections even as his district has gotten more Republican.

Political newcomer J.D. Vance said a lot of things during the campaign, including some controversial statements during interviews with right wing media.

He said, "I don't really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other" on an episode of Steve Bannon's podcast in February. In an interview in the last week with the Gateway Pundit, Vance said, "It's like Joe Biden wants to punish the people who didn't vote for him and opening up the floodgates to the border is one way to do it." And on the Real America's Voice, also associated with Bannon, Vance said recently: "Some Trump voters voted for Trump for racist reasons, but most Trump voters are good people."

But what may have mattered most was a thing said about J.D. Vance – the endorsement by former President Trump.

Not even a misspeak on stage at a Nebraska rally by Trump just two days before the primary - when he said his endorsed candidate is "JP — JD Mandel" - changed things. Unofficial results show Vance won with 32%, beating Josh Mandel by 8 points, with Matt Dolan close behind Mandel.

But on Vance’s mind was his Democratic opponent, Tim Ryan, whose race had been called less than a half hour after the polls closed. On stage in Cincinnati, Vance painted Ryan as a liberal in moderate clothing.

“He says that he cares about us here in Ohio, but he refuses to fight his own party when they have flooded the state of Ohio with illegal drugs and sex traffickers," Vance said, echoing a talking point he and other Republicans have claimed about the southern border with Mexico. "Ladies and gentlemen, Tim Ryan needs to go down, and we’re going to be the party that does it.”

Ryan, who takes a harder line on border issues than many Democrats, was 120 miles away from Vance on election night, at a union hall in Columbus.

“I want you to be a part. I want you to bring Republicans to our events. I want you to bring independents to our events, because this is a special movement happening here in Ohio," Ryan told the crowd.

Ryan got the nomination by beating two other Democrats with nearly 70% of the vote, according to unofficial results – though Democratic turnout was about half that posted by Republicans.

Before the Trump endorsement, Vance was backed by tech billionaire Peter Thiel, a big Trump donor with friends at Fox News. Vance was languishing in single digits with six of the seven candidates vying for that coveted backing.

But the Trump endorsement vaulted Vance to the top and got the attention of voters like David Cochran from Urbana, who went to Trump’s rally in Delaware County a week after the Vance announcement.

"Quite frankly, I don't know that much about him — just because of Trump. If Trump says he's ok, he's ok," Cochrain said.

“Trump won this primary simply because he's the dominant issue that every campaign wins and sort of judiciary kind of looks through," said Nick Everhart, a national Republican political consultant and founder of Medium Buying, an ad-tracking service based in Ohio. "At the end of the day, Donald Trump's already won in both of these primaries, particularly in Ohio, because up to this point, every candidate was working to get his endorsement."

David Niven worked for some Democratic governors before becoming a professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati.

“I think Vance would have without Trump would have been in the upper tier. But the difference between third place and first place is probably that Trump endorsement," said Niven. "And you saw with that endorsement out there, it was really hard for Mandel and [Mike] Gibbons and the like to really state the premise of their campaign because they were already running on pro-Trump terms.”

Vance suggested in his speech on Tuesday night that the Trump influence is extending to his Democratic opponent, who he said is running as a Trump Democrat".

Ryan is already taking an aggressive stance, tweeting out his first ad against Vance before the Republican U.S. Senate race was even called for him. And to many, Ryan often sounds like incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, who endorsed Ryan and who won Ohio in 2018 while other Democrats lost.

In this campaign, Ryan said he’s targeting people who voted for Matt Dolan, the only Republican who didn’t run his U.S. Senate primary obviously gunning for Trump’s endorsement.

“Those voters are going to come and they’re going to vote for Tim Ryan. We’re going to actively go after these people," Ryan said. "Those people who voted for Matt Dolan have nothing in common with J.D. Vance. Nothing."

Economic concerns will be a big part of Ryan’s campaign, even as Republicans have been blaming President Biden for inflation and increased costs. Vance has gotten a lot of sate and national attention in this campaign, and will have plenty of money to bring up those issues. But Niven said name recognition will be another problem for Ryan.

“Sherrod Brown can pair that kind of talk with widespread awareness of Sherrod Brown with a history with the state and state voters," Niven said. "And Tim Ryan has to build that, you know, except for his former congressional district. You know, he really has to build from scratch.

Ryan has some big numbers to overcome as well. While Brown won re-election in 2018 by more than 300,000 votes, Trump won in 2020 by 475,000 votes. That was a record year for turnout. But Trump had won in 2016 by 447,000 votes.

Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at
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