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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

What Tim Ryan Has Already Won

For anyone interested in Democratic Party strategy and/or the midterm elections, your excellent read-of-the-day is “The Revenge of Tim ‘I Told You So’ Ryan” by Kara Voght at Rolling Stone. Some excerpts:

It’s the final stretch of his Senate race, and Tim Ryan is spending one of the campaign’s last Saturdays in Allen County, where Trump won by a mammoth 40 points two years ago. Most in his party believe the white working-class voters here have been permanently lost to the GOP. But Ryan made his way to this cavernous union hall in northwest Ohio because he hasn’t given up.

On stage, the 10-term congressman stood before a crowd of just a few dozen. He talked about ending a “broken economic system” in which workers “work six or seven days a week to make ends meet.” He lambasted trade deals that sent American manufacturing jobs to China — and criticized his GOP opponent, J.D. Vance, for raising “all that money from the big corporations who shipped our jobs overseas.” He said the word “Democrat” only four times during his half hour of remarks — and almost always in a negative context.

It was probably a wise approach in a county that hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ryan is nevertheless convinced his voters are at union halls in counties just like it across Ohio. Over the last 18 months of campaigning, has held hundreds of similar events throughout he state — including a second one at a building trades hall in East Toledo that evening. “That’s the coalition,” Ryan tells me, bleary-eyed and slumped in a chair at the Toledo stop. “You’ve got to get those guys back.”

In national Democratic circles, it hasn’t been fashionable since Trump’s 2016 win to “get those guys back” — at least not with Ryan’s vigor. A vocal faction responded to the shock of Trump’s victory with a strategy to increase turnout in Sun Belt states, believing that the emergence of a  younger, more diverse electorate held greater promise for the party. Those efforts paid off in 2020, when states like Arizona and Georgia — which hadn’t cast their electoral votes for a Democrat since the 20th century — went for Joe Biden.

Voght adds, “But that shift in focus pushed former working-class Democratic strongholds like Ohio, where Trump twice won by 8 points, farther down on the party’s list of priorities. Ryan vehemently objected, and he has demanded his party rebuild the so-called “Blue Wall” that Trump breached….”

Ryan is up against a daunting challenge. As Voght notes, Ryan’s opponent is having his coffers larded up with “millions of dollars in support from Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel.” The Republicans and their minions plan “to spend $28 million on advertising [for Vance] in a state where it hadn’t planned on spending much at all.” Further,

More than simply a Senate race, what’s unfolding in Ohio is a redemption arc for a congressman who has been ignored, marginalized and maligned by his own party for his out-of-vogue political prescriptions. If Ryan wins, he proves a Democrat can win on the backs of voters his party has forsaken. If he loses, he likely demonstrates a willingness among those voters to return to the Democratic fold — so long as the party courts them as acutely as Ryan has. Neither outcome is likely to settle his party’s debate over winning tactics, but Ryan will have nevertheless proved his point, donning his fellow Democrats’ doubt as a badge of honor.

For much of the last decade, Tim Ryan has related to his party in the same manner as a pebble relates to the inside of a shoe. While Democrats licked their wounds after the GOP swept the White House and Congress, Ryan blamed his party for flubbing its outreach to working-class voters like the ones in his Youngstown-based district. “We need blue-collar workers to vote blue, and in order to do that, we need to have the message and the messengers … able to connect with them,” he said on CNN soon after Trump’s win. Ryan challenged Pelosi for the House minority leader post soon thereafter and belly-flopped spectacularly. He led a second failed rebellion in 2018 after Democrats regained control of the House.

Although Ryan’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 ultimately tanked, he did crank up his national name-recognition and intrigued a lot of commentators who were wondering if the Democrats had any candidates who had smarts about winning back working-class families. Voght notes that Ryan has waved away from his campaign President Biden, who lost Ohio. Ryan has also staked out a ‘Democratic iconoclast’ persona, and has “committed to being “a royal pain in the ass” if he makes it to the Senate. According to Voght, Ryan’s strategy is “To put as much distance as he can between himself and the Democratic brand. “It’s a pretty negative one in places like this,” Ryan tells me in Toledo. I ask him how he thinks it’s perceived. “Elite,” he says, before I even finish the question. “That sensibility is just a huge headwind for us.” Also,

So Ryan has barnstormed the reddest corners of Ohio as the patron saint of the anti-elite. “We remind them of an old-school Democrat who’s all-in for the working person,” as Ryan puts it — “white, Black, Brown, gay, straight, men, women, service, manufacturing — anybody out there busting their ass.” He’s fervently opposed to trade deals, especially any involving China; so fervent was his first television advertisement’s “us versus them” rhetoric against “Communist China” that he was accused of Sinophobia by fellow House Democrats. Ryan dismisses Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) as “not helpful,” but has applauded “the New Green Deal — 1,000 percent for that,” he told me in 2018, drawing a line between the transition to a climate-friendly economy and job creation.

Ryan is also loath to invoke Sanders, his 2020 debate sparring partner. But Ryan’s anti-trade, pro-green economy overtures sound a lot like the Vermont senator’s.“Look, I think Tim is running a very good campaign,” Sanders tells me. “What he is in his own way — not my way — is he is trying to stand with the working class of Ohio — trying to stand with them and take on powerful special interests.”

Ryan is full hawk against China trade deals, but also against Republican election deniers:

But Ryan is clear that he is not condoning the GOP’s election denialism, the insurrection on January 6th or any of Trump’s other sundry attacks on democracy. He doesn’t think many voters who cast ballots for Trump in Ohio do, either. “We are running against people who want to destroy the country, and we keep fucking up our message, keep screwing up what we’re supposed to be doing here and who we’re supposed to be for,” Ryan says. “These guys, they voted for Trump, but they’re not storming the Capitol — that’s not their values.”

I saw Ryan rage and roar against the January 6 thugs and their Republican enablers on the floor of the House. It was the most powerful takedown of the GOP’s moral cowardice I’ve yet seen. Noting that Ryan’s casual, regular guy persona comes natural, Voght explains,

He nails, in other words, the “authenticity” factor, that je ne sais quois that helps candidates thrive when political conditions would suggest otherwise. “Tim Ryan has done a good job communicating to people that he’s on their side in a very human way,” says Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and the publisher of The Bulwark. That’s helped Ryan as much as it may have hurt Vance, whose time in Silicon Valley and essays in The Atlantic about “day trips to wine country” have, as Ryan and his allies insist, reduced him to an opportunistic carpetbagger.

Ryan is running “the best campaign of the cycle,” Longwell says. “I try very hard to not play fantasy politics, but the one place where I’ve been willing to indulge in some real optimism is Ohio.” His embrace of the working class is key to Longwell’s assessment, but so, too, is his courtship of highly-educated suburban voters, who have emerged as Democrats’ reliable demographic since Trump’s 2016 victory. On the stump, Ryan talks about GOP attacks on abortion rights as “government overreach,” addressing the issue without taking up the culture war. His football career cuts both ways: Ryan talks about treating his lingering injuries with yoga and a mindfulness practice, New Age remedies with suburban “yoga mom” appeal. Longwell notes a commercial in which Ryan is sitting with his wife and having a glass of wine, talking about how they only agree with one another 70 percent of the time. “He’s telegraphing the college-educated suburbanites in that ad,” Longwell notes. (There’s also a chance Ryan doesn’t need to do much to activate those voters, who have proclivity to reject Vance’s anti-abortion and pro-Trump sensibilities.)

This has all amounted to a statistical tie with Vance in a state where recent elections would suggest a much wider gap. Ryan is polling better than almost any Democrats attempting to flip GOP-held Senate seats, bested only by Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman and Wisconsin’s Mandela Barnes. He’s raised nearly $40 million dollars, an enormous sum only Fetterman has eclipsed. But Ryan’s success hasn’t inspired support from the national party, which has buoyed Barnes, Fetterman, and North Carolina’s Cheri Beasley with tens of millions in outside spending. “Ohio is the battleground of the past,” a Democratic strategist told the Washington Post last week, adding that the party is better off investing in places with more college-educated voters that are trending bluer, not former strongholds that are trending red.

The sentiment played right into Ryan’s hands. “I will fight anybody from any party who’s trying to peddle that bullcrap here in Ohio,” Ryan said during his event at the union hall in Lima. “If you need a college degree to get the passport to be able to go into the political party — no shot on my watch.”

“They really said that out loud!” Ryan tells me. “We kind of knew that was where everyone was going. But you can’t, like,” Ryan pauses and shakes his head. “It’s so insulting.”

Voght writes that Ryan has followed, to some extent, the working-class playbook of  his fellow Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown, who is “the only Democrat elected to statewide office in Ohio, having defended his seat for a third time in 2018 by roughly the same margin as Trump’s victory two years earlier.” Brown won with a message “that drove home the very same worker-centric platform Ryan champions.” Brown is also a master of communicating working-class values, “slipping so seamlessly into the jargon of plant closures and union pensions you’d think he worked a line.” Voght adds,

Ryan was in his fullest expression at his event in Toledo. After delivering remarks, he drank a beer, tossed a football, and obliged a pair of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members to take a selfie with him in front of their motorcycles. The sun set behind a pair of 20-foot-tall inflatables of a “corporate pig” and “fat cat” squeezing a worker in one fist and a bag of money in the other. The pig’s face had been covered with a photo of Vance.

Union members spoke glowingly of Ryan — always in terms of policy before personality. “We load equipment and teach foreign people how to run the equipment as it ships away, and people lose their jobs,” says Tracy Counselor, the pipefitters’ union president who spoke with Brown. “It’s refreshing to see someone actually fighting for us.” Joe Abernathy, a leader in his local IBEW, says he’s hearing a lot of enthusiasm for Ryan, even among members who voted for Trump. “It’s a common misnomer that we’re all Democrats,”  Abernathy explains. “We’ve got to find some way to reach across the aisle, and I think Tim does an excellent job of that.”

It was easy to gaze upon the scene and think Ryan has cracked some code, but the odds are still very much stacked against him. Enthusiasm is among Republicans, not Democrats, across the board this cycle. Collin Docterman, the chair of the Scioto County Democratic Party in deep red southern Ohio, says he’s optimistic Ryan’s methods will convince some working class voters to vote for him, but definitely not all. “There’ still a demonization of anyone with a ‘D’ by their name — people think Democrats are bought and paid for by the Hollywood elite,” he explains. “It’ll be a long time before we get out of a general mentality here.”

No matter what happens, Ryan’s supporters hope Democrats are paying attention. “If Tim wins, there’s going to be a lot of important reasons why,” Barasky says. “But it’s important, if Tim loses, that we don’t learn the wrong lesson from what is an unbelievable campaign.”

Put another way, by running so close to his extremely well-heeled Republican opponent, Ryan has already shown that smart Democratic senate candidates can sometimes make a way out of no way — if they connect to a healthy share of the white working-class voters, who are the largest voting block in every state. Those who want to help Ryan overcome his adversary’s spending tsunami can do so at Ryan’s ActBlue page.

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