Tim Ryan is appealing to Ohio moderates. Will that help him flip a U.S. Senate seat?

Haley BeMiller
The Columbus Dispatch
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, who is running for U.S. Senate, held a town hall aimed at undecided voters at Alley Park in Lancaster on Aug. 3.

Tim Ryan never uttered the word abortion at a central Ohio park last week.

The U.S. Senate candidate blasted government overreach, a rallying cry heard more often from conservatives than a Democratic congressman. In some ways, it was a familiar refrain for Ryan: After Roe v. Wade was overturned, he painted the ruling as an example of the government encroaching on people's lives.

When asked for examples of overstepping at his Lancaster town hall, he quickly cited the "Roe v. Wade thing." Economic freedom, he argued, is the most cherished right of them all.

J.D. Vance vs. Tim Ryan: Ohio U.S. Senate race close in latest poll

The event underscored a strategy Ryan has used throughout his campaign to replace retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman. He's speaking to what he calls an "exhausted majority" weary of extremism on both sides of the aisle, with a focus on jobs and economic competition against China.

"I quite frankly think it’s immoral to just talk to half of the electorate, to want to punish the other half of the electorate because they may not agree with you on tax rates or something," Ryan said in a recent interview.

Tim Ryan: Will avoiding 'hot-button' issues help or hurt Ohio Democrat? 

Ryan's opponent, J.D. Vance, and other Republicans say the congressman is projecting a false image to dupe voters. Progressives in his party question whether he's doing enough to energize groups beyond the white working class. 

But others say it's an effective approach to flipping the Senate seat after Ohio Democrats lost rural voters to former President Donald Trump and the GOP. The most dramatic political shift occurred in the Mahoning Valley, Ryan's backyard.

He wants those voters back, even if it means wading into areas that have pledged loyalty to Trump.

"There’s no sense for a Democrat in Ohio to run like every other Democrat has run, which is straight into the ground," said David Niven, a political scientist and former speechwriter for Gov. Ted Strickland.

Ryan the moderate: Will voters buy it?

Ryan easily fended off a May primary challenge from progressive Morgan Harper, who argued he represents a status quo that's failed Ohio Democrats in statewide elections. Since then, he's toured the state and spent millions on advertising to paint a specific picture of himself and Vance.

One ad showed Ryan throwing darts and railing against progressive efforts to defund police. Another highlighted interviews with multiple Fox News hosts who called him a moderate. He also broadcast a commercial critical of the Chinese government that some argued would fuel anti-Asian sentiment

Ryan's critics are quick to point out that he's voted with President Joe Biden's agenda 100% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight. They also dispute Ryan's claims that he voted with Trump on trade, citing past comments that were critical of Trump's trade war and policies for working people.

Ryan backed a revised trade deal with Canada and Mexico that was negotiated by Trump and voiced support for his administration's tariffs on China.

Voters listen to U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, who is running for U.S. Senate, during a town hall at Alley Park in Lancaster on Aug. 3.

At the Ohio State Fair last week, Vance accused his opponent of failing to help workers during his 20 years in Congress and said voters will see through the television ads. 

"Tim Ryan is running the biggest gaslighting campaign maybe in the history of American politics," he said. "All we have to do is tell the truth about him, and we're going to win this race."

Polls show a tight contest between the two candidates. That, coupled with Vance's fundraising disadvantage, has some Republicans worried he's not doing enough to counteract Ryan's message. Until recently, the "Hillbilly Elegy" author was not visible on the campaign trail or on airwaves.

Ryan's allies think he has a shot. Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chair David Brock said it's important for Democrats to rally voters outside Ohio's urban centers, and he believes Ryan is trying to show that the party can be a big tent.

"Democrats have allowed the Republicans to define us too much for the last two decades, and Ryan is pushing back on that," Brock said.

Others aren't so sure.

Are Black voters excited about Ryan?

Ryan won the May primary with a decisive 70% of the vote. He had support from key leaders around the state and secured an endorsement from the Ohio Democratic Party. 

But some Democrats wondered if Ryan would take the party in the right direction.

Adrienne Hood, who serves on the central committee of the Franklin County Democratic Party and supported Harper, believes the party is fractured and largely unwilling to disrupt the status quo. She said some voters aren't excited enough about any candidates to knock on doors for them.

"We need some change, and we need it yesterday," Hood said. "I don’t know who in this space is really ready to have that kind of conversation."

U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, who is running for U.S. Senate, held a town hall aimed at undecided voters at Alley Park in Lancaster on Aug. 3.

Meanwhile, Black voters have questioned whether Ryan will prioritize the issues that mean the most to them.

Sam Gresham of Common Cause Ohio cautioned that Ryan needs to work harder to fuel enthusiasm among Black voters if he wants to defeat Vance. They're worried Ryan could be the next Sen. Joe Manchin, he said, and need to hear more from him on civil rights and prison reform.

"He’s talking about jobs, and he like most politicians believes that all boats rise with employment," Gresham said. "The African American community has special sets of issues that are remnants of discrimination and racism that need to be addressed."

Ryan said his campaign is consistently reaching out to Black voters. His campaign launched ads featuring Black elected officials earlier this year, and he's held roundtables for minority business owners, among other events.

"We continue to make the argument that I have long supported and voted for all the things on voting rights, on criminal justice, on those issues that are really important," he said. "To be in the Senate and also for reforming the filibuster will help us pass those things."

State Rep. Terrence Upchurch, D-Cleveland, believes Ryan is an ally for Black Ohioans and will do what's necessary in the U.S. Senate to support them. He said Ryan needs to rally all groups, including white voters in rural areas if he wants a fighting chance at winning the Senate seat.

At the same time, Upchurch said, Black voters' historic loyalty to the Democratic Party can't be abused.

"Black voters feel left behind, and they feel that their voices are not heard," he said. "As Democrats, we cannot take their vote for granted."

Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.