Senate candidate Tim Ryan is turning in an impressive campaign performance. The Ohio Democrat is campaigning in Trump country against an Amy Chua-mentored, Peter Thiel-funded, Trump-endorsed best-selling author: J.D. Vance. Ryan should be getting trounced. But he’s not. The self-described “underdog” is nipping at Vance’s heels – and forcing Republicans to burn resources on winning a territory that should have been a friction-free, cheap win.
Ryan, a former college quarterback, is notably affable, “a genial Everyman.” He’s “innocuous.” A nice guy who enjoys practicing yoga and mindfulness.
“We have to love each other, we have to care about each other, we have to see the best in each other, we have to forgive each other,” Ryan said at a primary in May. One might not expect such a character, employing such rhetoric, to have much sway in a state Trump won by 10 points. Or in an era where political discourse is caustic and vitriolic (even Ryan’s opponent, Vance, is caustic and vitriolic, describing Ryan as a “crazy, lying fraud” and a “weak, fake congressman”).
Nonetheless, Ryan is a viable candidate – a candidate that the New York Times described as “winning the war for the soul of the Democratic Party.”
Of course, Ryan is not winning the war for the soul of the Democratic Party with hand-holding and kumbaya circles. Ryan has also employed sharp, insightful criticism, warning Democrats that their wholesale acceptance of free trade and globalization was politically hazardous – that domestic manufacturing should be prioritized for political and economic purposes.
Ryan’s message was refreshingly accurate. Whereas Democrats have grown comfortable with dismissively blaming the Rust Belt’s embrace of Trumpism as “racism,” or any of the other trending “isms,” Ryan has autopsied the problem with partisan self-awareness, assigning righteous blame to his own party.
For years, Ryan’s message had limited personal benefit; he toiled in relative obscurity in the House. But now, Ryan’s message – and his tone – are beginning to resonate. Ryan’s “core message – a demand for more aggressive government intervention to arrest regional decline – is not only resonating with voters but, crucially, breaking through with the Democratic leaders who presided over that decline for years,” the New York Times wrote. And Ryan’s tone, civil, decent, and straightforward is soothing to voters that modern (abrasive) political discourse has offended. Ryan calls the citizens embracing his tone and manner the “exhausted majority” – everyday people who are fed up with the bitter, name-calling knife-fighting of the Trump era.
Consider Ryan’s recent statement about China as an instructive example of his unique blend of lovey-dovey rhetoric with protectionist trade policy.
“I just want to make a point,” Ryan said. “One is, love you. Two is, I will always defend you and never let anyone try to hurt you, never. Not on my watch. But we have got to absolutely and decisively defeat China economically. And if we don’t do that, you’re going to have these countries dictating the rules of the road for the entire world and continuing to try to displace and weaken the United States.”
And suddenly, Ryan has more than just rhetoric to rely on – he has a slew of recent legislative accomplishments; the Democrats have passed legislation that will result in a boost to Ohio’s economy: two new Intel chip plants near Columbus, new investments in electric vehicle ventures, a boost to solar-panel factories near Toledo. The result: Ryan has something tangible to point to.
Ryan is clearly on to something. Civil discourse, paired with insightful self-critiques, paired with an understanding – which has somehow eluded coastal elites – as to what Midwesterners want and need. It may be too late for the upcoming midterms, but Ryan’s whole schtick is something that could benefit Democrats in the long run. In the short-run, if nothing else, Ryan has forced Republicans to respect the Ohio senate race, pouring in nearly $30 million dollars – money that was earmarked for what was expected to be contentious battles in places like Arizona and Nevada. If Democrats win in those places, Ryan should be credited with an assist.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, he joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. He lives in Oregon and listens to Dokken. Follow him on Twitter @harrison_kass.