JD Vance’s deadlocked race against Democrat Tim Ryan for a U.S. Senate seat in Republican-leaning Ohio exemplifies the struggles besetting the GOP seven weeks before the midterm elections, where the party’s once-strong chances of taking the chamber have ebbed.
Vance has been outraised and outspent by Ryan in the race to replace retiring two-term Republican Rob Portman, forcing the party to marshal resources to his campaign after his main benefactor, billionaire Peter Thiel, stopped funding a super PAC backing Vance following the GOP primary. Former President Donald Trump staged a rally in Ryan’s district last week to stoke excitement around Vance’s candidacy.
The Senate Leadership Fund aligned with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has pulled $18 million in advertising from Arizona, where Trump-endorsed Blake Masters is challenging Democrat U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly, and reserved $28 million in Ohio to bolster Vance. That effectively placed Republicans into a defensive posture for Senate races in a year they were widely expected to be on offense.
Republicans are still favored to win the House, where they need just five seats to take control. But control of the Senate, which is split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote, is considered a toss-up.
Republican-leaning Ohio and a midterm cycle favorable to the GOP provide a tailwind for Vance and present an uphill battle for Ryan.
Still, the money being spent in Ohio to help Vance in what the Senate Leadership Fund called an “unexpected expense” amounts to a financial bailout and would ideally be deployed in Pennsylvania and other states Republicans need, said GOP strategist Ken Spain, who oversaw House Republicans’ winning communications strategy in the 2010 midterms.
“I can think of a lot of ways to spend $28 million more effectively,” Spain said. “If you’re having to triage a state that you thought you could count on a few months ago, that’s obviously going to leave opportunity on the table.”
Ohio was once a quintessential battleground state. But Trump easily won Ohio twice, capturing working-class voters disenchanted with the Democratic Party and overwhelmingly carrying rural voters.
Ryan, 49, is running what even Republicans consider an effective campaign, appealing to independents, blue-collar voters and Trump supporters while opposing Biden and his party on issues, saying he supported Trump on trade and opposition to China.
Vance and his allies argue that Ryan is attempting to dupe voters and that he’s voted in lockstep with Biden.
“Our campaign is premised on this very simple idea that so long as we tell the truth, and so long as the people of Ohio are aware of what I believe in and what my opponent has done, we’re gonna win,” Vance said in a Sept. 19 appearance at the Ohio Trucking Association’s annual conference near Columbus.
Jerry Dobbins of Middletown, Vance’s hometown, said he knows the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and his family, but would vote for him even if he didn’t. A retired manufacturing worker who voted for Barack Obama before supporting Trump twice, Dobbins said Vance, 38, is the better choice.
“JD will stand his ground and do what he needs to do to do right by us,” said Dobbins, 66, who lives on the street where Vance grew up and whose yard has the only sign on the block for Vance.
Heather Gibson, an independent voter who owns the Triple Moon Coffee Co. shop in downtown Middletown, supports Ryan and says he will perform better than most Democrats in Butler County, a Trump bastion.
“I just think that Tim Ryan is probably more aligned in this race with my values than JD,” said Gibson, 52, citing especially a woman’s “right to choose” after the Supreme Court struck down the law legalizing abortion in June.
At his rally in Youngstown on Sept. 17, Trump called Ryan “a militant left-winger who is lying to your faces, acting as though he’s my friend on policy, pretending to be a moderate so he can get elected and betraying everything that you believe in.”
Trump also touted Vance, but responding to a New York Times story that said Vance and other GOP candidates would prefer he didn’t hold rallies for them because it can rile up independent voters they need in general election races, Trump said Vance badly wants the former president’s support.
Ryan has picked up on Trump’s comment to bolster his argument that Vance is a “phony” who’s beholden to Trump, Thiel, McConnell and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who spoke at a rally for Vance in Youngstown on Aug. 19 — while he better represents Ohio.
“Do you want someone who is gonna fight for Ohio, fight for the citizens of this state to rebuild the middle class — even if it means taking on their own party — or do you want someone who is now widely known as an ass-kisser?” Ryan told reporters after a roundtable on veterans’ issues in Cincinnati on Tuesday.
Steve Ortner, 55, a grain farmer from Wakeman, Ohio, said he’s voting for Vance by default because he’s a Republican who doesn’t like Ryan, though he isn’t yet sold on the venture capitalist.
“I don’t know if I trust him,” Ortner, who supported former Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel over Vance in the state’s GOP primary, said at the annual Farm Science Review near Columbus that Vance toured on Wednesday. “I don’t know if he’s really conservative or not.”
Polls show the race essentially tied after Ryan spent $15.7 million on ads since Ohio’s May 3 primaries through Labor Day, compared with $430,635 for Vance and $1.7 million by the National Senatorial Campaign Committee and Vance, according to AdImpact. Vance had only about $630,000 on hand as of June 30 with $384,000 in outstanding debts, while Ryan had $3.6 million in the bank.
Ryan lost his slight lead in the FiveThirtyEight average of polls since the Senate Leadership Fund booked $7.4 million in television and digital ads since Labor Day that accuse “taxing Tim Ryan” of helping Biden enact new levies for “reckless Democrat spending” and more IRS agents, while Vance aired his second general election ad hitting Ryan on crime.
Ryan, a high school quarterback, responded with an ad in which he throws footballs at flat-screen televisions showing Vance and footage of the attack ads, saying, “I’m not that guy.”
Vance told reporters after the Ohio Trucking Association event that he spent the summer raising money to be in a good position after Labor Day, and that he’s had to fight the perception that the Ohio race wouldn’t be competitive — especially after he emerged from a tough GOP primary while the well-funded Ryan coasted to an easy primary win.
“Vance had to slog through a bruising primary while Ryan was able to raise and spend millions building up his image. We needed to counter Ryan’s head start,” Senate Leadership Fund President Steven Law said in a statement. “We’re confident Vance will win this race decisively.”
But some Republican strategists and donors said Vance isn’t a great candidate because he’s inexperienced and essentially outsourced much of his primary campaign to the Protect Ohio Values Political Action Committee funded with $15 million from Thiel. A person familiar with the situation said Thiel hasn’t decided whether to contribute for the general election.
Some Republican strategists see the $28 million reserved by the Senate Leadership Fund as a signal to anxious donors that Vance will get the support he needs to win, and they question whether some of that money will ultimately be redirected out of Ohio elsewhere before the election.
But Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said she put the odds of the GOP winning a Senate majority earlier this year at 60% or 65% and now considers it a toss-up.
Ohio’s Senate race is still rated as “lean Republican,” but “when you’re shifting these resources from offense in places like Arizona to defense, you’re not fighting for the majority in a way that it looks much more probable,” Taylor said.