National Republican group plans massive ad buy boosting J.D. Vance, signaling deepening GOP focus on Ohio’s Senate race

COLUMBUS — A political action committee with close ties to U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is launching a massive new ad campaign in Ohio, a clear sign that national Republicans are shifting more toward playing defense in the Buckeye State.

The Senate Leadership Fund is reserving $28 million worth of TV and radio ads that will air statewide, the group announced Thursday. That’s a huge escalation of the roughly $5 million national Republicans have spent in Ohio so far in the race between Republican J.D. Vance and Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan. The ads will start after Labor Day, the unofficial start of the most intense part of a general-election campaign season.

Vance, an author and first-time candidate, and Ryan, a longtime congressman from the Youngstown area, are running to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Rob Portman. Until recently, Ohio had not been on either party’s national radar, as Republicans look to undo Democrats’ one-seat majority and Democrats look to hold their ground.

But the new buy is a sign that Republicans continue to view the Ohio race as competitive as they prioritize races nationally.

For the SLF, the new ad campaign means Ohio will rank third in terms of the money the group is spending nationwide — below Georgia ($37.1 million) and Pennsylvania ($34.1 million), but above races in North Carolina ($27.6 million), Wisconsin ($15.2 million) Nevada ($15.1 million) and Arizona ($14.4 million.) All six of those races are in first-tier presidential toss-up states, and generally were viewed as more competitive than Ohio’s earlier in the campaign cycle.

That doesn’t mean national Republicans view Ohio’s Senate race as the third-most competitive, per se. Because Ohio has more media markets than most states, it is more expensive to advertise here generally. Also, the ad reservations are coming later in the campaign season, when advertising time is scarcer and more expensive.

The result is that it’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison between SLF spending in Ohio and in other states.

But the new boost in spending clearly reflects deepening concerns among national Republicans over Ryan’s significant fundraising advantage over Vance, which allowed the Ryan campaign to run unrebutted ads throughout the summer that aimed to brand Ryan as pragmatic and Vance as extreme. National Republicans still say they think Vance ultimately will win in November.

“Tim Ryan has been living a lie, spending millions unopposed to sell voters on a version of himself that doesn’t square with reality,” Steven Law, president of the Senate Leadership Fund, said in a statement. “That’s about to change as Ohioans get a clear picture of the real Ryan who votes down the line with (President Joe) Biden and (U.S. House Speaker Nancy) Pelosi in Washington.”

It’s not clear exactly what the SLF ads will say. But Republicans have made it clear that a major focus of their attacks on Ryan will be to tie him to Biden, who opinion polls show is unpopular here, as well as other national Democrats.

In his ads, which openly target right-leaning voters, Ryan has presented himself as an independent figure who’s willing to work across the aisle and stand up to leaders in his own party.

But Ryan has voted for Biden’s entire legislative agenda, including the recent “Inflation Reduction Act” spending bill that directs hundreds of billions toward health care and green-energy projects while raising taxes on corporations and beefing up the Internal Revenue Service.

Polls, to the extent that they can be believed, show a tight Senate race in Ohio. On Wednesday, the Vance campaign touted a poll from Emerson University that showed Vance leaning Ryan by three percentage points. The Ryan campaign, meanwhile, recently released an internal campaign poll they said showed Ryan leading by 3 percentage points.

Statistically speaking, both polls functionally suggest a tied race, given the polls’ margin of error.