Can a Democrat win over rural Ohio? Tim Ryan gives it a shot.

Hemmed by cornfields, Rep. Tim Ryan perches on a plastic picnic bench, his back to a red barn. He smiles at the local farmers he’s just met and who are now sitting at tables arranged in a horseshoe. 

Mr. Ryan, who is running to be Ohio’s next senator, wears a scarlet Ohio State T-shirt and jeans. His graying hair is swept back above a square-jawed face. He has the physical build and, when he speaks, the steady cadence of a football coach who won’t yell at you – unless he really, really has to. 

He’s come to Honey Haven Farm to learn about the issues affecting farming communities, he tells the dozen invitees. “I came to listen, a lot more than I’ll be talking,” he says. 

Why We Wrote This

Underdog Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan is running an unexpectedly close U.S. Senate race. His campaign may hold lessons for other Democrats trying to win back rural, Trump-supporting working-class voters.

For the next hour he takes questions and sounds out opinions on landownership, inheritance taxes, soil preservation, and rural infrastructure. Only at the end does the conversation turn politically divisive. Karen Welch, a dairy farmer, asks Mr. Ryan what should be done to protect voting rights. “You’re here because we have votes, not just because we’re great people,” she says. “That is so cynical,” deadpans Mr. Ryan, sparking a round of laughter. “But so true,” says Ms. Welch, grinning. 

It’s a relatable moment in a slice of Ohio that Mr. Ryan must win. He is the Democratic underdog trying to fill a Senate seat vacated by a Republican. He faces a well-known GOP opponent, venture capitalist and memoirist J.D. Vance, in a state that Donald Trump won twice and where every statewide elected official is a Republican. Once known as a swing state on which presidential dreams turned, Ohio was trending red long before Mr. Trump showed up. And yet, polls show Mr. Ryan’s race against the “Hillbilly Elegy” author is unexpectedly close, and his campaign may hold lessons for other Democrats trying to win back rural, working-class voters. 

Political signs promote Ohio GOP Senate nominee J.D. Vance outside the Mahoning County Republican Party tent at the Canfield Fair on Sept. 1, 2022, in Canfield, Ohio.

The rolling green hills of Ashland are unfamiliar political territory for Mr. Ryan, a 10-term congressman from Youngstown in Ohio’s industrial northeast. Here, as across much of rural America, Democratic voters are an embattled minority, as much in need of preservation as the topsoil. That Mr. Ryan is here during a campaign that has already taken him to every county in the Buckeye State speaks to the challenge for Democrats everywhere to broadening their appeal beyond their urban and suburban redoubts. Mr. Ryan isn’t about to convert every Republican voter in Ashland. But to beat his opponent, he needs to close the gap in ruby-red districts like this. “There are persuadable people,” he tells the Monitor at another stop. “Just because you voted for Donald Trump doesn’t mean you won’t vote for Tim Ryan.” 

He also describes his listening tour as a moral imperative for a national party that may be tempted to write off much of rural America as a lost cause. “I think it’s important, especially as a Democrat, to let people in these small towns know that we care about them,” he says. 

If he wins in November – an uphill battle, say many pundits – Mr. Ryan’s campaign will be pored over by Democrats desperate to know what sells in the heartland. The answer appears to be an earthy, plainspoken candidate who bucks liberal party dogma while sticking to positions that are broadly progressive – without scaring off conservatives soured on Trumpism. It’s no coincidence that Pennsylvania Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, known for wearing hoodies and shorts, is using a similar anti-establishment playbook in his Senate race this fall. 

Mr. Ryan and Mr. Fetterman have different styles, but speak to the same people, says David Cohen, a politics professor at the University of Akron. “They have the respect of the working class and it’s because they respect the working class,” he says. At the same time, “they’re both willing to break with their party if they feel their party is wrong on certain issues.” 

Mr. Ryan talks about an “exhausted majority” of Ohio voters who hold moderate views and despair at political tribalism. His campaign has stressed his record in Congress defending Ohio and its interests, particularly on trade and jobs. In a TV ad, he says his party “had got it wrong” on past trade deals and calls to defund the police. “You want culture wars? I’m not your guy,” he says, while throwing darts in a bar. “You want a fighter for Ohio? I’m all-in.” 

He may be all-in. But is that enough to win in Ohio? And who is Tim Ryan? 

Mr. Ryan was 4 when Youngstown Steel and Tube Co. closed its largest mill in 1977, with the loss of 5,000 jobs. The closure of this and other steel plants cast a long and debilitating shadow over the city, which has since shed more than half its population. 

Raised by his mother and her family, including a grandfather who had been a steelworker, Mr. Ryan imbibed the hard-knocks attitude of Youngstown. He attended Catholic schools in nearby Warren, mixing with other Irish and Italian boys who no longer had jobs waiting in the mills. 

Youngstown’s vertiginous decline, and the battle to reverse it, has become a throughline in Mr. Ryan’s career, one that he says helps him connect with voters in small towns who also feel the sting of economic upheaval. He says the rapport is “instant” when “they hear about where I’m from, because they know what happened. Everyone knows Youngstown. Everybody knows what we’ve been through.”

In high school, Mr. Ryan became the football team’s starting quarterback in his sophomore year; the team went 11 and 2, then lost in the state championship. The team also made the playoffs in 1991, his senior year. “He was a very good athlete,” says Dennis Zolciak, his football coach. “Kids looked up to him.” 

His first taste of politics came as an intern in the Washington office of Rep. James Traficant, who also had played quarterback at a Catholic high school in Youngstown. A decade later, after attending college and law school in Ohio, and winning a seat in the state Senate, Mr. Ryan ran in a six-way Democratic primary for Youngstown’s House seat, held by Mr. Traficant, his former boss.

But Mr. Ryan’s toughest opponent was Rep. Tom Sawyer, a congressman who had supported the North American Free Trade Agreement. That put an anti-union target on Mr. Sawyer’s back that allowed Mr. Ryan to win the primary and be elected in 2002. He was 29. Democrats in Ohio blamed NAFTA, a 1994 trade agreement signed by President Bill Clinton, for job losses in manufacturing. But the entry of China into the World Trade Organization in 2001 would prove a greater accelerant of U.S. outsourcing of production, mostly to the detriment of Ohio’s blue-collar workforce. 

Mr. Ryan rose up the ranks in Congress and learned to work with Republicans in Ohio’s delegation and to build relationships that could withstand partisan rifts, an approach that allies say makes him a stronger Senate candidate in the current political climate. “I’m looking for candidates to support that I think are not divisive,” says Bruce Zoldan, a businessperson in Youngstown who hosted a recent Ryan fundraising concert by singer-songwriter Paul Simon. Mr. Zoldan says he also donates to GOP campaigns: “I go both sides of the aisle. I’m looking for people who are going to work on both sides.”

After Democrats failed to win control of Congress in 2016, Mr. Ryan made waves by challenging Nancy Pelosi for the party’s House leadership. He argued that the party needed leaders who could speak to working-class voters in states like Ohio that Mr. Trump had just won. He lost by 134-63 to Ms. Pelosi. Still, some Democrats took notice of his message and his ambition. 

In 2019, Mr. Ryan announced a presidential run, which quickly fizzled out. He then endorsed Joe Biden, a fellow moderate, who campaigned as an everyman from Scranton, Pennsylvania, and went on to lose Ohio in 2020 by 8 points. It was the first time since 1964 that Ohio hadn’t sided with the presidential winner, underscoring the challenge for a Democrat in the Buckeye State. 

Mr. Ryan’s advisers point out that Mr. Biden skipped Ohio in order to focus on swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. A better benchmark, they say, is 2018, when Sen. Sherrod Brown, a progressive Democrat with strong union ties, won reelection by a comfortable margin of 300,000 votes with a jobs-first economic message similar to Mr. Ryan’s. “It’s a state that leans right, but not all that much,” says Justin Barasky, who managed Senator Brown’s reelection campaign and is consulting for Mr. Ryan. “The way you win is by being relentless on workers.” 

“He’s the only politician that has reached out to me: state, local, or federal. Politicians don’t care.” – Pat Eslich, president of United Steelworkers Golden Lodge Local Union 1123, on Democrat Tim Ryan’s outreach after a furnace explosion in July killed a steelworker. He’s seen here on Sept. 2, 2022, in Canton, Ohio, in front of donation buckets for the worker’s family.

The night shift had started at the Canton, Ohio, steel plant on July 26 when a powerful explosion ripped through the building. The explosion of the electric arc furnace at TimkenSteel’s plant could be heard across the city. Three steelworkers were rushed to hospital; Joe Ferrall, a 34-year-old father of three, later died of his injuries. 

Pat Eslich, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1123 at TimkenSteel, got a call that night about the accident. It wasn’t his first. Six months earlier, another worker had died in an accident at a nearby TimkenSteel plant. In June, the company paid $290,000 in fines and was cited for federal safety violations. The cause of the furnace explosion is still under investigation. “Anyone who’s worked in the steel industry knows it’s a dangerous job,” says Mr. Eslich, a fourth-generation steelworker who lost half a finger in a machine. “It’s not a popsicle shop.” 

The day after the furnace explosion, Mr. Eslich got another call at home. This time it was Mr. Ryan, calling to ask about the injured workers and to express concern. “He’s the only politician who has reached out to me: state, local, or federal,” says Mr. Eslich. “Politicians don’t care. The only thing they care about is the damned votes.”

But Mr. Ryan is different, he continues. Take his support to amend the 2021 infrastructure act to mandate the use of American steel, a victory for steelworkers and their unions. “He cares about the workers,” he says. 

Mr. Ryan, however, knows his ties to Ohio union leaders are no guarantee of votes from rank-and-file members. In 2016, Mr. Trump won over disaffected Democrats in Rust Belt Midwestern cities by vowing to rip up trade deals and bring back manufacturing jobs. (Overall, U.S. manufacturing employment made modest gains during Mr. Trump’s presidency. In Ohio, close to 20,000 jobs were added, hitting a pre-pandemic peak of 704,000 in July 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.) 

Ohio’s red shift is illustrated by Mahoning County, where Youngstown sits. In 2012, Barack Obama won 64% of its presidential votes; by 2020, Mr. Biden only polled 49%. Other districts saw even larger shifts: Democrats’ vote share in Scioto County fell by 20 points from 2012 to 2020. Exit polls showed the biggest swings to Mr. Trump were among white voters without a college degree. 

One question for Mr. Ryan’s campaign is whether recent legislation passed by Congress that provides billions of dollars of support for manufacturing in Ohio, coupled with his record of opposing trade deals and supporting some of Mr. Trump’s policies, can sway those voters. Mr. Ryan won the Democratic primary, “because they thought they could get those voters back,” says Paul Sracic, a political scientist at Youngstown State University. But he doubts that Democrats will succeed, particularly because most GOP candidates are also anti-trade. “Those working-class voters are convinced that Democrats are not on their side.” 

Last year, Mr. Ryan sponsored the House bill that later became the CHIPS and Science Act, a $280 billion package that includes subsidies for Intel to build a semiconductor plant near Columbus. On Sept. 9, President Biden joined Ohio’s Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, at the groundbreaking of the Intel plant. Mr. Ryan, who has kept his distance from Mr. Biden during his campaign, also attended. He told an NBC affiliate that he was thrilled to see support for“middle-class jobs” in his state. 

Mr. Ryan leans against a wire fence, looking at knee-high dark-green soybeans shimmering in the midday late-summer sun. Angela Huffman, a farmer, stands beside him. She explains that her family owns the 80 acres of soybeans and that she raises sheep who winter in a barn that her forefathers built in 1897. “It’s so peaceful here,” says Mr. Ryan, gazing into the middle distance. 

“I could show you the barn, and the sheep are over there,” says Ms. Huffman, pointing behind. 

“Yeah, I gotta see the sheep,” he says, rousing himself. 

Mr. Ryan follows her into the barn. It’s his first stop of the day, and he’s wearing beige slacks, an untucked chambray shirt, and white sneakers. Very white sneakers. Sparkling toothpaste white. 

I’m reminded of the togas that Roman senators wore during election campaigns. Each toga was specially whitened to symbolize integrity, and was known as candidatus, from which the word “candidate” derives. 

But white sneakers for a visit to a farm? He didn’t check the schedule before he packed, he tells me. “I was like, tennis shoes and dress shoes. I figure when I get one pair dirty, it will be the white ones.” 

Under an oak tree, 12 farmers sit on hay bales in a circle. It’s another listening session for Mr. Ryan, another opportunity to meet rural voters in another GOP electoral district. One of the attendees is Chris Gibbs, a bearded man of great stature who farms soybean, corn, and cattle on 560 acres in Shelby County, an hour’s drive away. A former Republican county chair, he broke publicly with his party in 2018 after Mr. Trump’s trade war with China led to retaliatory tariffs on U.S. soybeans. “I lost a lot of friends over this, but that’s fine,” he says. 

Mr. Gibbs now calls himself “a Truman Democrat – someone pragmatic that just wants to get something done.” Earlier this summer, Mr. Gibbs hosted a roundtable with Mr. Ryan at his farm. The majority of the 28 men and women who showed up were Republicans, he says, which was intentional. At the end, the group posed with Mr. Ryan for a photo in front of a combine harvester. “I don’t know if they’ll vote for him or not. But they were willing to hang around and to put themselves into the photo,” he says. 

Chris Gibbs, Ohio farmer and Rural Voices USA board chairman, stands near a cornfield after attending a discussion led by Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tim Ryan on Aug. 31, 2022, in Wharton, Ohio.

Seth Middleton, a farmer and banker who joined the roundtable, says he’s a conservative who votes Republican. But Mr. Ryan made a positive impression. “I heard conservative values,” he says, noting that Mr. Ryan goes hunting. “I thought, this guy could be my neighbor.” He also appreciated that Mr. Ryan criticized President Biden’s student debt-relief package and seemed serious about tackling inflation. Mr. Middleton says he could see himself voting for Mr. Ryan in November, though he’s also waiting to study his opponent. “I’m telling my friends, my family, ‘Hey, give the guy a look, even if it’s nothing more than to know his policies,’” he says. 

Democrats say this is the point: Candidates need to show up in small towns where a toxic party brand – elitist, leftist, out-of-touch – precedes them. “You can’t win these states without winning a share of the rural vote. It’s pure math,” says Robin Johnson, a Democratic consultant and political scientist  at Monmouth College in Illinois. “Democrats have ceded the territory to Republicans without so much as a fight.” 

The math also runs the other way: Democrats need to turn out more affluent voters in cities and suburbs since they can no longer count on working-class support. In Ohio, that means firing up voters in populous districts that once leaned Republican. Katie Paris, a political consultant in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, started Red Wine and Blue in 2019. The Democratic group organizes events to mobilize suburban voters; this year it has expanded to Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. Getting Mr. Ryan elected to the Senate is one of her priorities, and polling shows suburban women have taken note of his outreach. “They want a candidate who can win in all areas of Ohio,” she says. 

Spencer Kimball, executive director of Emerson College Polling, observes in a statement that a mid-September poll shows a gender split in the race: “Men break for Vance by 19 points, whereas women break for Ryan by eight points.”

The Supreme Court has also played its part in galvanizing women by overturning Roe v. Wade’s constitutional right to abortion, Ms. Paris says. “I keep hearing from women who said, ‘I thought it was OK to keep voting for Republicans down-ballot. … There was a [constitutional] check on what they could do,’” she says. 

Mr. Ryan says he supports a restoration of Roe’s limits – restricting abortion only after a fetus becomes viable. He formerly opposed abortion rights, but in 2015 he announced that his “feelings on this issue had changed” and that he supported women’s reproductive rights. Still, Mr. Ryan can also sound like a Republican on the issue: “If you’re against big government, this is big government in your bedroom, in your doctor’s office.”

He’s also reversed his stance on student debt, having previously called on Congress to reduce debt loads and voting for bills that would cancel loans. Mr. Vance’s campaign, which has derided Mr. Ryan as a progressive making a fraudulent play for Republican votes, called this a flip-flop. 

Mr. Ryan’s attack on Mr. Biden’s debt forgiveness plan also rankles Emily Hill, a history major who is a senior at the University of Akron. A first-generation college student, she worries about paying off her debts and whether she can afford to go to law school. “I still support Tim Ryan, and I’m going to vote for him. But I was disappointed by that” stance, she says. “I understand the politics of this. You want to get those conservative voters who may be on the edge. But it was kind of a bummer that he’d say this.”

“I understand the politics [of Tim Ryan’s criticism of the student debt-relief plan]. You want to get those conservative voters who may be on the edge. But it was kind of a bummer that he’d say this.” – Emily Hill, a Tim Ryan supporter and senior at the University of Akron (left) with Hayley Bunner, at the University of Akron on Sept. 2, 2022, in Akron, Ohio. Both are Ohio Student Association leaders and plan to go to law school.

The sun is sinking behind the union hall as Mr. Ryan steps to an outdoor podium on his final stop near Cincinnati. Behind him is a pickup truck and an overgrown baseball field. The neighboring lot hosts a clay pigeon shooting range, and gunshots echo in the evening air. 

His audience is mostly union members in the building trades who hold up banners. Tammy Simendinger, a finance officer, has brought her high school daughter to what is a rare sighting of a Democrat in her corner of southwest Ohio. “I think they’ve given up on this area,” she says. 

But she’s hopeful that Mr. Ryan can turn the Republican tide in Ohio. “He’s not extreme on issues. He’s looking out for the working class,” she says. 

Mr. Ryan starts out by joking about the gun club. “I was going to go along and shoot a few guns before I came over here. Why do they get to have all the fun?”

As he builds up pace, talking about his grandfather, manufacturing, and how Americans need to move past partisan labels and work together, the gunshot ricochets punctuate his speech. “I made a pledge when I first announced to run for this office (boom) that I was going to go everywhere in this state (boom) and I was going to meet the people of the state of Ohio (boom), regardless of how big (boom) your town was or how small your town was (boom), or if you were urban or rural (boom).”

He pauses, then hits a familiar note. “I want to come see you, because I grew up just outside of Youngstown, Ohio, and we know where I come from, what it’s like to be forgotten.”

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