JD Vance had some explaining to do. After winning a brutal and costly primary to secure the Republican nomination in the Ohio Senate race, Vance had spent the summer making few campaign appearances and allowing his Democratic opponent, Member of Congressman Tim Ryan, to dominate the airwaves.
Now polls have shown Vance, first-time candidate and author of the best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, running neck and neck with Ryan in a race that many Republicans hoped would be an easy victory.
“We have a tough campaign,” Vance said at an event with supporters in Avon, Ohio last weekend. “I know a lot of people are frustrated that you haven’t seen a lot of my TV commercials this summer. Hopefully it has started to pick up over the past two weeks.
Vance’s struggle to establish a clear lead in Ohio mirrors missteps by Republican Senate candidates in other battleground states that could determine control of the vital upper house. Like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in Georgia, Vance was able to win the Republican nomination after receiving Donald Trump’s endorsement, but he stumbled in his pivot to the general election.
Republicans are now racing to avoid a Democratic victory in Ohio, often at the expense of investing in other close races. If Republicans can’t drag Vance across the finish line in Ohio, it could spell the end of the party’s hopes of unseating the Senate in November’s midterm elections.
Although Trump won Ohio by eight points in 2020, recent polls show Vance and Ryan are essentially tied. National Republican groups became aware of the problems in Ohio and began to devote more resources to the race.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a Super Pac aligned with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, announced last month that it would set aside $28 million in television and radio ads to boost Vance. As the SLF increased its financial support for Vance, the group also cut about $8 million from its ad bookings in Arizona, a change the Super Pac chairman partially attributed to “an unexpected expense in Ohio.” . (The SLF announced on Tuesday that it is withdrawing from the Arizona Senate race entirely.)
The SLF’s significant investment in backing Vance underscores how well Republicans are playing defense in a surprisingly close race. Even if the SLF funding helps Vance hold on in Ohio, victory would not bring his party closer to a Senate majority, as the seat is now held by retired Republican Rob Portman.
The reality is that Vance needs all the financial help he can get. At the end of the second quarter of 2022, Vance’s campaign reported having only $628,000 in cash, compared to $3.6 million in Ryan’s bank account. Between April and June, Vance raised and spent $1 million while fighting in the highly competitive Republican primary, while Ryan raised $8.6 million and easily won his party’s nomination.
Ryan has used his cash advantage to launch a massive publicity blitz, running ads that cast him as an independent-minded centrist and attack Vance as an out-of-touch elite with extreme opinions.
In one of Ryan’s commercials, an Ohio mother who lost her son, Joe, to opioid addiction, criticizes Vance’s now-defunct association for bringing in a doctor with pharma ties. “I have no words for how betrayed I felt,” the woman says in the ad. “JD Vance chose to help pharmaceutical companies rather than struggling people like Joe.”
In another memorable video, Ryan throws footballs at TV screens showing the Republican ads attacking him. “They say you can know a person by their enemies,” Ryan says in the ad. “Well, here are their bullshit advertisements.”
Over the summer, Ryan’s ad campaign went largely unanswered by Vance’s team, allowing the Democrat to whittle away at his opponent’s advantage in the Republican-leaning state.
“He won the primary with the help of Trump, and it was like he went into the witness protection program,” said Jessica Taylor, Senate and Governors’ editor of the Cook Political Report. , about Vance’s summer campaign schedule. “Vance took a hit in this really brutal primary, and you have to try to rehabilitate your image.”
The Ohio Democratic Party reveled in Vance’s absence from the campaign trail and the airwaves, sending out mocking statements whenever he left the state to raise funds.
“You kind of have to be here to rally people, and he didn’t come here. He’s literally been almost everywhere but here,” Ohio Democratic Party Chairwoman Elizabeth Walters said earlier this month. “It must be a tough time for the party when your flag bearer and your best candidate can’t be bothered to show up. I think they’re going to have a hard time in the fall keeping their coalition together.
Even some Vance supporters acknowledge that he has a lot of catching up to do in the race, with less than 50 days until Election Day. “What he has to get across is his opponent’s record, not what his opponent says,” said Avon Lake voter Tom Patton as he left Vance’s event last weekend. . “He needs to do more.”
Nicolette Allsop, a South Amherst voter who attended the Vance event with her two sisters, reluctantly agreed that Ryan ran “effective” ads in the race. Allsop’s sister, MaryJo Moluse of Avon, added that Ohio feels more competitive this year than in 2020. “I think it’s going to be a tough fight. I really do,” Maluse said.
Vance and his allies seem to have realized this reality, as the candidate has increased his campaign appearances and TV ads in recent weeks. In one ad, Vance walks down a street in his hometown and laments the country’s recent increase in violent crime, accusing Ryan of not supporting law enforcement enough.
Mike Hartley, who previously served as a senior adviser to former Ohio governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, cited the announcement as an example of how Vance is successfully restarting his campaign in the crucial final part of the race.
“That’s what he’s going to run on, and that’s what he should be running on, and I think that’s just going to build his advantage,” Hartley said. “I think he did a good job hitting his stride at the right time.”
Vance has also maintained a busy schedule of campaign events this month, including an appearance at a rally with Trump last Saturday in Youngstown, which is in Ryan’s congressional district. The area was once a Democratic stronghold, but it shifted to the right as white working-class voters leaned toward the Republican Party. Vance will need those voters to show up in November to defeat Ryan, and he used the rally as an opportunity to slam his opponent for allegedly misrepresenting his record.
“There are two Tims there,” Vance told thousands of rally attendees. “There’s a DC Tim, who votes 100% of the time with Joe Biden, and then there’s the Tim campaign, who pretends to be a moderate… We have to put DC Tim on the sidewalk.”
In his long and often meandering speech, Trump echoed that message, praising Vance as “America’s premier warrior” while attacking Ryan as a “fake far-left Democrat.” Trump also took a moment to dismiss a report that Republican Senate candidates are trying to distance themselves from him, saying, “JD fucks my ass, he wants my support so badly.”
“[Ryan] lying to your faces, acting like he’s my friend in politics, pretending to be a moderate so he can get elected and betray everything you believe in,” Trump told the cheering crowd. “He is not a moderate. He is from the radical left.
This attack strategy appears to resonate with some of Trump’s most loyal fans in Ohio, who helped Vance land the Republican nomination in May and may now prove instrumental in getting him over the line. arrival in November.
“I’m not really interested in [Ryan]said Lori Ferguson, a Cortland voter, as she waited to enter Trump’s rally venue. “I think the way he’s talking now is just trying to trick Republicans into thinking he’s on their side.”
William Fair, a Navarre voter who was ahead of Ferguson, admitted he didn’t know much about Vance, but said Trump’s endorsement was enough to secure his vote. “If Trump wants it, we’ll get it,” Fair said.
Fair’s comments underscore the daunting challenge Ryan faces despite his campaign’s effective ads and savvy messaging. For many voters, the “R” or “D” next to a politician’s name takes precedence over any specific concerns about the individual candidate. That could put Ryan at a disadvantage, given that only one Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown, has managed to win a statewide non-legal office in Ohio since 2008.
“We’ve seen more and more, really over the last decade and more, that even Senate races have become almost parliamentary in nature — where you vote for the party and not necessarily the person,” said Taylor.
Like every other Democrat, Ryan also faces the national headwinds of record inflation and Biden’s underwater approval rating. Ryan recently told the New York Times that he would not campaign with Biden, reflecting the president’s unpopularity in Ohio.
“[Ryan is] doing what he thinks he has to do to win, and I think they’re executing what I consider to be a good campaign,” Hartley said. “But I just don’t think that’s going to be enough… In my eyes, I think Tim Ryan has clearly peaked, and now JD Vance is going to seal the deal.”
Even as National Republicans rushed to back Vance, Ryan remained steadfast in his determination to break the Ohio Democrats’ losing streak.
“He’s looking for a rescue team”, Ryan Vance said last Monday. “That won’t be enough to save him in Ohio because Ohio wants a fighter.”