Tim Ryan may be running ahead of J.D. Vance in Ohio. But the cavalry is coming to Vance’s rescue.
Whether Ryan can survive the coming ad onslaught and keep Ohio’s Senate race surprisingly competitive is an open question. The Democratic congressman is making an appeal to Republicans and independents in hopes he can win in a state that has shifted right in recent years, falling off the center of the battleground map it occupied for so many decades. Vance, the Republican nominee, rose to prominence as the author of “Hillbilly Elegy” and was supported in the primary by former President Donald Trump and tech billionaire Peter Thiel.
Independent polling in the race has been scarce so far. But Ryan has staked out a narrow 3-point edge in an internal poll for his campaign obtained exclusively by POLITICO, taking 48 percent support to Vance’s 45 percent, with 7 percent undecided. The survey, conducted July 21-28 by Impact Research, polled 800 likely general election voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
The lead is a product of a lopsided campaign so far: Ryan spent more than $8 million on advertisements, including $6.5 million on television since May. But until this week, Vance’s campaign had been AWOL from the airwaves for that entire time. Ryan has also remained far ahead of Vance in the cash dash, in part thanks to an aggressive small-dollar donation campaign.
The outcome of the Ohio race has major stakes for the 2022 midterms. The Senate is finely balanced at 50-50, and Democrats have enjoyed a summer of solid polling in top swing-state races despite the challenging political environment. Adding another seriously competitive, GOP-held seat to the list of battleground races in the fall could tip control of the chamber next year.
Ironically, the spate of negative stories surrounding Vance’s campaign in recent weeks — that he is struggling with fundraising and his own party is questioning whether Ryan is out-hustling him on the airwaves — may have had a net positive effect on Vance’s campaign. Fundraising has picked up since, and national Republicans have stepped in to start buying ads in the race.
On Thursday, Vance joined Trump at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J., where he raised roughly $300,000 holding a golf fundraiser, according to a person with knowledge of the event.
Donors who had remained on the sidelines since the primary have suddenly started writing checks, the Vance ally said. And following a bitter primary fight, Vance’s past opponents are now stepping up to lend their support. Jane Timken just held a fundraiser for Vance, and the campaign is now scheduling additional events with Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons.
This week, One Nation, the nonprofit part of the outside-spending machine affiliated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), announced a $3.8 million ad buy in the Ohio Senate race. That follows a nearly $1 million television buy that launched this week as a campaign collaboration between Vance and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
In an interview with POLITICO, Ryan said national Republicans are “panicking” about Vance’s prospects and pushed back on the idea that his internal poll represents his campaign’s apogee.
“We have a lot of room to grow,” Ryan said. “In a lot of ways, this race has firmed up.” He added: “It’s just going to be about how many more Republicans and independent voters we can pull in the next three months.”
On that front, Ryan is still making headway. Retiring Sen. Rob Portman’s former chief of staff John Bridgeland, a former director of George W. Bush’s Domestic Policy Council, is expected to author an endorsement on Ryan’s behalf in a coming Sunday edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer, as well as tap into his state-based Republican rolodex, POLITICO has learned.
“Tim is spending time in every county in Ohio, including heavily Republican counties in Southwest Ohio,” Bridgeland told POLITICO. “He’s really listening to people, wants to know what their concerns are. And J.D. Vance is tearing people apart. And the last thing this country needs right now are more people igniting the worst dimensions of human nature.”
Ryan’s internal polling also shows him making inroads with independents: It showed him up 20 points with those voters. According to the poll, Vance also has 85 percent name identification and a 50 percent unfavorable rating after a bruising and expensive Republican primary. Ryan, who enjoyed a smoother ride to his party's nomination, finds himself with 80 percent name ID and a 36 percent unfavorable rating).
But Republicans on the ground in Ohio and national operatives in D.C. say they’re confident the liberal congressman will fall off dramatically as Vance hits the air with positive spots and, especially as Ryan begins to face attack ads in the Republican-leaning state
A person familiar with One Nation’s decision to buy ad time in Ohio said “the cash disparity between the two candidates is a concern,” but they’re expecting a Vance win “if he makes up that gap even somewhat.”
Protect Ohio Values, a super PAC that supported Vance in the primary with $15 million from Thiel, will also spend on Vance’s behalf again during the general election, according to a person familiar with the group’s plan. Thiel hasn’t yet said whether he’ll cut another check, but the super PAC has added new donors and intends to spend seven figures on Vance this fall.
“In terms of what’s coming ahead, I believe he’s probably at his high-water mark now,” said Tony Schroeder, chairman of the Putnam County Republican Party, referring to Ryan. “Frankly we’re in a period where people aren’t paying a whole heck of a lot of attention. When the engagement comes around, there’s not going to be anything that’s going to help Tim Ryan.”
Vance has left the campaign trail in Ohio multiple times this summer, including trips to Conservative Political Action Conference events. But besides addressing crowds of activists, the trips have also served as fundraising opportunities. On Friday, before speaking in Dallas at CPAC Texas, Vance headlined the organization’s donor breakfast. He also held one-on-one meetings in the donor-heavy city, as he did when he traveled to Tel Aviv last month for CPAC Israel.
“A lot of this is midsummer bedwetting, to be frank,” said a person close to the campaign, noting how unpopular President Joe Biden remains in Ohio and how closely Republican ads will seek to tie Ryan to the president.
During his speech Friday, Vance urged those in the audience to sign up to make calls and knock doors for his campaign, criticizing Ryan as a “weak, fake congressman.” His comments signaled there is still a fight ahead to win voters disenchanted with Democrats, “whether they are conservatives, whether they vote Republican every time — the people who just want a good life in the country that their grandparents and great-grandparents built.”
A campaign spokesperson said Vance was unavailable for an interview Friday while at CPAC Texas.
Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Levorchick said he met Vance for the first time last month when Vance was traveling the state and visiting individually with law enforcement leaders. Levorchick took office in 2011 as a Democrat, but changed his voter registration last year to Republican. An Obama-Trump county, Ottawa broke from its longtime bellwether status in 2020 to support Trump for a second term.
Levorchick said as of now, he plans to cast his vote this fall for Vance, suggesting there is mistrust for Ryan in some law enforcement circles.
“Is he further right than some people may want? Could be,” Levorchick said of Vance. “But when you only have two candidates to pick from, you have to weigh who’s actually better suited to represent you.”