Via Josh Kraushaar, take advantage of the slow news day and treat yourself to an afternoon laugh by watching a few of the recent campaign ads from Ohio Democrat Tim Ryan. I started with his latest spot, which was released today, and began going through the rest in reverse chronological order to see how long it would take before I came across one that was recognizably Democratic.

Nine ads. I watched eight in a row that would have worked okay in a Republican primary before stumbling across one that might not have: More than two months ago, in early May, Ryan put out an ad dinging his Republican opponent, J.D. Vance, on abortion. But even that one came off as moderate, attacking Vance for opposing exceptions for rape and incest rather than highlighting Ryan’s own quite radical support for abortion on demand.

Here’s the new one that dropped today. Tim Ryan, the Fox News candidate!

Ryan has the misfortune of running during a Republican wave year with Biden’s approval in the 30s in a state that’s turned solidly red in the Trump era. How red? Redder than Texas: Two years ago Trump won the Lone Star State by five and a half points and won the Buckeye State by eight. In those circumstances, a Democrat can play it two ways. One is to embrace your longshot status, be the loud and proud liberal that you are, and hope that enough Democrats are inspired by you to swamp Republicans at the polls. That almost worked for Beto O’Rourke in 2018, a good year for Democrats. It’s almost certainly not going to work for Beto in 2022, a bad year for Democrats.

The other strategy is to all but declare yourself an independent, rarely if ever mentioning your party affiliation and stressing at every opportunity your common ground with the Republican majority. That’s the Tim Ryan strategy. And man, he is bear-hugging it. Here’s Ryan touting his anti-Obama, pro-Trump cred:

Here’s Ryan slamming Vance (unfairly) for wanting to defund the police:

Here’s Ryan accusing Vance of — wait for it — attending Washington cocktail parties, an insult leveled by righty populists against RINOs that’s so stale it’s become a joke of sorts:

And here’s Ryan explicitly disclaiming any alliance with left-wing culture warriors:

Note the Fetterman-esque man-of-the-people hoodie. That’s not just a populist affectation, it’s part of Ryan’s strategy against Vance. Ryan understands that populism is about more than just trade policy, it’s about authenticity. So he’s decked out like Joe Sixpack while he zings Vance for being a hedge-fund guy who’s bankrolled by billionaire Peter Thiel.

This may be the first general election I’ve seen in which the nominee of one party is trying to coopt his opponent’s “brand.” It’s Vance who ran as a Trumpy populist in the GOP primary, and who wrote a famous book about his firsthand experience with social dysfunction as part of a downscale family in Ohio. Now here’s Ryan insisting that he’s the real conservative-ish populist — and the real blue-collar guy to boot.

It’s unclear if it’s working or not, as public polling is sparse. But an internal poll released by Ryan’s campaign has him ahead 48/46. It *is* clear that Ryan is running rings around Vance in fundraising, hauling in $9.1 million in the second quarter relative to Vance’s $2.3 million and plowing that money into these brand-building advertisements. In this climate, in a state as red as Ohio, he has a less than 10 percent chance of winning, I’d guess. But he has some chance: This is a state that’s still blue enough to have elected Bernie-esque Democrat Sherrod Brown to the Senate three times.

And Ryan’s strategy is sensible. He’s counting on the fact that Dems want to flip this seat so badly and stick it to the Never Trumper turned Trump sycophant Vance that he can be as right-wing in his ads as he needs to be without losing liberal support. He has the same sort of carte blanche to maneuver that Joe Manchin has in West Virginia. He might be the only Democrat in his state who stands a chance of winning there anymore, so Dems are willing to indulge him in his messaging. The fundraising doesn’t lie.

Oh, one more reason to take an interest in this race: If Ryan were to pull the upset and win this seat, he’d *immediately* be a top-tier contender for the Democratic nomination in 2024. There are precious few Dems left in the party who are youngish and capable of connecting with the white working class that’s fled in droves to the GOP. Fetterman is one, but Fetterman’s health struggles have probably ended his hopes of national office. If Ryan were to prove himself capable of flipping Ohio, he’d be a precious political commodity for his party. At a minimum, assuming we don’t get Biden/Harris 2.0, he’ll be a shortlister for the VP nomination.

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