Former President Trump is heading to Ohio on Saturday to give a boost to his endorsed Senate candidate J.D. Vance (R) in a race that has proven more competitive than initially thought.
The “Hillbilly Elegy” author, a once-Trump-critic-turned-acolyte, is facing off against Democratic challenger Tim Ryan (D) for the open Senate seat in a state Trump won by 8 points in 2020.
Still, recent polling has shown Vance leading Ryan by single digits, and the Democrat has proven to be a formidable fundraiser, fueling hopes that Democrats could pull off a surprise victory in the Buckeye State.
“It’s been a real pleasant surprise,” Ohio-based Democratic strategist Aaron Pickrell said of the two polling competitively, adding, “it’s purely a testament of the fact that Tim’s just really connected with people, and I think Vance has … been framed in a really negative light.”
“He’s got the combination of someone that has a personal ability to connect really well with voters just because of who he is, and then backed up with a record of accomplishments that really resonate with Ohioans across … the state,” he said, noting Ryan’s work on jobs and pensions.
A new survey from Emerson College and The Hill released on Friday showed Vance leading Ryan 44 percent to 40 percent. Thirteen percent of voters said they were undecided, while 3 percent said they planned to vote for someone else. Meanwhile, a USA Today/Suffolk University poll released earlier this week showed Ryan leading Vance 46.6 percent to 45.6 percent.
But Republicans say they feel confident about their chances in the state given some of Ohio’s political red leanings.
“Of all the states on the map, I think this is the one I worry about the least, truthfully … because Ohio has just trended so Republican,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist who has served as an adviser to past campaigns for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), adding, “it’s the best state on the board candidly for Republicans holding a seat.”
While Senate races in states like Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia have received more media attention, the Ohio Senate is still a critical one as Republicans look to flip the upper chamber in November. Ryan and Vance are vying for Sen. Rob Portman’s (Ohio) seat, after the Republican said he wouldn’t be seeking reelection following his current term.
Democrats have sought to portray Vance as an out-of-state candidate, targeting him in ads for flip-flopping on his criticism of Trump and hammering him on issues like the opioid crisis, including airing ads scrutinizing a non-profit Vance created aimed at tackling addiction in the state.
Meanwhile, Vance’s campaign has argued that Ryan is not the moderate Democrat he portrays himself to be. Republicans also suggest that, despite the fact that Ryan has at times distanced himself from President Biden, it will be hard to separate the two Democrats.
The congressman has toed the line on appearing with Biden, citing a scheduling conflict as reason for missing Biden’s visit in the state in July while appearing with the president at a new Intel semiconductor facility in the state earlier this month.
“Tim is the face of this campaign. This campaign is about Tim Ryan. It’s about Ohio. It’s about people here and unlike J.D. Vance, we don’t have to rely on big names and shiny objects getting bused in from out of state,” a source close to Ryan’s campaign said when asked why the congressman was maintaining distance from the president.
Ryan made headlines last week when he appeared to call for “a generational move” for Democratic leadership when asked about Biden running for another term. However, he later clarified the remarks.
“The President said from the very beginning he was going to be a bridge to the next generation, which is basically what I was saying,” Ryan said.
The same poll from Emerson College and The Hill found Trump leading Biden 50 percent to 40 percent in the state.
But in a Senate race that might otherwise be considered a sleeper, Ryan has been one of a slew of Senate Democratic challengers who have out-fundraised their competitors, at least in the last quarter. Ryan’s campaign reported they had raised $9.1 million in the second quarter alone while Vance’s campaign hauled in over $2.3 million in contrast.
“Frankly, the biggest struggle that we had fundraising-wise, early on, was just the simple fact that so many donors weren’t paying attention to the race because they didn’t think they needed to,” a source close to the Vance campaign said, later adding, “the change in that attitude has led to the increased fundraising.”
The source said that the campaign was seeing “a dramatic uptick” in fundraising in the third quarter compared to the second. The person also suggested that the amount of money Ryan had raised and spent on TV buys earlier this cycle didn’t amount to much given that the two were polling within the margin of error.
Republicans have also made it clear this cycle that they’re not shying away from the state. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), said $28 million was being reserved for statewide advertising between Sept. 6 until Nov. 8.
“I don’t think it’s gonna be one of those things where it’s like some massive advantage because of his fundraising, but it’s the table stakes of ensuring that he can communicate who he is and why people should support him,” Pickrell, the Democratic strategist, said of Ryan’s numbers.
Ryan’s fundraising success comes as Democrats express more optimism about their chances of retaining control of the Senate. However, Republicans are pushing back against the notion that Ohio will be a saving grace for Democrats come November.
“What you’re seeing in other states is different than what’s going to happen in Ohio,” said one Ohio-based Republican strategist. “Other states like Pennsylvania just shit the bed on their primaries and nominated really awful candidates and that didn’t really happen in Ohio for the most part.”
“As far as predictions, you know, we have always thought … we would keep this seat red, and I think that is still going to be the case. Vance is running a good race. And then Tim Ryan, for as much as he flip-flops, that is helping us as well,” a spokesperson for the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm concurred.
It’s unclear if Trump’s visit will boost Vance the same way his endorsement boosted him in the Republican Senate primary earlier this year. Trump won Ohio by eight points in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.
“The guy won the state by eight and a half points twice,” the GOP strategist said. “I think that probably for the most part still holds.”
The rally’s location in Youngstown is not only strategic because it’s part of Ryan’s district, but it’s also seen a rightward political shift since Trump first ran for president in 2016.
“He’s basically holding this event in the Mahoning Valley, which is a significant block of what would be considered Trump Republicans and he’s going to go there and he’s going to energize them,” the GOP strategist. “It’s strategically smart.”
Multiple Democratic strategists suggested the rally could help Vance.
“It’s like the one card J.D. has to play, I guess, to try to bring Trump into state to boost his campaign,” said one strategist.