CLEVELAND — Democrats are increasingly fearful that they are squandering a chance to flip a Senate seat in Ohio — a state that once seemed off the map but, according to polls, remains close four weeks from Election Day.
Although the Republican, “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, has struggled to raise money, national groups have propped up his campaign by pouring in more than $30 million worth of advertising.
Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee, has been a more prolific fundraiser. But because national Democratic groups have provided comparatively little help on the airwaves, Ryan has had to spend cash as fast as it comes in just to keep up with the GOP onslaught.
The lopsided funding has unnerved Democrats in Ohio and across the country, according to interviews with a dozen party leaders and operatives. Many worry that Democrats will regret not doing more to try to pull Ryan ahead of Vance, a right-wing ally of former President Donald Trump.
“Tim Ryan is running the best Senate race in the country and having to do it all by his lonesome,” said Irene Lin, an Ohio-based Democratic strategist who managed Tom Nelson’s Senate primary campaign in Wisconsin this year. “If we lose this race by a few points, and the Senate majority, blame should squarely fall on the D.C. forces who unfairly wrote off Ohio.”
In an interview with NBC News after a campaign appearance Saturday in Cleveland, Ryan sounded resigned to going it alone.
“The national Democrats … trying to talk them into a working-class candidate, it’s like pulling teeth sometimes,” Ryan said as he tossed a football with his 8-year-old son in a parking lot behind an Irish pub. “We’re in Ohio and we got a candidate running around with a tinfoil hat on. We’re out here fighting on our own. I mean, it’s David against Goliath.”
Ryan and Vance are running to succeed Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican who is not seeking re-election. Independent polls suggest the race is a toss-up, with slim leads by either candidate falling within the margin of error. The candidates will meet Monday night in Cleveland for the first of two televised debates.
After losing two presidential campaigns and a race for governor in the state since 2016, national Democrats are wary about spending in Ohio, once a quintessential battleground. Republicans are treating it as a state they can't afford to lose.
Trump’s super PAC was the latest group to jump into the race, reserving more than $1 million in ads last week. The barrage includes a spot attacking Ryan, who has portrayed himself as a moderate, as a party-line voter beholden to Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. But even the Schumer-aligned Senate Majority PAC, a major presence in other states key to determining partisan control of the chamber, has been largely absent from Ohio.
Through Monday, Republicans had spent or reserved at least $37.9 million worth of advertising on the general election, according to AdImpact, an ad tracking firm. Only $3.7 million of that had come directly from Vance’s campaign, with another $1.6 million split between the campaign and the National Republican Senatorial Committee through coordinated advertising.
On the Democratic side, Ryan’s campaign had accounted for $24 million of the more than $29 million spent or reserved through Election Day and splitting another $835,000 with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Other outside Democratic groups had committed only $4.5 million to the race — about 14% of what the GOP groups are spending.
Ryan said the lack of national spending hasn’t frustrated him and that Vance, because of the largesse behind him, would owe more favors if he wins.
“The optics of it,” Ryan added, “are in my favor.”
Others are more willing to raise complaints on Ryan’s behalf.
When campaign manager Dave Chase tweeted about tight polling numbers last week, he noted how Ryan “has defended his lead with no outside spending from national Dem groups.”
Justin Barasky, the campaign’s media strategist, asserted that Ryan would have the race locked up if not for the heavy investment by national Republicans.
“J.D. Vance is benefitting from an unprecedented amount of outside spending in Ohio,” said Barasky, who managed Sen. Sherrod Brown’s 2018 re-election campaign in the state. “The race would be over without it.”
Another Democratic operative who is closely watching the race was blunt when asked about the lack of Democratic funding.
“It’s malpractice,” said the operative, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
This year’s Senate map presents tough decisions for leaders of both parties. Democrats, who control the 50-50 chamber with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote, are playing defense in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada — close contests, all.
“I think that Democrats have a lot of incumbents that they’ve got to try to protect, and that’s always the No. 1 priority,” former Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., said in an interview Saturday while helping Ryan with canvassing efforts in Cleveland.
At the same time, Democrats have treated Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as more enticing pickup opportunities. And Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC last week reserved more airtime in North Carolina, a state where Democrats have not won a Senate seat since 2008. Brown, conversely, has been re-elected twice in Ohio since then, a data point Ryan’s allies dutifully cite.
The state is not entirely off the national radar for Democrats. Guy Cecil, the chair of Priorities USA, a major Democratic super PAC, tweeted a plea late last month to “Give what you can” to Ryan. A spokesperson for the group said that Priorities is monitoring the race but had no announcements about plans to get involved financially. Cecil’s tweet annoyed some Ryan allies who saw it as patronizing.
Other national Democrats have tipped their hat to Ryan, noting how his moderate message has put the seat within striking distance, if not higher on the party’s list of priorities.
“Tim Ryan is running a strong race that has put Republicans on defense,” said David Bergstein, a spokesperson for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He emphasized the organization’s support “through coordinated television spending.”
Both candidates spent the week leading up to their first debate barnstorming the state — Vance with Donald Trump Jr., Ryan in a newly debuted tour bus.
After campaigning at a police union hall near Columbus on Wednesday, Vance questioned the accuracy of the polls while also arguing that the reason Ryan is performing well in them is because voters wrongly identify the Democrat as a moderate “diet version of me.”
“What polling consistently does is, it under-polls white working-class voters, who are a core part of my base in my campaign, a core part of who I’m trying to appeal to,” Vance added.
Ryan spent Saturday at two Cleveland events casting Vance as too extreme for Ohio.
“We are not going to send someone who’s going to be in the Senate with a tinfoil hat on, waiting for the black helicopters to come,” Ryan said at one stop, keeping his remarks brief as guests snuck glances at the TVs above the bar as the Cleveland Guardians went into extra innings of a playoff game they would eventually win.
The event was hosted by Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin, a well-wired local Democrat. In an interview, Griffin said he understood Democrats’ focus on the Southwest and Southeast but urged them not to sleep on Ryan.
“The national Democrats have walked away from Ohio prematurely,” Griffin said. “We need to make sure that they recognize that this still is a state that is in play.”