YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — The already hostile Senate race in Ohio turned even nastier Monday as Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan and Republican J.D. Vance clashed over racist rhetoric and lobbed personal insults.
At their final debate before the Nov. 8 election, tensions ran highest toward the end of their hour onstage, when one of the moderators asked the candidates about the "great replacement" theory.
The conspiracy theory, which has found a home on the far-right fringes, broadly states that a Jewish-led cabal of liberals is trying to take power by replacing white voters with nonwhites by any means necessary, including immigration and interracial marriage.
The suspect in the deadly supermarket shooting in Buffalo, New York, in May, who is accused of targeting Black people, allegedly embraced the theory. Vance has asserted during his campaign that Democrats are pushing liberal immigration policies to “replace” voters and win elections, triggering accusations that he supports the theory, as well.
“This great replacement theory was the motivator for the shooting in Buffalo, where that shooter had all these great replacement theory writings that J.D. Vance agrees with,” Ryan said.
Vance, who has three children with his Indian American wife, was visibly angry and fired back at Ryan.
“Here’s exactly what happens when the media and people like Tim Ryan accuse me of engaging in great replacement theory,” Vance said. “What happens is my own children — my biracial children — get attacked by scumbags online and in person, because you are so desperate for political power that you’ll accuse me, the father of three beautiful biracial babies, of engaging in racism. We are sick of it. You can believe in a border without being a racist.
“I know you’ve been in office for 20 years, Tim, and I know it’s a sweet gig, but you’re so desperate not to have a real job that you’ll slander me and slander my family,” he added.
Ryan, with an amused expression on his face, responded: “I think I struck a nerve with this guy.”
The five-minute exchange followed what had largely been a civil, if punchy, debate at Stambaugh Auditorium, near the campus of Youngstown State University, in the middle of the congressional district that Ryan has represented for nearly two decades. WFMJ, the local NBC affiliate, hosted the debate.
Recent polls have indicated a tight race, with leads by Ryan or Vance falling within the margins of error. The close contest just three weeks from Election Day has surprised many who saw former President Donald Trump’s two comfortable wins here as a sign that Ohio had become a reliably Republican state.
Ryan, who briefly ran for president in 2020, has tacked to the center in his Senate campaign, making overtures to moderate Republicans and independents. Vance, a venture capitalist largely known for writing the bestselling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy,” has repeatedly attacked Ryan as a career politician whose loyalties are with President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. The line of attack has been a staple of Vance’s messaging and the tens of millions of dollars in TV ads promoting his candidacy.
“That rising energy price that people see at the pump, that they see in their utility bills, that our farmers see when they’re paying more for diesel — that was the direct result of policies enacted by Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi and supported 100% by Tim Ryan,” Vance said in response to the debate’s opening question, about inflation.
Ryan, who once challenged Pelosi in a House leadership race, clawed back by referring to Vance’s venture capital days in San Francisco, where Pelosi lives. Ryan and Democrats have tried to frame Vance as an Ohio expat who became a coastal elite.
“J.D., you keep talking about Nancy Pelosi,” Ryan said. “If you want to run against Nancy Pelosi, move back to San Francisco and run against Nancy Pelosi.”
But Vance returned again to the Pelosi talking point by bringing up a Ryan ad that features Ryan’s wife opening a bottle of wine and making light of their disagreements at home.
“It’s actually a pretty funny TV commercial … where he says he only agrees with his own wife 70% of the time,” Vance said. “Yet he votes and agrees with Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time. It must make things a little awkward in the Ryan household.”
The debate then turned to Vance’s partisan loyalties when one of the moderators, longtime Youngstown political journalist Bertram de Souza, referred to how Ryan had branded Vance at the previous debate as Trump’s “a-- kisser.” The line is a paraphrase of Trump’s remark about Vance at a recent rally.
Trump “told a joke at a rally based on a false New York Times story, and Tim Ryan has decided to run his entire campaign on it,” Vance said before he tried to land another Pelosi punch.
De Souza pressed: “You took that as a joke?”
Vance replied that he knows Trump “very well” and that he “didn’t take offense.”
“Everybody there took it as a joke,” Vance said, before he again returned to Pelosi.
The back and forth went on for nearly 10 minutes. Three of the words uttered most in that time: “Nancy,” “Pelosi” and “a--.”
"I don't have to hate Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden," Ryan said. "We need to move the political discourse in this country from hate and anger and division to love and compassion and forgiveness, and some grace. And all I'm saying is I don't have to hate her."