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Tim Ryan and J.D. Vance tangle over authenticity and abortion in first Ohio Senate debate

The debate in Cleveland, televised across the state, was the first of two before Election Day. Polls indicate a tight race for the open seat to succeed Republican Rob Portman.
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CLEVELAND — Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan and his Republican rival, author J.D. Vance, jumped into Monday night’s Ohio Senate debate with the same goal: to paint the other as a phony who’s unworthy of the job.

In a race that could determine which party controls the Senate over the next two years, Ryan and Vance argued over who had demonstrated authentic concern about the opioid epidemic and the loss of manufacturing jobs to China — two of the most pressing problems facing the state. They also fought over who had the most sensible position on abortion, a driving issue in this year’s midterm elections. And they repeatedly jostled over who was the most credible Ohioan.

Vance, a venture capitalist with ties to Silicon Valley whose memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” became an Oscar-nominated film, characterized Ryan as a 20-year creature of Washington who had lost touch with the voters of his Youngstown-area district. Ryan, who has spent most of his adult life in elected office, framed Vance as a wine-and-cheese coastal elite who also pals around with election deniers while being subservient to former President Donald Trump.

“I don’t kiss anyone’s a-- like him,” Ryan said of Vance, paraphrasing a line Trump used at a recent Ohio rally to describe his relationship with Vance, once a sharp critic of Trump’s.

“Ohio needs an a-- kicker,” Ryan added. “Not an a-- kisser.”

Vance shot back: “Well-rehearsed line, Tim.” He had fended off a similar attack earlier in the hourlong debate by playing up a speech in which Ryan joked that he had to “suck up” to his “future boss,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“I’m not going to take lectures on dignity and self-respect from a guy caught on video kissing up to Chuck Schumer and begging him for a promotion,” Vance said. “We’re getting close to Halloween, and Tim Ryan has put on a costume where he pretends to be a reasonable moderate.”

The debate here in Cleveland, televised across the state, was the first of two scheduled before Election Day. Ryan and Vance hope to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman, and polls indicate a close race, with slim leads on either side falling with the margin of error. Vance has struggled to raise money but is being buoyed by more than $30 million worth of advertising bought by outside groups, while Ryan, a prolific fundraiser, has received little financial support from national Democrats.

Ryan’s overtures to moderate and independent voters have been the cornerstone of his campaign. On Monday, he frequently tried to characterize Vance as being too extreme for a state that hasn't voted for a Democrat for president since 2012.

“Who says that the election was stolen? J.D. Vance does,” Ryan said before he name-checked several Republicans who have been vilified on the left. “Who runs around with Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida who wants to ban books? You’re running around with [South Carolina Sen.] Lindsey Graham, who wants a national abortion ban. You’re running around with [Georgia Rep.] Marjorie Taylor Greene, who’s the absolute looniest politician in America. This is a dangerous group, and we do need to confront it. That’s why I’m running to represent the exhausted majority: Democrats, Republicans and independents.”

A moderator's questions about abortion — an issue that hasn’t animated the Ohio Senate race as much as jobs and the economy — provoked some of the most direct answers Vance has offered about the topic, specifically about Graham’s proposed 15-week ban.

“Some minimum national standard is totally fine with me,” Vance said. “We’re talking about 5-month-old babies, fully formed babies, who can feel pain. No civilized country in the world allows elective abortion that late in pregnancy. I don’t think the United States should be an exception.”

Vance also said he believes in “reasonable exceptions” under which abortion should be allowed, citing the highly publicized case of a 10-year-old Ohio girl who traveled to neighboring Indiana for an abortion over the summer after she was raped. He then quickly pivoted to questions surrounding the immigration status of the rape suspect, a Guatemalan man in the country illegally, and cast blame on Ryan.

“If you had done your job, she would have never been raped in the first place,” Vance said. “Do your job on border security.”

Ryan, who was anti-abortion rights earlier in his political career, said Monday night that he believes the constitutional right to an abortion, lost when the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, should be codified into federal law.

“This is the largest governmental overreach in the history of our lifetime,” Ryan said. “A complete violation of personal freedom and liberty of women in this state.”

CORRECTION (Oct. 11, 2022, 3:02 p.m. ET): A previous version of this story misquoted Rep. Tim Ryan’s characterization of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. He called her the “absolute looniest politician in America,” not the “absolute loneliest.”