AKRON, Ohio — A once largely unimaginable scenario has been rattling around Ohio's political scene all summer.
Can Rep. Tim Ryan pull off an upset in the state's U.S. Senate race?
The Democrat is airing ads on Fox News, talking incessantly about China and promising to put "Americans first" in a state where former President Donald Trump won by healthy margins. His Republican opponent, "Hillbilly Elegy" author J.D. Vance, has Trump’s endorsement but is facing criticism that he's coasting while Ryan outraises, outspends and outworks him.
Although independent polling has been scarce, some local GOP leaders believe that the general election is too close for comfort and have had trouble concealing their frustrations. "They are burning bridges faster than they can build them," one Republican operative in the state, who requested anonymity to be frank, said of Vance's campaign.
Ryan, meanwhile, is presenting himself as a post-partisan populist —as someone a voter might mistake for a Republican.
"Conservatives aren't wrong about everything," Ryan told NBC News in an interview this week after touring a business incubator inside an old rubber factory in downtown Akron. "Democrats aren't right about everything."
The open Senate seat — Republican incumbent Rob Portman is not seeking re-election — has set the stage for a clash over political identity and authenticity. Will Ohioans continue their rightward turn toward Trumpism by choosing Vance, once a loud Trump critic who now embraces the right-wing culture wars? Or will they reward Ryan, a 10-term representative and past presidential candidate who emphasizes kitchen-table issues, keeps his distance from President Joe Biden and targets the working-class voters who have fled the Democratic Party?
"A lot of people just know s--- is broken," Ryan said. "We're all mad at each other. The pandemic sucked — economic collapse, we're all pissed off. ... So, who's going to be the one who steps up and says, 'OK, lay down your arms?' Let's figure it out. Let's talk."
Ryan's GOP-friendly message has caught attention, to the point where Vance can't make fundraising calls without hearing about it.
"I actually spoke to a donor yesterday who told me that he thought Tim Ryan was running in the Republican primary," Vance said in a telephone interview. "And he was confused because he thought the Republicans' primary was over."
Vance went mostly quiet after winning that contest, a messy and expensive battle in which his pro-Trump credentials were heavily scrutinized. Ryan, who easily beat two lesser-known candidates for his party's nomination, has spent more than $7.5 million on advertising since then, according to AdImpact, a media tracking firm. Over the same time, Vance and an aligned super PAC bankrolled by tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel have spent only $132,000 combined. The campaign entered July owing more money — $883,000, including a $700,000 personal loan from Vance, according to a recent finance report — than it had on hand, though Vance has access to other PACs and expects to be better funded for the fall.
"The way that I basically see this race is that Tim is doing this weird thing that assumes that we'll never spend a dime on TV," Vance said. "This entire image that he's created is going to collapse because he's voted with his own party on everything, big and small, without exception."
Dave Johnson, the GOP chair in Columbiana County, south of Ryan's Youngstown district and a gateway to the remote and rural reaches of the state where Republicans have run up the score in recent elections, waved off Vance's struggles.
"He just went through a very expensive primary, and I think his focus at this stage is to try to raise the money he's going to need to put together an effective TV campaign," Johnson said.
"Anybody that would think Tim Ryan is gonna make inroads among Trump voters in Ohio," he added, "is smoking something."
Democrats have won little at the statewide level in Ohio over the last three decades, the few exceptions in recent years being Sen. Sherrod Brown and some state Supreme Court justices in nonpartisan general elections.
Ryan has prioritized visits to southern and southeastern Ohio. Some Democrats have wondered if he's overcorrecting at the expense of alienating the party's liberal base in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.
"But I think most Democrats here, especially in those southern counties, are excited that they have a candidate that they can actually put a yard sign up and wear a T-shirt for and be proud to go to the county fair and say, 'Tim Ryan's my guy' — and to not have every independent or Republican think that they're insane," Ryan said.
Collin Docterman, the Democratic chair in Scioto County, where Vance campaigned this week, said Ryan's attention to southern Ohio could help cut into GOP margins in November. Portman was re-elected by more than 20 points in 2016 and Brown, who also tended to those working-class areas, won a third term by nearly 7 points against a weak opponent in 2018.
"Trump is still a very animating figure here," Docterman said. "You're talking to the Democratic Party chair of a county that went for J.D. Vance in the nominating process overwhelmingly. That being said, Tim Ryan does seem to be working very hard to resonate with the core people that have drifted away."
Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who unlike Vance has avoided wading too deep into the culture wars, is up for re-election this year and facing a challenge from Democrat Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton. She and Ryan are running noticeably different races.
Ryan has Planned Parenthood’s endorsement and speaks emphatically about abortion rights when asked, but Whaley made the issue central to her campaign after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade. Ryan, who was anti-abortion until 2015, acknowledged the possibility that split-ticket voters could back him and DeWine while leaving Whaley out of luck.
"I mean, I really don't have the luxury to worry about anybody else," he said. "We're trying to craft a message and a theme that everybody can run under. But we're laser-focused on this."
Ryan's voting record in the House and his past comments about systemic racism in law enforcement are the main pieces of evidence that Vance believes are in conflict with the moderate persona he has cultivated. Ryan, who is fond of saying that "you don’t have to agree with somebody 100% of the time," has voted in line with Biden's agenda 100% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.com.
Vance, keyed into the culture wars as he is, also highlighted a recent Fox News story that reported that Ryan and other Democratic Senate candidates did not respond to loaded questions on issues of gender identity — how they define the word "woman" and whether they believe a man can become pregnant.
"Do I think it's a top-of-mind issue for the average voter in Ohio? Certainly not," Vance said. "They're worried about the fact that, thanks to Joe Biden and Tim Ryan, they can't afford to put food on the table. But do I think it's indicative of what kind of a political leader that Tim Ryan is, that he can't answer basic questions honestly? Yes, I do."
Pressed on his loyalty to Biden this week, Ryan, who skipped the president's recent event in Ohio, offered two points of disagreement. He's upset that the president is overlooking potential trade violations and prohibiting tariffs on Chinese solar panel manufacturers. And he said he is "frustrated that we have not passed a tax cut."
Ryan also isn't happy about support from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive firebrand from New York who after the Roe decision pledged to help Ryan and other Democratic Senate candidates in tough races. Vance's campaign and others have framed it as an endorsement.
"It's not a helpful endorsement here," Ryan said. "Nor did I seek it."
One veteran Republican strategist in Ohio who didn't support Vance in the primary wondered if he was relying on Trump to carry him again in the general election.
"If Trump comes in for two rallies, it's locked up," said the strategist, who is unsure about voting for Vance this fall and requested anonymity to speak candidly. "Ryan is doing a decent job of getting out there. The question I have is: Will the Democrats be able to muster intensity and turnout for a candidate who is not espousing the progressive party line?"
Justin Barasky, who managed Brown's 2018 campaign and works for the firm producing Ryan's ads, sees the Democrat building a unique coalition.
"The overwhelming majority of Republicans, independents and Democrats in this state care about the same things," Barasky said. "This is not a state that is politically aligned the way that Alabama or Wyoming or the Dakotas are. It's just not. When you have someone who represents sort of that exhausted middle, like Tim Ryan, it's not that surprising that he could do well."