JD Vance had some explaining to do. After winning a brutal, costly primary to secure the Republican nomination in Ohio’s Senate race, Vance had spent the summer making few appearances on the campaign trail and allowing his Democratic opponent, congressman Tim Ryan, to dominate the airwaves.
Now polls showed Vance, a first-time candidate and author of the bestselling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, running neck and neck with Ryan in a race that many Republicans had hoped would be an easy win.
“We have a tough campaign,” Vance said at an event with supporters in Avon, Ohio, last weekend. “I know that a lot of people are frustrated you didn’t see a whole lot of my TV commercials over the summer. Hopefully that’s started to pick up in the last couple of weeks.”
Vance’s struggle to establish a clear lead in Ohio mirrors Republican Senate candidates’ missteps in other battleground states that could determine control of the vital upper chamber. Like Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Herschel Walker in Georgia, Vance was able to win the Republican nomination after receiving Donald Trump’s endorsement, but he has stumbled in his pivot to the general election.
Republicans are now racing to avoid a Democratic victory in Ohio, often at the expense of investing in other close races. If Republicans cannot drag Vance across the finish line in Ohio, it could spell doom for the party’s hopes of flipping the Senate in the midterm elections this November.
Although Trump won Ohio by eight points in 2020, recent polls show Vance and Ryan essentially tied. National Republican groups have picked up on the trouble in Ohio and have started devoting more resources to the race.
The Senate Leadership Fund, a Super Pac aligned with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, announced last month that it would reserve $28m in TV and radio ads to boost Vance. As the SLF increased its financial support for Vance, the group also slashed roughly $8m of its ad reservations in Arizona, a shift that the Super Pac’s president partially attributed to “an unexpected expense in Ohio”. (The SLF announced Tuesday that it was pulling out of the Arizona Senate race entirely.)
The SLF’s significant investment to support Vance underscores how Republicans are playing defense in an unexpectedly close race. Even if the SLF’s funding helps Vance hold on in Ohio, the victory would not bring his party closer to a Senate majority, as the seat is now held by a retiring Republican, Rob Portman.
The reality is that Vance needs all the financial help he can get. At the end of the second quarter of 2022, Vance’s campaign reported having just $628,000 cash on hand, compared to $3.6m in Ryan’s bank account. Between April and June, Vance raised and spent $1m as he fought in the fiercely competitive Republican primary, while Ryan raised $8.6m and easily captured his party’s nomination.
Ryan has used his cash advantage to launch a massive advertising blitz, running commercials that frame him as an independent-minded centrist and attack Vance as an out of touch elite with extreme views.
In one of Ryan’s ads, an Ohio mother who lost her son, Joe, to opioid addiction criticizes Vance’s now defunct non-profit for enlisting the help of a doctor with ties to the pharmaceutical industry. “I don’t have words for how betrayed I felt,” the woman says in the ad. “JD Vance has chosen to help the drug companies rather than the people who are struggling like Joe.”
In another memorable video, Ryan throws footballs at television screens showing the Republican ads attacking him. “They say you can know a person by their enemies,” Ryan says in the ad. “Well, here comes their bullshit ads.”
Over the summer, Ryan’s ad campaign went largely unanswered by Vance’s team, allowing the Democrat to chip away at his opponent’s advantage in the Republican-leaning state.
“He won the primary thanks to Trump’s help, and it just felt like he went into the witness protection program,” Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor for the Cook Political Report, said of Vance’s summer campaign schedule. “Vance took a hit in that really brutal primary, and you need to try to rehabilitate your image.”
The Ohio Democratic party reveled in Vance’s absence from the campaign trail and the airwaves, sending out mocking statements each time he left the state to fundraise.
“You have to kind of be here to rally people together, and he’s not been here. He’s literally been almost everywhere but here,” Elizabeth Walters, chair of the Ohio Democratic party, said earlier this month. “This has to be a tough moment for the party where your standard-bearer and your top candidate can’t be bothered to show up. I think that they’re going have a hard time in the fall of keeping their coalition together.”
Even some of Vance’s supporters acknowledge that he has a lot of ground to make up in the race, with less than 50 days to go until election day. “What he has to get across is the record of his opponent, not what his opponent’s saying,” Tom Patton, a voter from Avon Lake, said as he left Vance’s event last weekend. “He has to do more.”
Nicolette Allsop, a voter from South Amherst who attended the Vance event with her two sisters, begrudgingly agreed that Ryan has run “effective” ads in the race. Allsop’s sister, MaryJo Moluse of Avon, added that Ohio feels more competitive this year than it did in 2020. “I think it’s going to be a tough fight. I really do,” Maluse said.
Vance and his allies appear to have woken up to that reality, as the candidate has ratcheted up his campaign appearances and his television ads in recent weeks. In one ad, Vance walks down a street in his home town and laments the country’s recent rise in violent crime, accusing Ryan of insufficiently supporting law enforcement officers.
Mike Hartley, who previously served as a senior adviser to former Ohio governor and Republican presidential candidate John Kasich, pointed to the ad as an example of how Vance is successfully rebooting his campaign in the crucial, final stretch of the race.
“That’s what he’s going to run on, and that’s what he should run on, and I think that’s just going to solidify his advantage,” Hartley said. “I think he’s done a good job of hitting his stride at the right time.”
Vance has also kept up a busy schedule of campaign events this month, including an appearance at a rally with Trump last Saturday in Youngstown, which lies in Ryan’s congressional district. The region was once a Democratic stronghold, but it has moved to the right as white working-class voters have drifted toward the Republican party. Vance will need those voters to turn out in November to defeat Ryan, and he used the rally as an opportunity to criticize his opponent for allegedly misrepresenting his record.
“There are two Tims out there,” Vance told thousands of rally goers. “There’s a DC Tim, who votes 100% of the time with Joe Biden, and then there’s campaign Tim, who pretends he’s a moderate … We need to kick DC Tim to the curb.”
In his long and often meandering speech, Trump echoed that message, praising Vance as “an America First warrior” while attacking Ryan as a “far-left Democrat phony”. Trump also took a moment to dismiss a report that Republican Senate candidates are attempting to distance themselves from him, saying, “JD is kissing my ass he wants my support so bad.”
“[Ryan] is lying to your faces, acting as though he’s my friend on policy, pretending to be a moderate so he can get elected and betray everything that you believe in,” Trump told the cheering crowd. “He is not a moderate. He is radical left.”
That attack strategy appears to be resonating with some of Trump’s most loyal fans in Ohio, who helped Vance clinch the Republican nomination in May and could now prove instrumental in carrying him across the finish line in November.
“I don’t really care for [Ryan],” Lori Ferguson, a voter from Cortland, said as she waited to enter the venue for Trump’s rally. “I think the way he’s talking now is simply trying to maybe make Republicans think that he’s on their side.”
William Fair, a voter from Navarre who was ahead of Ferguson in line, admitted that he did not know much about Vance, but he said Trump’s endorsement was enough to secure his vote. “If Trump wants him, we’ll get him,” Fair said.
Fair’s comments underscore the hefty challenge facing Ryan, despite his campaign’s effective ads and savvy messaging. For many voters, the “R” or “D” next to a politician’s name takes priority over any specific concerns about the individual candidate. That could put Ryan at a disadvantage, given that only one Democrat, Senator Sherrod Brown, has managed to win a non-juridical statewide office in Ohio since 2008.
“We have increasingly seen, really over the past decade and a little more, that even Senate races have become almost parliamentary in nature – where you’re voting for the party and not necessarily the person,” Taylor said.
Like all other Democrats, Ryan is also facing the national headwinds of record-high inflation and Biden’s underwater approval rating. Ryan recently told the New York Times that he would not campaign with Biden, reflecting the president’s unpopularity in Ohio.
“[Ryan is] doing what he believes he needs to do to win, and I think they’re executing what I consider a good campaign,” Hartley said. “But I just don’t think it’s going to be enough … In my eyes, I think Tim Ryan has clearly peaked, and now JD Vance is going to seal the deal.”
Even as national Republicans have swooped in to prop up Vance, Ryan has remained steadfast in his determination to snap Ohio Democrats’ losing streak.
“He’s looking for a rescue squad,” Ryan said of Vance last Monday. “It’s not going to be enough to save him in Ohio because Ohio wants a fighter.”