Ohio has historically been famous for its bellwether status in presidential elections, inspiring the phrase, "As Ohio goes, so goes the nation."
In next week's midterm election, Ohio is taking on a different role, as summarized by retiring Sen. Rob Portman: "The majority in the Senate runs through Ohio."
GOP leaders in Ohio and across the country have trained their focus on reclaiming control of the U.S. House and Senate to serve as a buffer against President Joe Biden's priorities. While the party deals with unpredictable races in states such as Pennsylvania and Georgia, Republicans hope Ohio − which went for former President Donald Trump twice − will show up for U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance.
If not, they worry a GOP majority could be at risk.
"Ohio has been trending Republican for a few years now," U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said during a recent visit to Columbus. "That's why the Democrats are so desperate to get their grips back on it again. That's why it's got to be a victory here in Ohio if we're going to maintain a majority."
Republicans send money, surrogates to Ohio
Ohio's Senate race to replace Portman is one of the most competitive in the country.
Polls have Vance leading Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan on average by 2 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics. That makes the Ohio race less heated than contests in Pennsylvania and Georgia, but tighter than other highly-watched races in Wisconsin and New Hampshire.
Observers say the race was never supposed to be this close in a state Trump won by 8 percentage points in 2016 and 2020. But Ryan has maintained a fundraising edge throughout the campaign and was able to dominate the airwaves all summer as Vance recovered from a bruising GOP primary. Ryan, a 10-term congressman, is also trying to position himself as a moderate focused on workers and the economy.
“This should’ve been put away a long time ago, and I think it just underscores the problem that Republicans have with open seats this cycle," said Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editors for Cook Political Report. "If Rob Portman were running again, this seat would not be competitive."
The outside money pouring into Ohio reflects the urgency. As of Oct. 20, spending on the race reached $86 million between the campaigns and groups supporting them, according to AdImpact. GOP groups alone spent $38 million, and as of Oct. 24, reserved another $8 million through Election Day. The Mitch McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund canceled ad buys in Arizona in part to divert resources to an "unexpected expense" in Ohio.
Beyond that, Republican senators barnstormed Ohio last month to emphasize its place on the national chess board. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham told supporters he's backing Vance in part because he wants to be a committee chairman. Graham's colleague, Sen. Tim Scott, said at another event that Ohio needs to stay "ruby red."
Ryan's campaign has brought in musicians such as Dave Matthews and Paul Simon. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin appeared at a fundraiser for Ryan after the two participated in an official congressional event. But the congressman is otherwise getting more help from anti-Trump Republicans than the national Democratic apparatus.
“We're not actively asking people to come in," Ryan said at a recent stop in Columbus. "If they want to come in, we'll gauge whether or not that's the kind of message we want to have. But again, we have random people coming in. (Vance) has a calculated campaign of surrogates because he can't stand on his own two feet and who he's bringing in are the absolute most radical people in politics in America right now."
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How will Ryan, other Democrats fare on election night?
The national significance of Ohio's race will come into full focus Tuesday night during a town hall with Fox News. Ryan and Vance will each field questions from moderators and audience members during the Columbus event, scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. The candidates will not be on stage together.
"Ohio would be a major win for Democrats, who are clearly working uphill in a GOP-leaning state, and if they were to win it, they would be much better positioned to keep the majority," said Bret Baier, Fox's chief political anchor who is cohosting Tuesday's event. "That said, a GOP win would shore up a Midwestern flank to hold on to seats they were defending – enabling a pickup of two toss up states to take control of the U.S. Senate. So, while Ohio leans Republican in our projections, it is close enough that anything can happen."
Ohio's elections won't occur in a silo. Observers say the outcome here will likely reflect national trends: A Vance victory could mean Republicans in other states had a banner night. If Ryan wins, he may not be the only Democrat to flip a GOP seat.
Still, some say Ryan is running one of the more successful Democratic campaigns this cycle and contend he has a chance to buck any election night patterns.
"Ohio might be one of the states where a Democrat in Tim Ryan is able to eke out a small victory running counter to the national trends," said Barry Burden, who runs the Election Research Center at the University of Wisconsin. "I don’t think it’s likely, but it’s possible."
Haley BeMiller is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network Ohio Bureau, which serves the Columbus Dispatch, Cincinnati Enquirer, Akron Beacon Journal and 18 other affiliated news organizations across Ohio.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ohio's U.S. Senate race seen as key to Republicans retaking Senate