With polls in Ohio showing a virtual tie and Election Day three weeks away, J.D. Vance and Rep. Tim Ryan both used Monday night’s U.S. Senate debate to stoke fears of extremism in an apparent effort to appeal to undecided centrists who will likely decide the closely watched contest.
It was the second debate between the two candidates, who are vying to replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman, a relatively moderate Republican. As in the first debate, Portman’s name was favorably invoked by both men. But so were plenty of others — Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, Sen. Chuck Schumer and, of course, former president Donald Trump — with each candidate invoking the more radical elements of his opponent’s political party in an effort to burnish his own centrist credentials.
Ryan, a Democrat, has been in the House of Representatives for 20 years, during which time he has generally voted in line with party leadership. But an early attempt by Vance to tie Ryan to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led to a sharp rebuke from the 49-year-old congressman.
“If you want to run against Nancy Pelosi, move back to San Francisco and run against Nancy Pelosi,” Ryan countered, referencing the several years Vance spent working in venture capital in Northern California, during which time Pelosi was indeed his representative.
“I’m not sure why Rob Portman endorsed you,” he later added, while also casting Vance as a defender of far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
The exchange about Jones, whom a jury ordered to pay nearly $1 billion in damages to the families of victims of the Sandy Hook school shooting — which Jones claimed was a hoax — provided one of several moments during which the candidates did little to hide their enmity for each other.
Vance denied supporting Jones.
“J.D., you’re on tape,” Ryan countered. His campaign promptly posted a video clip of Vance praising Jones to Twitter.
The tone was vitriolic throughout, never more so than when Ryan tried to tie Vance to the racist and xenophobic “Great Replacement Theory” that has been espoused by conservatives like Fox News host Tucker Carlson. Growing visibly upset, Vance pointed out that his wife was the daughter of immigrants from India and that his three children were thus biracial.
“You can believe in the border without being a racist,” Vance said.
Although Ohio has become increasingly friendly to Republicans in recent elections, a poll released on Monday showed Vance leading by only 2 percentage points, putting Ryan well within striking distance.
Vance tried to dispel Ryan’s average-guy demeanor by arguing that he had adopted some of the Democrats’ most extreme positions — on abortion, criminal justice and immigration — as both a member of the House of Representatives and during his short-lived run for the presidency in 2019.
He also argued that Ryan had simply had too few legislative accomplishments in the House to earn a seat in the upper chamber. “Tim Ryan’s had his chance,” Vance said as the grueling debate approached its conclusion.