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Analysis: Is Democrat Tim Ryan running against his own party?

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, speaks to supporters after the polls closed on primary election day Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)
Jay LaPrete/AP
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Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, speaks to supporters after the polls closed on primary election day Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

Tim Ryan, the Mahoning Valley congressman who is running for Ohio's open U.S. Democrat, is a Democrat, has always been a Democrat and will always be a Democrat.

All of which makes it seem very odd that Ryan is running, in effect, against the Democratic Party.

In a new 30-second TV ad called "Neighborhood," Ryan picks up the independent theme of his campaign as he walks around his Youngstown area neighborhood dressed in a sweat suit — his usual attire for campaign ads — and talks about how he voted against "Obama's trade deal" and "voted with Trump on trade."

"I don’t answer to any political party," he says. "I answer to the folks I grew up with and the families like yours all across Ohio."

If the aim is to set himself apart from the typical Democratic candidate, he's on target.

And honestly, it's not a bad place to be given the current situation in Ohio politics, where Donald Trump has won in the past two presidential elections.

It's also a state where Democrat Sherrod Brown, an unabashed liberal and old-fashioned populist, holds the other Senate seat during a time when no Democrat has been elected to a statewide executive office since Ted Strickland became governor in 2006.

You, too, might be tempted to try to run away from the Democratic Party if you were Tim Ryan.

"Showing loyalty to the party certainly hasn't helped Democrats win statewide, so there's a logic to running on contempt for the party,'' said David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati.

"Still, it is jarring, and a bitter bill for Democratic voters to hear their party's nominee use Trump's name as anything other than an epithet,'' Niven said.

Niven compares Ryan's style of campaigning against his own party with that of Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginian who has been a constant thorn in the side of President Biden and the Democratic leadership of Congress.

There are, of course, some big differences between the two – in the U.S. House, Ryan has been a dependable vote for the Biden administration's agenda; and, unlike Manchin, Ryan doesn't tote a shotgun in his campaign ads.

"The really striking thing about Tim Ryan running like he's Joe Manchin is the implication that Democrats' only hope to win Ohio is to run like this is West Virginia," Niven said.

It is somewhat ironic that on May 3, after the votes were counted in the primary election, author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance — who won his crowded GOP primary with 32% of the vote — called Ryan a "Trump Democrat."

And Ryan doesn’t have any objections to that. In fact, Vance may have done him a favor.

Here's the fact of the matter: the polling so far suggests that Ryan versus Vance is a toss-up right now. There's lots of time left for the ground to shift, but right now, anyone who tells you in late June who is going to win this November election is blowing smoke.

Nostradamus died in 1566, friends.

But if Ryan is going to win this thing and give Ohio two Democratic U.S, Senators for the first time since John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum served together in the early 1990s, he must reel in a sizeable majority of independent voters — the truly independent who can swing either way.

And he also needs every Republican vote he can get; those who are not goo-goo-eyed by Vance's Trump endorsement and are among the two-thirds of Ohio GOP primary voters who did not vote for Vance in May.

The Ryan message in a nutshell: Don’t trust Vance? I'm your guy — the guy who tells the Democratic Party leaders in Columbus and Washington, "you’re not the boss of me."

The Vance campaign's mission, which is well under way, will be to paint Ryan as a Washington swamp creature who has flip-flopped on a host of issues, and as the willing and obedient servant of Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer and even Nancy Pelosi, who Ryan ran against for the minority leader position in 2016. Pelosi kicked his butt.

If Ryan wins this race, it's more likely that he will be closer politically to his friend Sherrod Brown than he will be to Joe Manchin. And certainly not one of the Trump bots in Congress. But, given the narrative of the Ryan campaign so far, it's not at all certain Ohio voters will see it that way.

But Niven points out that while Brown and Trump couldn't be more different as people, they have won Ohio by similar margins.

Tim Ryan, Niven says, "aims to find out what happens if you run as them both."

Copyright 2022 91.7 WVXU. To see more, visit 91.7 WVXU.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.