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Analysis: Tim Ryan Is For Real This Time

Ryan during the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention in Manchester, N.H.
Robert F. Bukaty
Ryan during the New Hampshire state Democratic Party convention in Manchester, N.H.

He's really doing it this time.

Tim Ryan, the longtime Democratic congressman from the Mahoning Valley, will run for the U.S. Senate in 2022.

This comes after years of dropping broad hints about running for higher statewide office - be it governor, or senator - before deciding to stay put in his comfortable Northeast Ohio congressional district. And it comes, too, after his experience in 2019, when he launched a quixotic and short-lived bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

This time it seems he really means it.

High-ranking Ohio Democrats who have talked with Ryan recently tell me he is all in; and the 47-year-old from Trumbull County is expected to make a formal announcement next month.

Two factors pushed Ryan in this direction.

The first is opportunity. When Rob Portman, the Republican junior senator from Ohio, shocked many people by saying he will not run for re-election in 2022, leaving a wide-open Senate seat in a year where the two parties will wage a ferocious steel cage match for control of the Senate, now split down the middle, with Vice President Kamala Harris representing the tie-breaking vote.

Yes, I know, Ohio appears to be turning red, with Donald Trump winning here twice in a row and the Democratic candidates shut out of statewide constitutional offices through the last few election cycles.

Doesn’t matter.

New day, new game. The score is tied, 0-0.

Ryan is the kind of moderate, populist-style Democrat who might have some considerable crossover appeal. Most of the people in his district who voted for Trump in the last two presidential elections have cast their ballots for Ryan many times over.

He's already picking up some interesting support that could help him considerably if he gets into a Democratic Senate primary.

Last Friday, Kathy DiCristofaro, who chairs the Ohio Democratic Women's Caucus, tweeted out an enthusiastic Ryan endorsement:

"Ohio needs leaders like a Tim Ryan to fight for working people. I'm all in."

That's great, but most Ohio Democratic voters have no idea who Kathy DiCristofaro is.

They do know Hillary Clinton, who replied to DiCristofaro's tweet the next day, saying "You're right, Kathy!"

Ryan backed Clinton in 2008 in her battle with Barack Obama and backed her again in her 2016 tussle with Bernie Sanders.

They also know Joe Biden, who will no doubt back him all the way – as Ryan did for him after Ryan's short-lived presidential candidacy.

The other factor has to do with the future of his 13th Congressional District, which could go away if Ohio indeed loses a House seat in this year's redistricting. The prospect makes his decision to run for the Senate much easier.

This is a fellow who comes from the less-than-genteel world of Mahoning Valley politics. After a stint in the Ohio Senate, Ryan ran in 2002 to replace his former boss, the flamboyant Rep. James A. Traficant Jr., who was looking at prison time for bribery and racketeering.

He ran in the Democratic primary against then-congressman Tom Sawyer, who had been drawn out of his district after the 2000 Census. Ryan beat Sawyer and then went on to win the general election, defeating Traficant, who ran as an Independent from his prison cell.

Tim Ryan has been solid in that district ever since.

None of this is to say that Ryan will have a clear path to the Democratic nomination.

There is considerable buzz about Dr. Amy Acton, the former head of the Ohio Health Department who became something of a folk hero for her daily briefings with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She also became a lightning rod for the criticism of COVID deniers and conservative Republicans in the legislature who felt she and DeWine were far too heavy-handed in the orders they issued, particularly stay-at-home orders and the delaying of last year's primary election.

After protestors began marching outside her suburban Columbus home, Acton had enough and quit. Now she is said to be considering a run for the Senate. She's got the backing of Ohio's senior senator, Sherrod Brown, and his wife, columnist Connie Schultz.

There's no question she still has a following - her fan page on Facebook has more than 120,000 followers and her Twitter account is followed by 52,000 – even though she has never posted a tweet.

Despite all the buzz, Acton has said nothing publicly about it.

Nan Whaley, the Dayton mayor who said in January she won't run for another term in Dayton, is also a possible Senate candidate, although she appears to be more focused on running for Ohio governor. Her friend and political ally, John Cranley, has also been mentioned as a possible Senate candidate, but he has made it clear that he is running for governor. Period.

Right now, Tim Ryan is unquestionably the early favorite. And he could end up being a a handful for the Ohio GOP.

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Politically Speaking" here.

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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.