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Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan Has A Plan To Win In Trump Country

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Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) speaks at an Iowa Democratic event during his brief presidential run in 2019. His supporters say he has come into his own as a Senate candidate. (Photo: John Locher/Associated Press)

WARREN, Ohio ― It’s hard to pin down Rep. Tim Ryan.

The Ohio Democrat is a former supporter of Medicare for All who has warned against excessively high corporate tax rates.

He’s an athlete who has extolled the benefits of meditation.

And he veered from a failed bid for House speaker to a short-lived presidential campaign, even after repeatedly toying with and then deciding against runs for higher office in Ohio.

Ryan, the 10-term congressman from Ohio’s industrial Mahoning Valley, is now running for U.S. Senate in a bid to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman. And even as he racks up strong fundraising totals and cements his status as a front-runner in the Democratic primary, his skeptics remain wary of this undefinedness, worrying about his commitment to a core set of policy beliefs and his ability to follow through in a tough race.

“There’s a sense of: What does he really stand for?” said a Democratic campaign strategist in Ohio who requested anonymity for fear of professional consequences.

But Ryan’s boosters in Ohio Democratic circles outnumber his doubters. They see him rising to the moment ― a pro-labor throwback to the Democratic Party’s Rust Belt heyday who has finally found a race in which he can shine.

“He has exceeded my wildest expectations,” said Joe Rettof, a Columbus-based Democratic consultant who is not involved in the Senate race.

In an increasingly Republican state where Democrats have struggled to defy national polarization trends, however, the open question is whether enough voters will see Ryan the way the Democratic Party faithful see him.

Regardless, few analysts believe that the state’s Democrats, who have a thin bench, have any better options.

“He really is the Democrats’ best shot at taking this seat back,” said David Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron.

Auto workers protest outside General Motors’ Lordstown plant on the day it idled, March 6, 2019. Ryan maintains that he fought as hard as he could to keep the plant open. (Photo: Tony Dejak/Associated Press)

An Ideological Enigma

In August 2018, Ryan got top billing as closing keynote speaker at the progressive Netroots Nation conference in New Orleans ― an honor reserved for rising stars on the left.

Ryan, a relative unknown to the crowd of thousands of activists, made sure to leave his mark. He delivered an impassioned 13-minute speech about fighting injustice in the United States in which he touted his commitment to Medicare for All, bold action on climate change, publicly financed political campaigns, and “making sure that kids who want to get educated can do it without going bankrupt.”

“The progressive movement is getting up, my friends!” Ryan concluded, drawing sustained roars from the crowd.

Bringing down the house at a storied left-wing confab was a curious look for Ryan, who just a few weeks earlier had delivered a much different message at a conference for the business-friendly Democratic group Third Way.

“You’re not going to make me hate somebody just because they’re rich,” Ryan told the donor-heavy Third Way crowd, according to NBC News. “I want to be rich!”

The previous year, Ryan was publicly insisting that corporate tax rates were too high for U.S. corporations to compete in the global economy, even as he affirmed that then-President Donald Trump’s tax plan was a “billionaires-first, trickle-down tax scheme.” Top Democrats, including former President Barack Obama, agreed with Ryan that the then-top corporate tax rate of 35% should go down, but they avoided making similar comments at the time for fear of validating Trump’s message.

The central question I ask is: What’s helping working people?Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio)

By the time Ryan had launched a short-lived run for president in 2019, he had also adopted harsher rhetoric about undocumented immigration. Asked about proposals to decriminalize illegal border crossing, Ryan replied, “If you want to come into the country, you should at least ring the doorbell.”

And this year, Ryan decided to pull his name from the Medicare for All bill in the House after 12 years as a co-sponsor.

That didn’t sit well with Hattie Wilkins, a Ryan ally, former United Steelworkers local president and Medicare for All advocate.

“Make me think twice about giving him my vote now!” she declared, vowing to “have a nice talk with him” about it in person.

During an early August conversation at one of his favorite Italian restaurants, Ryan, 48, told HuffPost that discussions with workers, especially union members, had convinced him that legislation requiring Americans to give up their existing health insurance in favor of an expanded version of Medicare was “wrong.”

“If this union negotiated a contract, and they left wages on the table because they were going to get a better health care deal, and they all agreed on that, we shouldn’t be in the business of saying, ‘No, you got to go here,’” he said.

He added that he still favors lowering the Medicare eligibility age to as low as 50 and letting all Americans buy into the program.

Ryan also claimed that he never saw his courtship of diametrically opposed wings of the Democratic Party ― from Netroots Nation to Third Way ― as contradictory.

“The central question I ask is: What’s helping working people?” he said. “Whether they’re white or Black or brown ― how are policies affecting working people, who are doing everything right, getting up in the morning, maybe going to a job that they don’t like, whether they’re a cashier or at a manufacturing plant or anything in between ― is the policy going to help them? And if it does, I’m for it. If it doesn’t, I’m against it.”

Morgan Harper speaks to anti-violence activists in March 2020. She is running against Ryan from the left in the Senate Democratic primary. (Photo: Paul Vernon/Associated Press)

It’s a focus that’s apparent in Ryan’s campaign slogan, “Let’s cut workers in on the deal.”

In some cases, that has meant bucking corporate America, such as when Ryan adamantly opposed the Obama-backed international trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

Ryan, who represents a region already devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs, won his first race in 2002 ― a post-redistricting primary that pitted an incumbent against a few newcomers ― thanks in no small part to then-Democratic Rep. Tom Sawyer’s vote for the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Ryan cited the negative effects of NAFTA when explaining his opposition to TPP, promising that he would “not stand by while today’s leaders make the same mistakes as the past.”

At other times, such as the need for a top corporate tax rate that’s lower than 35%, he is more aligned with big business than are his progressive colleagues. But the goal, he insists, is the same: ensuring as many high-paying jobs for workers as possible.

“It can’t be businesses versus workers. It’s a partnership. But that partnership needs to be redefined,” Ryan says in his April campaign announcement video. “We have to cut workers in on the deal.”

“I’ll work with anyone to build out our economy,” Ryan continues as footage of an empty plant in Ryan’s district appears on screen. “But I will never sell out our workers.”

Ryan, who received more than $380,000 in corporate PAC contributions in the 2020 election cycle, took a middle-of-the-road approach to corporate taxes during our August chat. As an evangelist for job growth in the Mahoning Valley and the rest of Ohio, he is wary of anything that would jeopardize corporate investment in the region.

We’ve got to work with the business community.Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio)

“We’ve got to work with the business community,” he said. “If we’re going to grow the new economy, it’s got to be business working with communities, working with the government.”

Nowhere is that truer than in combating climate change, according to Ryan, who believes corporations have a critical role to play in addressing the global crisis.

“It’s going to be companies who will capture carbon and put it in cement or build electric vehicles,” he declared. “We’ve got to be sensitive to them.”

Still, he told HuffPost that he is open to raising the top capital gains tax rate and asking for a “little bit of an increase” above the current 21% rate in the top corporate tax bracket, noting that a “number of Fortune 500 companies … don’t even pay anything, which is completely unfair.”

It’s hardly the populist rhetoric of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), another union ally from an industry town whom Ohio Democrats see as the paradigm for electoral success in the state. Brown, who routinely denounces “corporate greed,” has called for a special tax on corporations whose employees are paid so little they are eligible for social safety net programs.

But Ryan is trying a slightly different route, and the Democratic Ohio strategist who requested anonymity to speak freely called Ryan “a poor man’s Sherrod Brown.”

Even in Ohio, Ryan’s moderation could cause him some heartburn in a Democratic primary. Morgan Harper, a progressive attorney competing against Ryan for the Senate nomination, cited her refusal to accept corporate PAC money as a key point of contrast.

“That’s going to be an important message to get across to voters in the state to turn out so they know that they can trust me to fight for them,” she told HuffPost in August.

Tony Hickson holds signs in support of Joe Biden in Youngstown, Ohio, on September 22, 2020. The state has grown more elusive for Democrats in recent years. (Photo: MEGAN JELINGER/Getty Images)

Ryan’s campaign reported on Wednesday that nearly 97% of his $2.5 million fundraising haul in the third quarter of this year came from contributions of less than $100.

Asked for a response to implicit criticism of his continued receipt of corporate PAC donations, Ryan campaign spokesperson Izzi Levy said in a statement: “Tim knows there’s too much money in politics, which is why he’s proud to have cosponsored and voted repeatedly to pass the For the People Act, which includes urgently-needed political reforms to overturn Citizens United, require dark money groups to disclose their donors, and move to a publicly-financed elections system that ends the influence of corporate special interests on our elections.”

Some frustrated progressive voters in the Mahoning Valley also lament what they see as Ryan’s inadequate efforts to prevent General Motors from shuttering its Lordstown production plant in 2019. (Ryan maintains that he did all he could ― from privately lobbying the Trump administration and General Motors CEO Mary Barra to publicly lambasting them when they failed to deliver.)

Chuckie Denison, a former worker at the Lordstown plant and a Harper supporter, said he would hold his nose and vote for Ryan in the general election against a Republican, despite his belief that Ryan is a “centrist weasel.”

Julie Stout, a union organizer who co-chairs the Mahoning Valley chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, is less flexible.

“I vote my conscience, and I cannot vote for” Ryan, she said.

Ryan, second from right, stands next to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), right, at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Brown is more progressive, but they both emphasize labor. (Photo: Douglas Graham/Getty Images)

‘Tim Ryan From The Valley’

To Ryan’s allies, he is everything that a Democrat needs to be to win in Ohio ― a walking, talking breath of blue-collar culture who has lived his whole life in exactly the kind of down-on-its-luck industrial region where Trump co-opted huge swaths of the Democratic electorate. In October 2016, when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s victory over Trump looked inevitable, Ryan recognized Trump’s appeal with his constituents, delivering a memorable put-down of the then-GOP presidential nominee that spoke to class interests rather than objections to Trump’s character.

Citing Trump’s history of stiffing building contractors in his employ, Ryan told a crowd at a Clinton rally in Youngstown, “He will gut you and he will walk over your cold dead body, and he won’t even flinch.”

Ryan, a tall and brawny former Catholic high school quarterback, has a reedy accent that betrays his northeast Ohio heritage. He can often be found sporting Cleveland Browns apparel, but he does not fit easily into the stereotype of an old-fashioned jock. He wrote a book in 2012 about how he had benefited from mindfulness meditation and, by extension, how the country could profit from it if the practice were more widely adopted.

An attorney who got his start in politics as an aide in the office of former Youngstown Rep. James Traficant Jr., Ryan nonetheless always hearkens back to the opportunities that his Irish and Italian immigrant forebears had thanks to the Mahoning Valley’s thriving steel and manufacturing industry ― and the unions that made sure those industry’s profits were shared with workers.

Democrats “used to believe and like people who showered after work and not before work, people who don’t have a college education but go to work and work hard,” said Dave Betras, a lawyer who used to chair the Mahoning County Democratic Party. “That’s the kind of guy Tim Ryan is. He values those people. He understands that you should be able to go to work, retire with dignity and go on vacation with your family once a year.”

It really affected him because Tim is a people person.Rev. Michael Harrison, Union Baptist Church, on the murder of George Floyd

Those types of pronouncements ― that Ryan can appeal to the forgotten working-class voter ― can sound to some progressive activists like code for a candidate who appeals narrowly to aging white men.

But Youngstown Mayor Tito Brown and other local Black officials and community leaders told HuffPost that they see Ryan as a critical ally. Ryan joined Brown and other officials in a march for Black civil rights in Youngstown, which is 42% Black, a few days after the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

“He was hurt and distraught,” said Rev. Michael Harrison, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Youngstown, who said he contacts Ryan on his cellphone when he needs him. “It really affected him because Tim is a people person.”

Ryan’s focus on jobs, which he has helped steer to the region through his post on the House Appropriations Committee, is also of particular importance to Black workers, since they are often the most vulnerable to economic disruptions that affect the entire workforce.

Brown is especially grateful for Ryan’s role in securing a $10 million federal transportation grant for Youngstown in 2018 that aimed to connect the city’s growing education and health care campuses with the city’s downtown.

“All the time that he’s been a congressman, he’s never changed,” said Brown, who sees Ryan doing his own grocery shopping in the community. “He’s always been Tim Ryan from the Valley ― Tim Ryan for the Valley.”

Of course, earlier in his career, part of fitting in locally for Ryan meant sharing many of his devout Christian constituents’ opposition to abortion rights. In 2015, though, he announced that after consulting women across the state, he had come to fully embrace a woman’s right to choose, while maintaining his hope that better education and expanded health care access can ensure that “abortions will rarely be necessary.”

On other hot-button stances where polls show that Ohioans are to the right of the progressive activist class, such as reducing police funding, Ryan remains unequivocal in his opposition, touting his vote for increased federal funding for law enforcement in President Joe Biden’s relief package.

“We need robust law enforcement,” he told HuffPost. “We’ve got to aggressively get rid of [law enforcement officials] who do things wrong. And we’ve got to do a lot to try to shift the culture in some of these police departments that don’t understand what’s happening in the world, and that’s important. But you still need funding.”

Josh Mandel, a hardline conservative, is again seeking the Republican Senate nomination in Ohio. Some Democrats believe his victory in the primary would benefit the Democratic Party. (Photo: Chris Maddaloni/Getty Images)

Brown, an icon in Ohio Democratic politics, is known as one of the most progressive members of the Senate.

But electability is a more elastic concept for a three-term statewide incumbent first elected in 2006 ― a less polarized time ― than it is for a congressman seeking statewide office in 2022, a number of Ohio Democrats maintain. These Democrats candidly say that Ryan’s approach to culture war issues ― centrist as needed, but silent whenever possible ― is the only way to win in Ohio.

“My constituents rarely contact me about social issues,” said Ohio state Rep. Tavia Galonski (D), an attorney, former union activist and member of the state’s Black Legislative Caucus from Akron. “They’re concerned about health care.”

In that way, Ryan’s candidacy is yet another test of whether a Democrat with mainstream liberal economic positions and moderate views on so-called social issues can overcome Ohio’s rightward drift and Trump’s influential legacy in the state.

It’s a state that’s going to vote for which candidate they think is going to go to the mat for them on wages, jobs, retirement security.Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio)

“Ohio’s an economic state,” Ryan told HuffPost. “It’s a state that’s going to vote for which candidate they think is going to go to the mat for them on wages, jobs, retirement security.”

“I’ve got a long record on that,” he added. “And I think that’s why we’re going to flip it.”

Thus far, though, for Ryan and other Democrats, the results in Ohio have not been terribly promising.

Since 2016, when Trump romped to victory in Ohio on the strength of promises to revive manufacturing, Democrats’ fortunes have faltered in the state. Even as the party rebounded in neighboring Midwestern states, Democrats failed to pick up any House seats and lost a gubernatorial race in Ohio during the blue wave of 2018. And in 2020, Biden, who boasts of his appeal to white, blue-collar voters, didn’t manage to improve much on Clinton’s 2016 performance in the state.

Over this period, Ryan continued to outperform Democrats at the top of the ticket from 2016 to 2020, but he was not immune from the statewide shift to the right. His share of the vote declined from 68% in 2016 to 61% in 2018 and 53% in 2020.

Ryan may benefit from a crowded Republican primary where top contenders Jane Timken, J.D. Vance and Josh Mandel are jockeying for the pro-Trump mantle.

But the GOP is betting that discomfort with the proposals championed by the national Democratic Party’s most left-wing figures, such as the Green New Deal and defunding the police, are enough to taint Ryan by association.

“Ohioans deserve a leader who will fight to protect their hard-earned dollars, jobs, and families,” Lizzie Litzow, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told HuffPost in a statement. “They don’t need someone like Tim Ryan who will continue to march in lockstep with these radical, Left-wing policies and cower to their party’s leadership.”

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.