Ryan Worries Defeat of ‘Red Wave’ Has Created Phony Narrative for Dems
WASHINGTON — Fresh off a grueling, hard-fought Senate race that he ultimately lost to Republican newcomer and “Hillbilly Elegy” memoirist J.D. Vance, Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, smiled broadly as members of the NewDEAL rose to give him an extended standing ovation on Thursday.
Ryan was the mid-morning speaker at the NewDEAL Leaders 12th annual conference, held this year at the Dupont Circle Hotel, an event that was as much about dissecting the past as it was about charting the organization’s short- and longer-term future.
And the question in the room — a question soon asked by Matt Bennett, senior vice president and co-founder of Third Way, the public policy think tank — was what’s wrong with Ohio?
How could a ten-term congressman who had run a nearly flawless campaign for the U.S. Senate come up on the short end of a 53.3% to 46.7% loss?
Why, in the end, did he have no real hope of winning?
Ryan disagreed with the premise a little bit.
“Oh, I think we could have won it,” he said, mentioning a conversation that ensued after his campaign manager ran into J.D. Vance’s campaign manager the other day.
“They said they actually had us up in the polls until two-and-a-half weeks before the election,” Ryan said. “After that, we just could not continue to sustain that lead — not without any help from the outside.”
In fact, so strong was Ryan’s showing in the last month of the campaign, that a PAC affiliated with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., felt compelled to put another $50 million in the Vance campaign.
“That’s $50 million that didn’t go to Republican candidates like Blake Masters in Arizona or Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania,” said Columbus, Ohio, City Attorney Zach Klein, a longtime friend of Ryan.
“So while Tim may not have won his own Senate race, you can say the Democratic majority in the chamber was sustained because of him,” Klein said.
But Ryan didn’t waste time on the might-of-beens of last-minute campaign finance or take consolation in his role in beating back the long-anticipated red wave that was supposed to define the 2022 midterms.
“I think it’s important for us to recognize that the Democratic brand is really bad in a lot of areas,” he said.
As an example, he pointed to Justice Jennifer Brunner’s bid this year for another term on the Ohio Supreme Court.
“She was a great candidate who ran two years ago for state Supreme Court justice and she won,” Ryan said. “At that time in Ohio … [candidates didn’t have to] identify themselves with a party affiliation, you just ran on your name. And she garnered 51% of the vote.
“This year, same woman, same message, same bench, but running under a new law under which you had to affiliate your candidacy, she lost by getting only 31% of the vote,” he said.
But Ryan wasn’t finished. Next he turned to the U.S. Senate race in Arizona that pitted incumbent Democrat Mark Kelly against the aforementioned Blake Masters.
“Here you have Mark Kelly, a fighter pilot, astronaut … by all accounts, probably the best husband in America … if this guy didn’t have a D next to his name, he’d probably get 75% of the vote. Instead, he barely beats a fascist in Arizona,” he said.
“So I just kind of disagree with the worldview that this was a great election for Democrats,” he said. “It’s like, we barely beat the insane. People were going to the ballot box and thinking, ‘Hmm … do I vote for the fascist … or the Democrat?’ And I think we have got to rehabilitate this party, not for the Democrats, but for America.”
In Ryan’s view, a disconnect between the Democratic Party and the electorate has “penetrated the psyche of the country.”
“I don’t have the answer for how to fix that, perhaps it’s something to address candidate by candidate, but brand-wise, I’m not sure what we do,” he said.
“My wife and I talk about this all this time,” he continued. “We come from the Youngstown area, which was a hardcore Democratic stronghold for generations, and now when you tell people there that you’re a Democrat, they treat you like you’re out of the mainstream.
“It’s like they automatically assume, ‘You don’t care about us. You’re down on us. You don’t have a focus on what we’re going through every single day,’” he said. “That’s why we worked so hard on my campaign to go to these places, but the first step to breaking down that impression is by showing up.
“You have to go where the people are, and that’s why another thing I’ve said is, you can’t be afraid to go on Fox News,” Ryan said. “That’s where people are, that’s where they live. So go on there and make your case. Even though they’re going to be harassing you.
“If they don’t think you care, and you don’t show up, you’re just affirming their view that you don’t care, because you didn’t take the time to show up,” he added.
The other thing Ryan stressed during an appearance that lasted just under an hour, was that Democratic candidates need to keep a “laser focus” on people’s pocketbooks.
“People may disagree with you on certain issues, whether it’s being pro-choice or anti-abortion or pro-death penalty or whatever your views are on immigration, but if they feel you’re genuinely concerned about how they’re doing, economically, they’ll still consider voting for you,” he said.
Conversely, Ryan said if the first five issues on a voter’s mind, or their spouse’s mind, are his mortgage, car payments, other bills, health care and prescription drug costs, and the candidate insists on focusing on a woman’s right to choose, it’s likely a candidate is going to lose that vote.
“They may even agree with you 100% on that issue and say, ‘Of course the government shouldn’t be in this business. Of course, of course, of course. But I don’t have the luxury of thinking about that,’” he said.
“That’s why I think people in Washington need to get out of the mindset that just because people think we’re right on a certain big issue, they’re going to be voting for us,” he continued. “Because at the end of the day, what they’re worried about is paying their bills. And that’s why we should be talking more about a pro-growth, progressive economic agenda.”
This of course isn’t to imply that Ryan spent all of his time in a conference room crowded with Democrats thrashing the party’s agenda.
After describing what he saw as the Democratic Party’s weaknesses, he went on to talk about its main opponents, “People,” he said, “who are either crazy or fascist, and those who are simply pretending to be.
“What advice do I have for people in this room who have similar kinds of opponents? Talk about them. Make sure people understand that they are extremists, and press them at every turn,” he said.
As an example, Ryan pointed to a campaign visit Vance paid to an Ohio farm last summer. The farmer, thrilled, spent the hours preceding the visit grilling pork on a huge outdoor grill.
“So here’s this farmer, and he says, ‘J.D., do you want a pork sandwich?’ And Vance says, ‘No, I’m watching my weight on the campaign trail.’ So [he] hammered him on social media: ‘This guy won’t even eat a pork sandwich on a farm in Ohio. That ain’t Ohio.’ And it worked to the extent that we had more split tickets in Ohio than we’d seen in a long time.
“So that’s my advice, if they’re phony, just keep building that case,” he said.
Bennett and Ryan then spoke at length about all the positives Democrats appeared to have to talk about this year, from the bipartisan infrastructure law to the Inflation Reduction Act to the CHIPs legislation — all of which have benefited Ohio in very tangible ways.
And yet, Bennett said, having all that didn’t help Ryan secure a victory.
“You have just laid out a very, very compelling case for why Democrats are making life better for people in places like Youngstown, Ohio. And you also started by saying, the people in communities like that do not buy it at all,” Bennett said.
“So what’s it going to take to bridge that gap? We have a record to run on. You ran on it as effectively as it can be done. So what more do we need to do to get that message across?”
“I don’t know, honestly,” Ryan admitted. “I think it’s got to be a real sustained effort involving all different kinds of groups.
“For example, the AFL-CIO has kind of a long-term strategy on communicating to rank and file members about issues — not talking about Democrat or Republican stands on the issue — but just talking straight issues for a year, year-and-a-half, and then, only once an election roles around, to talk about where specific candidates stand on the issues that are important to them. And I think that may be about the only way to do it.
“At the same time, I think we really do need to engage [the] kids and find out what issues are really important to them — I mean, we know some of them — climate, marijuana reform, some things never change — but I think we really need to make a concerted effort to find out what those issues are and then really start to rebuild from there.
“I said earlier that I don’t agree with the worldview that the Democrats had a great election,” Ryan said. “And I’m sorry, it’s not just sour grapes on my part. If we’re not going to have an honest conversation about this now, then we’re going to be in the same boat two years from now.”