To many Democrats, Ohio looked like a lost cause. To Ryan, it was the Democrats, not Ohio, who were lost. His party had a branding problem, Ryan reasoned, one that had alienated the working-class voters in his Youngstown-based congressional district. Those voters had cast their ballots for both Donald Trump and Ryan in 2020, and Ryan had bet his run for U.S. Senate that he could replicate that model statewide. “That’s the coalition,” Ryan told Rolling Stone last month. “You’ve got to get those guys back.”
Returning Rust Belt workers to the Democratic fold had been Ryan’s raison d’être ever since the 2016 election. His tactics for proving this point tended toward the extreme, such as challenging Nancy Pelosi for the House Democrats’ top leadership slot in the aftermath of Trump’s win. Ryan’s run for Senate became a laboratory for testing his theories about the party. He ran on economic populism as he distanced himself from the national party. “Elite,” Ryan said of Democrats’ reputation. “That sensibility is just a huge headwind for us.”
Vance, meanwhile, had catapulted into the spotlight as the author of Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir of his Appalachian family that became a bestselling salve to liberals seeking to understand Trump’s surprise victory. But Vance had long abandoned his humble roots for Silicon Valley, where he served as a principal in a venture capital firm belonging to PayPal founder and GOP megadonor Peter Thiel. Thiel had directed $15 million to Vance’s primary campaign, the greatest sum an individual has ever spent on a Senate candidate. The support helped Vance emerge victorious in a crowded GOP primary.
Trump’s endorsement helped, too, but was far from guaranteed. Vance had fashioned himself as a “Never Trump guy” who “never liked him,” as he told PBS’ Charlie Rose in 2016, and had likened Trump’s influence to “cultural heroin.” But Vance transformed himself into a Trump loyalist over the course of his campaign who echoed the former president’s criticisms of “elites and the ruling class.” The about-face earned him Trump’s support, but not without a dose of humiliation. “J.D. is kissing my ass he wants my support so bad,” Trump said at an Ohio rally in September (a rally that Trump planned without Vance’s blessing, the New York Times reported). Ryan echoed Trump’s line in an October debate against Vance, calling his GOP opponent an “ass-kisser” who had sucked up to Trump.
Trump’s 2016 and 2020 wins in Ohio all but sealed a win for Vance. But Ryan pulled ahead in polling in the wake of the Dobbs decision — which virtually outlawed abortions in Ohio — and kept the race tied throughout the fall. Ryan attacked Vance as a carpetbagging elite, while Vance cast Ryan as a career politician and a fraud for his efforts to attract Ohio conservatives. Though Ryan had eschewed campaign help from most national Democratic figures, Trump held a rally in Ohio on the eve of the midterm elections to bolster Vance’s prospects. (Ostensibly, anyway. He gave Vance only a single minute to address the crowd.)
Ryan’s approach had delighted Democrats eager for a roadmap to rescue white working-class votes from the GOP’s grasp. Ditto anti-Trump conservatives such as Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist and the publisher of The Bulwark, who declared to Rolling Stone last month that Ryan was running “the best campaign of the cycle.” They hoped that, win or lose, Democrats would take note of Ryan’s efforts. “If Tim wins, there’s going to be a lot of important reasons why,” said Justin Barasky, who managed Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) 2018 campaign. “But it’s important, if Tim loses, that we don’t learn the wrong lesson from what is an unbelievable campaign.”