You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation
Buck the Trend

Tim Ryan: Right Man, Right Place, Right Time

The Buckeye State has grown redder and redder. The Democratic congressman could reverse that—and start to revive the Democrats’ working-class identity.

Photograph by Maddie McGarvey
Ryan greeted diners in Gallipolis, Ohio, in January.

The Democrats represent the interests of the working class (to the extent any party does), but it’s the Republicans who have captured the working-class imagination. That sorry state of affairs long predates Donald Trump, but Trump, who made everything worse, made that worse, too. Trump won the working class (defined conventionally as voters who lack a college degree) by 3 percentage points in 2016 and 4 in 2020. Granted, he won it partly through appeals to white bigotry. But Trump also increased Republicans’ share of working-class voters of color (mostly Hispanic) from 16 percent in the 2012 presidential race to 18 percent in 2016 to an alarming 25 percent in 2020. This is a serious problem. As the sociologist Ruy Teixeira, a leading scholar of working-class voters, puts it: “They just don’t feel Democrats give a shit about them.”

One Democrat who’s trying to reverse this tide is Ohio Senate candidate Tim Ryan, a 10-term congressman whose district includes Youngstown, the former steelmaking hub. Ryan grew up in Trumbull County, just north of Youngstown, where he was a high school football quarterback. After graduating from law school in 2000, he served briefly in the Ohio Senate, then ran for and won Democratic Representative James Traficant’s House seat in 2002, after Traficant was convicted of bribery and racketeering and expelled from Congress. This year, Ryan is running to replace retiring Republican Senator Rob Portman. The move requires him to give up his safe House seat and is therefore a significant risk, given the Republicans’ tightening grip on the state. But Ryan has a record of risk-taking; he tried unsuccessfully to unseat Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader in 2016, and made a brief, quixotic bid for the 2020 presidential nomination, dropping out three months before the Iowa Caucus. When I asked Ryan what he considered his most important legislative accomplishment, he cited an obscure but important measure, included in last year’s Covid relief bill, that shored up Rust Belt multiemployer pension funds at serious risk of defaulting and bankrupting their insufficiently funded federal insurer, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. The beneficiaries, he told me, included “about 100,000 people” in Ohio.

Ryan says he’s focused like a laser on rebuilding “the great American middle class.” He’ll have his work cut out for him. As recently as 1990, manufacturing accounted for about 22 percent of all employment in Ohio. By 2019, that was down to 13 percent. When Trump entered office, Ohio had around 684,000 manufacturing jobs; when he left office, that was down to about 660,000. Under President Joe Biden, the number of manufacturing jobs has edged back up to around 680,000.

Trump’s promise to restore the Rust Belt to its former glory (“Don’t sell your house,” he told a Youngstown crowd in 2017) went unfulfilled, but that didn’t keep Trump from winning Ohio by the same 8-point margin in 2020 that he enjoyed in 2016. In May, Trump’s Senate Republican primary endorsement of Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, a onetime Never Trumper turned Trump toady, elevated Vance from third place to party nominee and demonstrated Trump’s continuing influence in the state. The Yale Law graduate and venture capitalist (Peter Thiel spent a cool $15 million on Vance’s primary campaign) is running as a “conservative outsider” who talks up Trump’s trade and immigration policies and spurns the Other. “Two kids on my block graduated from high school in 2003,” Vance said in February. “Both of us enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. We did not serve in the Marine Corps to go and fight Vladimir Putin because he didn’t believe in transgender rights…. I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” It seems to be what Ohio voters want to hear, and (minus the transphobia) Ryan is doing a bit of the same.

More than a bit, actually. “When Obama’s trade deal threatened jobs here,” Ryan said in one TV ad, “I voted against it. And I voted with Trump on trade. I don’t answer to any political party.” In another TV spot, Ryan repeated the word “China” several times and said, “It’s us versus them. Capitalism versus communism.” In response, the AAPI Victory Fund, a political action committee that seeks to attract Asian American and Pacific Islander voters to the Democratic Party, called the ad “sinophobic,” and Ryan’s Democratic House colleague Grace Meng asked him to take it down, but Ryan refused. On immigration, Ryan opposed Biden’s plan to lift Covid restrictions on immigration at the U.S.-Mexican border, calling it premature. On at least two occasions in recent months, Ryan dodged appearing with the president when Biden visited Ohio. He also produced an ad to run on Fox News that consisted of various Fox News hosts, including Tucker Carlson, calling him a moderate.

None of this is quite so disloyal as it sounds. In 2015, Ryan voted not to give President Barack Obama “fast-track” authority on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but so did most of his fellow House Democrats; the measure cleared the House almost entirely on the strength of Republican support. Later, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton effectively killed TPP by saying she opposed it. Ryan’s China spot was unnecessarily and somewhat offensively sinophobic, but Ryan wasn’t wrong that China’s protectionist policies on trade (which have nothing to do with the country being Communist) cry out for a more forceful response from the United States. Ryan’s disagreement with Biden on ending Covid restrictions at the border was mooted in late May when a federal judge blocked the move.

As for Biden, Ryan told me he appeared with the president “a few months back” at Ohio State. Actually, it was 16 months earlier, but perhaps more to the point Ryan had never, as this piece went to press, cast a single vote against Biden. “Even if I don’t like Donald Trump, if he did something that was good for the community, I supported it,” Ryan told me. But that must not have come up very often, because Ryan voted with Trump only about 16 percent of the time, or slightly less often than Pelosi (17.6 percent). So you can stop worrying that Ryan aspires to be Ohio’s Joe Manchin. He’s just trying to win.

Ryan parts company with Trump Republicans most obviously in his vigorous support for labor. The AFL-CIO gives him a lifetime score of 98 percent, the same as Representative Bobby Scott, the Democratic chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. The very first entry on the “issues” page of his campaign website is titled “Cutting Workers in on the Deal,” and in the first paragraph he voices support for the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would eliminate many significant legal barriers to unionization, and for a $15 minimum wage. Unions build communities, Ryan told me. He spoke movingly of his grandfather, a steelworker, whose union job paid him sufficiently for 40 hours’ work per week that he had time to be head usher for his church and to help build an elementary school for the church. “He gave back,” Ryan said. “He participated in the life of his community.” The words “union” and “labor” appear nowhere on the issues page of Vance’s campaign website. That’s very much in line with Trump, who frequently expressed distaste for unions on Twitter and made consistently anti-labor appointments to the Labor Department and the National Labor Relations Board.

Indeed, except for trade and some griping about inflation, the Republicans’ pitch to the working class bypasses bread-and-butter issues entirely. Consider a memo Representative Jim Banks sent House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy in March 2021, proposing that the GOP “permanently become the Party of the Working Class.” What substantive positions, apart from trade restrictions, did Banks suggest that would require? Tighter security at the Mexican border, “Anti-Wokeness,” opposition to Covid restrictions, and opposition to Big Tech. This last was partly a (probably insincere) endorsement of stepped-up antitrust policies, but mostly it was about “Big Tech’s egregious suppression of conservative speech.” It was a pitch based not on economics—which defines what the working class is—but on culture war. Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your gender pronouns.

To win back the working class, Democrats need to lead with their economic pitch: stronger unions, higher minimum wage, higher taxes on the rich. Ryan is doing all that. But with angry consumers slapping Biden “I did that!” decals on gas pumps that charge $5 per gallon, this may not be the best moment for Democrats to talk about the economy. Paul Sracic, a political scientist at Youngstown State University, told me that Trump won Ohio in 2016 because working-class voters got tired of hearing Democrats tell them they opposed trade deals like NAFTA and then turning around and voting for those same trade deals. Trump won Ohio again in 2020, Sracic said, because he succeeded in rewriting NAFTA. And anyway, Sracic pointed out, the Youngstown area has had a minor manufacturing renaissance in recent years, based largely (and ironically) on foreign investment: France-based Vallourec, which makes steel pipes for oil drilling; South Korea–based LG Chem, which helps make batteries for GM cars; and Taiwan-based Foxconn, which makes electric vehicles. In addition, the U.S.-based chip manufacturer Intel is preparing to build two factories near Columbus.

Vance’s inexperience as a candidate, along with his authenticity problem—Ryan constantly calls Vance a “fraud”—give Ryan an opportunity to beat the odds. But if Ryan’s working-class pitch prevails, Sracic told me, it won’t likely be with working-class voters. For all his talk about being the hometown boy from Trumbull County, Ryan narrowly lost Trumbull County in his last House race; that’s how red once-blue northeast Ohio has become. If Ryan wins, Sracic said, it will be with votes from “white, college-educated women in the suburbs around Columbus.” Vance, with his Yale Law degree and his venture-capital experience, ought to be catnip to these voters, and had he run as a Never Trumper he would be. Now it’s less clear he’ll appeal to them.

Still, the Democrats have grown sufficiently weak in Ohio that even an inauthentic Vance will be hard to beat. If Ryan succeeds, it will be his job, alongside senior Senator Sherrod Brown, to persuade Ohioans that the Democrats really are the party of the working class. If they can do that, then maybe the Democratic standard-bearer in 2024 (I don’t assume it will be Biden) can shore up the party’s working-class support and make the Buckeye State competitive again by November 2024. If they fail, don’t rule out four more years of Trump.