JD Vance on ‘get to know you’ tour as he labors to pull away from Tim Ryan

PAINESVILLE, Ohio — J.D. Vance had a special favor to ask of the roughly four dozen grassroots Republicans who showed up to meet him here on a recent weekday morning as he brought his campaign for Senate versus Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) to the Cleveland suburbs.

“Take a photo with me afterwards, put it on Facebook, let people know that I’m not a scumbag, or at least as far as you can tell, I’m not a scumbag. Get that word of mouth out there. Let people know that Tim Ryan is not the guy that he pretends to be,” Vance said during short remarks at the Lake County GOP headquarters.

“I’d love to take photos with people,” he added later, after a Q&A with attendees. “That’s my big ask here, is just talk to people — and one of the ways you can talk to people is through social media.” There’s a reason Vance is asking Republican voters to vouch for him, personally, less than one month before Election Day.

The race to succeed retiring Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) is stubbornly close despite President Joe Biden’s low job approval ratings, a political atmosphere that points to big Republican gains in the midterm elections, and Ohio’s status as, basically, a red state. How red? Former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Vance, twice won Ohio by nearly 10 percentage points, and Gov. Mike DeWine (R-OH) leads Democratic challenger Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley by 20 points.

Yet, as of Monday morning, three weeks plus one day before Election Day, Vance led Ryan in the RealClearPolitics average 45.5% to 44.8%, a margin of just 0.7 points amid a heavy investment of $30 million by the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Even Vance acknowledges the uncomfortable closeness of the contest, although, echoing most Republican insiders monitoring Ohio, the 38-year-old, first-time candidate expects to win in the end.

“We’re in good shape,” he told the Washington Examiner in an interview Thursday. It’s imperative for Republicans that he is. The GOP is bidding to recapture control of a 50-50 Senate in Democratic hands courtesy of Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote, and with nearly every targeted race teetering on a razor’s edge, Republicans cannot afford to lose a seat they already control in what should be safe territory.

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Republican voters in Ohio are feeling that same sense of urgency.

Asked if she was confident Vance would prevail and whether the GOP would be successful generally in November, Linda Ganser, 80, who showed up to see Vance at a party event in Canton, Ohio, said flatly: “We have to.” She added, “It’s not even a matter of — you have to be confident, but by God, we have to do it.” Republican voters who finally got around to meeting Vance seemed to come away pleased.

Perhaps what’s keeping Ryan, 49, in the game, long after the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other national party groups took a pass on Ohio, is that Republicans are still figuring out who Vance is. It’s counterintuitive.

Vance has had five-plus months to travel the state, increasing his name recognition and shoring up support on the Right after winning a crowded knife fight of a primary. His compelling personal story — growing up in poverty in southwest Ohio, enlisting in the Marines, graduating from the Ohio State University and Yale Law School, and a lucrative career in venture capital — was immortalized in his bestselling memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, later made into a well-received movie by Netflix.

And yet, there was Vance in Painesville, a community of about 20,000 people situated roughly 30 miles northeast of Cleveland, leading with his biography, as though a political unknown, to a group more engaged in campaigns than the average voter. “You guys might not know me as well. Pretty much, I grew up in southwestern Ohio — the other side of the state,” he said.

“I was raised by my mamaw and papaw,” Vance continued. “Not just raised me, but saved me.” With humor and a fondness for his roots, Vance recalled his family’s economic challenges and struggles with drug addiction growing up while weaving in present-day anecdotes about his wife and three young children before diving into the issues — especially claims that Ryan is “pretending to be bipartisan” and running as a “‘MAGA’ Republican.”

But Democrats argue that it’s Vance, not Ryan, who is the cipher.

“Vance is a phony, and people see through it. You do well in Ohio when people believe you are the real deal,” said Justin Barasky, a Democratic operative in Ohio, citing Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Trump, and Ryan.

“Vance has numerous advantages here,” Barasky added. “But because he’s been a humiliating fraud from the moment he started running, voters who are otherwise inclined to be loyal Republicans are having a hard time stomaching what a weak, elite poser he appears as.”

Ryan began his two-decade career in Congress a pronounced conservative Democrat, opposed to abortion and resistant to liberal policies on other cultural issues. Over the years, as the political center of gravity shifted on the Left, so did Ryan. He is now a staunch supporter of abortion rights and sports a voting record on the House floor in line with party leadership. Per tracking by FiveThirtyEight, Ryan’s Biden score on legislation is a perfect 100%.

(David Drucker/Washington Examiner)

But against Vance, in a state that is ground zero for Republican gains with working-class voters who for generations were loyal Democrats, the congressman is emphasizing areas of agreement with Trump and the GOP. For instance, Ryan is running as an immigration hawk, advocating tighter security at the U.S. border with Mexico. He is vowing to stand up to the current president while attempting to put Vance on the defensive for his loyalty to the former president.

Ryan’s centrist message drives Republicans apoplectic. But GOP officials concede that, combined with how relatively unknown Vance still is in the Buckeye State, it has worked — at least enough to keep him within striking distance of what would be a monumental upset. Top Republicans also acknowledge, albeit begrudgingly, that Ryan is a quality candidate.

“He’s a likable, affable guy when you meet him. But that’s not the only test — you have to be able to do the job well,” Secretary of State Frank LaRose (R-OH) told the Washington Examiner after introducing Vance at a meet-and-greet with grassroots Republicans and local party officials in Aurora, a bedroom community of 17,240, in Portage County, about 30 miles southeast of Cleveland.

“He’s trying to tell people he’s this moderate,” LaRose said. “People here in the Mahoning Valley, in Portage County, they know better. But he’s been successful in part at convincing people that he’s some sort of Mahoning Valley, blue-collar moderate. His voting record just doesn’t match that.”

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Meanwhile, earlier in the day, as Vance was finishing the photo line with supporters in Painesville, the extent to which he is an unknown quantity at this late stage of the campaign was apparent.

As an elderly woman rushed out the door of the Lake County GOP headquarters and headed to her car, she stopped briefly to thank a Vance campaign aide for his visit, saying a recent televised debate with Ryan provided some insight into who the Republican Senate nominee is but that meeting him in the flesh really gave her a sense of who he really is.

“I’m so glad he’s coming here to northeastern Ohio,” the woman said.

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