Tim Ryan is winning the battle for the Democratic Party’s heart and soul.
Tim Ryan is a “crazy liar” and “a con.” This is how J.D. Vance, an Ohio Republican who wrote a best-selling memoir and is now running for the Senate, started his speech at a rally with Donald Trump in September. The rally was in the middle of the congressional district that Paul Ryan has represented for 20 years.
It seems unlikely that Mr. Ryan would be the target of such harsh words. He is a 49-year-old former college quarterback who is the epitome of friendliness. His introductory campaign video could easily be mistaken for an insurance ad because it is so harmless. Outside of politics, he is very interested in yoga and mindfulness.
When he won the Democratic Senate primary in May, he said, “We have to love each other, care about each other, see the best in each other, and forgive each other.”
He isn’t just telling people to be kind and forgive. He has been warning his fellow Democrats for years that their support for free trade and globalization would hurt districts like the one he represents in the Mahoning River Valley. He has also been trying to get them to put more emphasis on domestic manufacturing, which he says could help fix some of the damage.
His work didn’t get anywhere. In 2016, Mr. Ryan failed in his attempt to replace Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the House’s minority party. His run for president in 2020 didn’t leave much of a mark. And his opponent, Mr. Vance, was thought to win easily this year in a state that Mr. Trump had won twice by an 8-point margin.
But things have not turned out as planned. Mr. Ryan is close enough in the polls that a political action committee linked to Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, had to spend $28 million to keep the seat (which is currently held by Rob Portman, who is retiring), and Mr. Vance has had to step up his attacks on this “weak, fake congressman.”
Tim Ryan is putting his party on the right track in the Midwest after years of being ignored. On the campaign trail, he has taken a tone that brings people together, which is different from Mr. Trump and those who try to be like him. Many of the people he calls the “exhausted majority” of voters have shown their appreciation.
And his main message, which is that the government needs to do more to stop regional decline, is not only getting through to voters, but also, and this is very important, to the Democratic leaders who have been in charge of that decline for years. The Democrats have passed a bunch of laws that will make it possible for two new Intel chip plants to be built in the suburbs of Columbus, encourage investment in new electric vehicle ventures in Mr. Ryan’s district, and help solar-panel factories in the Toledo area. This gives him, at long last, real examples of how his party is rebuilding the manufacturing base that the area was so proud of.
In short, the party is doing a lot more of what Mr. Ryan has been saying for a long time would save its political fortunes in the Midwest. The problem for him, and for them as well, is that it might be too late.
Tim Ryan wasn’t always so alone in Congress. Many Democrats like him used to come from manufacturing areas in the Northeast and Midwest. They were often white, Catholic, from the working class, and had strong ties to organized labor. Both Mr. Ryan’s grandfather and great-grandfather worked in the steel mills. Mr. Ryan’s family is Irish and Italian. One of the most well-known people of this type was James Traficant, who represented the Mahoning Valley in a very strange way and was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2002 for taking bribes and running a racket. So, Tim Ryan, a young former member of his staff, won the seat at age 29.
There are still a few: Marcy Kaptur is likely to keep her House seat in the Toledo area after her MAGA opponent lied about his military record. Kaptur’s mother was a union organizer at a spark plug factory. And Sherrod Brown, who grew up in hard-hit Mansfield and has a generally disheveled look, has won two re-elections to the Senate thanks to his personal appeal and weak opponents. He is the son of a doctor and has a Yale degree, but these facts don’t matter.
But almost all of the rest have gone away. In 2010, the Democrats lost almost all of their seats. Others gave in to the extreme gerrymandering done by Republicans after that. But the biggest reason for their disappearance was the economic decline of the places they came from, which was on a scale that many people in more prosperous parts of the country still find hard to understand.