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Tim Ryan Muddles Through

The Democratic candidate for Ohio’s vacant Senate seat failed to break away in his debate with poverty-memoirist-turned-venture-capitalist J.D. Vance.
by Jim Swift
October 11, 2022
Tim Ryan Muddles Through
Tim Ryan during Monday night's debate

Tim Ryan has been playing a dangerous game. Ohio went for Donald Trump by 8 points in 2020 and by an even wider margin in 2016, so Ryan, the Democratic congressman running to succeed Rob Portman in the U.S. Senate, has to convince a significant share of Republican voters to cross the aisle for him.

Monday night’s debate between Ryan and the Republican candidate, J.D. Vance, was one of the few remaining opportunities Ryan would have to appeal directly to Republican voters. Going into the debate, the general consensus among political commentators was that the Peter Thiel–backed Vance has been a horrific candidate while Ryan has been running an atypically good campaign. And Ryan has been trying to reach Republican voters: He even made a point of advertising how Fox News personalities have said nice things about him. But Monday night’s debate, the first of two, was an important opportunity for Ryan to score points against Vance in person.

As an Ohioan, I was reminded of the 2006 Ohio State / Michigan game: a constant back and forth that was so intense, so unstable, that your neighbors might call the cops on you for the vehemence of your yelling at the screen.

And like that fateful 2006 game, Monday’s debate was a squeaker. Tim Ryan barely won. He should have dominated; he did not, and sometimes looked like a deer in the headlights. Meanwhile, J.D. Vance’s performance was the first sign of life his campaign has shown since he beat Josh Mandel in the primary.

Inflation was the topic that opened the night, and Vance made good use of the opportunity by accusing Ryan of constantly backing policies that have made the economic situation worse for Ohioans:

I believe we’ve gone in a fundamentally bad direction over the last couple of years. I think people deserve to go to the grocery store without it completely breaking the bank. Tim Ryan has voted with these policies a hundred percent of the time. Every single time he gets an opportunity to stand up for Ohio, he chooses to bend the knee to his own party.

The charge is somewhat misleading: Although Ryan has consistently voted with his party over the past couple years, he also challenged Nancy Pelosi for the speakership and has staked out a number of positions to the right of the average Democrat—a necessity of political survival in the Buckeye State. That didn’t stop Vance from repeating the line of attack several times.

Ryan countered by laying out the merits of the Biden agenda items he voted for, including the Inflation Reduction Act. He claimed the act will create 600,000 jobs in Ohio, many of them paying $135,000. Ryan also emphasized that the act is a pro-energy piece of legislation:

Of course, J.D.’s gonna kick this campaign off with misrepresenting my position. In the Inflation Reduction Act, we’re going all in on natural gas. I’ve been a natural gas proponent since I’ve been in Congress, and we have to get this right.

During Ryan’s brief run for president during the 2020 cycle, he talked about regulating fracking; Vance attacked him for supporting a full ban of the practice. Ryan’s denial was cut off at the end of one of his speaking allotments, and with the moderator’s bell dinging, he couldn’t get the point out squarely. This timing issue might stand in for Ryan’s disappointing style throughout the evening: There were no spectacular flameouts, but there was plenty of mediocre fumbling. Not exactly a command performance, and unfortunately, that’s what the moment required.

And while Vance may have checked out following his primary win, he certainly checked back in during the debate. He exploited Ryan’s weaknesses handily and demonstrated confidence on stage, as you might expect of an OSU grad, former Marine, New York Times bestselling author, and Yale law grad.

Ryan—a Bowling Green alumnus who got his law degree from the University of New Hampshire—was no slouch, it should be said. But that’s hardly the line you want printed in the writeup following a crucial debate.

Taken together, the debate topics that followed inflation amounted to a litany of this country’s real and imagined problems: illegal aliens, rape, abortion, China, “rainbow fentanyl,” Ukraine, Taiwan, gay marriage, healthcare, and addiction.

In their back-and-forths across these topics, neither candidate quite managed to get the upper hand. Ryan sounded recitative and workshopped, qualities Vance called out. But at one point, it felt like Vance let something slip when he accused Ryan of telling “dishonest truths”—on his second try he got out “dishonest lies” correctly— about his nonprofit organization that is supposed to support people struggling with addiction; Ryan contends the organization spent nothing to actually help people. As detailed in an Associated Press story over the summer, the truth is a bit mixed: While Vance’s now-shuttered foundation did pay for a yearlong residency for an addiction specialist who did work with people in a struggling Ohio community, that doctor’s work was called into question after reporters discovered her ties to Purdue Pharma. Among other things, the addiction specialist occasionally shared drafts of her news stories about addiction with Purdue officials; OxyContin, a prescription painkiller the company pushed aggressively starting in the mid-’90s, is a major contributing factor in the onset of the opioid epidemic still ravaging Ohio today.

Ryan at one point accused Vance of investing in China and shipping American jobs overseas, but when prompted by Vance, he could not name the company in which Vance allegedly invested. I’m not sure if this registered in the crosstalk, but it’s worth pointing out that Vance did not quite deny making such an investment—“not that I know of,” he said when Ryan pressed him. As a reporter for a local NBC affiliate was told by economic policy researchers while fact-checking the candidates’ ads in August, “It is very difficult to track investments in firms that aren’t publicly traded like what Vance has done in his business career.”

Where Ryan took the lead, at least to me, was in the last fifteen minutes of the debate, during exchanges relating to Donald Trump, the 2020 election, and the January 6th insurrection.

Here’s Ryan excoriating Vance for claiming to support law enforcement even though he promoted a fundraiser for an insurrectionist.

Vance had no response but to awkwardly accuse Ryan of having been too critical of police during the race-related protests across the country in 2020.

Ryan then quoted Donald Trump’s line from last month about how Vance was “kissing my ass.” Vance, Ryan said, “can’t stand up to anybody” and allowed Trump to take away his “dignity.”

Then Vance felt he had to respond to the charge that he is an “election denier.” Notably, he used a version of the same defense Blake Masters debuted against Mark Kelly in their debate last week—a strategy New York Magazine columnist Ed Kilgore christened “election denial lite.” You get the sense that Vance and his advisers watched the Arizona debate and decided to crib from Masters.

So, he just accused me of being an election denier. This is a term that Democrats throw around. Here’s the thing I’ve said about the 2020 election, and it really implicates Big Tech: I think we have great elections in the state of Ohio, and I encourage everybody, even if you’re gonna vote for this guy [Ryan], to get out there and vote by November 8.

But here’s the thing. We know because Facebook has told us that the leadership of the FBI approached Facebook and told them to censor information that was negative about Joe Biden—about Hunter Biden’s corrupt business dealings. You cannot have a multinational corporation that’s in bed with the Communist Chinese that’s censoring information about one of America’s political parties, and doing it in a way that interferes with people’s knowledge and ultimately people’s votes. That’s a threat to democracy. Big Tech has way too much power and it benefits the Democrats.

But in the end, while Ryan gave a serviceable performance, he didn’t beat Vance into the ground, and given how far Ohio has gone in a MAGA direction, that’s what he needed to do. This by itself doesn’t mean that Ryan will lose in the fall—but if he wanted to win, he needed to do a better job than this.

Correction (11 October 2022, 3:15 p.m. EDT): As originally published, this article stated that the Oct. 10 debate between Ryan and Vance was their only debate. It was the first of two.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.