Opinion | Ohio Senate Race Pits Awkward Populist vs. Smooth Politico

Opinion | Ohio Senate Race Pits Awkward Populist vs. Smooth Politico

In the race for Ohio’s open U.S. Senate seat, one candidate is an experienced and savvy politician, the other an ambitious sui generis intellectual. But neither has figured out exactly who he is.

The contest pits Democrat

Tim Ryan,

a 10-term U.S. congressman from Youngstown, against America’s most famous living hillbilly, J.D. Vance. The polls, if you trust them, give Mr. Vance a consistent but slight advantage. Why that advantage isn’t substantial is at first sight a mystery. Ohio now leans significantly to the right: Republican Gov.

Mike DeWine

is likely bound for an easy re-election, and the Senate seat over which Messrs. Vance and Ryan are vying has been in GOP hands since 1999. We are also two years into an unpopular Democratic administration in Washington; history, if you trust it, suggests the seat is Mr. Vance’s to lose.

Leaving polls aside, and ignoring the obvious difference between the two candidates’ political experience, Mr. Ryan is the more gifted campaigner. He has an easy manner, a radio voice and the bearing of a Youngstown union man. At a veterans counseling center in Cincinnati on Tuesday, he appears artfully disheveled. Every male political candidate rolls up his sleeves—it’s a sartorial cliché—but Mr. Ryan wears his shirt untucked and unbuttoned enough to show a bit of chest.

He leans back in his chair at a conference table and listens to the employees explain what they do; he asks apposite questions and cracks jokes. When a female worker pointed out that more than half the center’s employees are women, Mr. Ryan says, “That’s why s—’s getting done now,” to the delight of all.

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Mr. Ryan aggressively courts the undecided or Republican-leaning voter. In June, when Democrats anticipated a Republican wave, he ran ads in which you could be forgiven for not knowing what party he belonged to (“I’ll work with either party to cut costs and pass a middle-class tax cut”). Democrats are more optimistic now, but Mr. Ryan hasn’t stopped asking for the votes of Ohioans who don’t loathe

Donald Trump.

In Portsmouth, a town on the Ohio River across from Kentucky, Mr. Ryan speaks to a group of some 25 veterans and their wives, most of them in their 70s, in an American Legion hall that smells of dust and mildew. Asked why there are so many young men who seem to have no aim or ambition, Mr. Ryan says: “One of the worst things we’ve done as a country in the last two, three decades is we’ve said everybody’s got to go to college. I think that’s what started to separate out that group of people as not being valuable to society.” He goes on to talk, credibly to my ear, about community-college education and programs to give high-school students credit toward trade licenses.

One man at the Portsmouth gathering, a 30-something veteran with bulging, heavily tattooed arms, is clearly a fan of Mr. Ryan but complains that President Biden “abandoned 20 years of sacrifice in Afghanistan.” Others in the room nod in agreement. Mr. Ryan nods, too. He speaks of a “through-line” in modern American history “from Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Truman, Kennedy, Reagan—guys that understood the importance of American power.” The order is slightly amiss, but the mention of Reagan seems deliberate—and, in its way, impressive.

“I’ve agreed with Trump on trade and certain things that I thought were best for Ohio,” Mr. Ryan says, “even though, you know, I had personal differences with the guy.” That last phrase was an artful euphemism. He voted twice to impeach the guy.

His attitude toward Mr. Trump, though, is only one point, and not the most important one, on which Mr. Ryan has trouble appealing to working-class centrist voters. Mr. Vance never misses a chance to remind his listeners that Mr. Ryan’s votes in 2021 and 2022 are fully in accord with Mr. Biden and Speaker

Nancy Pelosi.

That allegation has one thing to be said in its favor—it’s true. Mr. Ryan voted for all the spending bills, including the American Rescue Plan, which passed, and Build Back Better, which didn’t. He voted for the Equality Act, which would add “gender identity” protections to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the For the People Act, which would federalize control of elections.

Mr. Ryan is frequently asked about his recent votes with the progressive left. “Well,” he answers at the Cincinnati event, “not everything comes up for a vote.”

That may sound like a convenient way to say he would have voted against Mrs. Pelosi et al. if only he had the opportunity, and so it is. “On the student loan thing I’ve opposed [Biden],” he continues. “On the China tariff thing I’ve opposed him. On Title 42”—a Covid-era immigration restriction, which the Biden administration proposed to lift—“I’ve opposed him. So the point is, for voters, that Tim Ryan has agreed with Trump on trade, on China, on the military, on the Space Force, and I’ve disagreed with Democrats on trade and other issues.”

The Space Force seems an arcane issue on which to “agree” with Mr. Trump, but such are the exigencies of tough electoral contests.

J.D. Vance, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Ohio, speaks during a campaign rally in Newark, Ohio, April 30.


Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Mr. Vance, meanwhile, is evidently less comfortable engaging in person-to-person or “retail” politics of the sort at which Mr. Ryan excels. Mr. Vance does less of it, for one thing. The rarity of his campaign appearances over the summer was the subject of a story on CNN and of ridicule by the Ryan campaign. In July he showed up in Israel. In October he will deliver the keynote address at a conference attended by eggheads from around the country on “common-good conservatism” at Franciscan University in Steubenville. That ought to get folks to the polls in November!

Mr. Vance has started campaigning more frequently in person, but my sense is that he hasn’t got the hang of it. The Farm Science Review, a massive gathering of farmers and ag-industry companies near London, Ohio, is an easy crowd for a populist Republican like Mr. Vance. (I note one young woman wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “I love Jesus but sometimes I cuss.”) Mr. Vance appears to feel a little out of place. At the Farm Bureau barn, men in plaid shirts and baseball caps seem ready for the candidate to address them, but for a moment he seems to think they should talk to him. He shakes a few hands and shouts, “Gotta grow our own food in Ohio—can’t let the Chinese make everything!” and moseys awkwardly away.

Mr. Vance warms up a bit when he hands some money to a campaign staffer and asks him to buy milkshakes at the tent of the American Dairy Association Mideast. “I’m a milkshake guy,” he says. Nearby stands a “tracker,” a young man apparently sent by the Ryan campaign or the state Democratic Party to film everything the Republican says in the hope that he says something stupid or embarrassing. Mr. Vance turns to the tracker and asks if he too wants a milkshake. “No thanks,” the man says, still holding his phone aloft and recording it all. “Lactose intolerant.”

Mr. Vance hasn’t figured out who he is, either—though for different reasons. The mainstream press and the Ryan campaign have made much of Mr. Vance’s early criticisms of Mr. Trump and later embrace of the former president’s “nationalist” politics. “Trump’s actual policy proposals, such as they are, range from immoral to absurd,” Mr. Vance wrote in a February 2016 op-ed. During Mr. Trump’s term, however, Mr. Vance grew to like the president’s positions on illegal immigration, China, trade and industrial policy; and in 2021 he sought and received Mr. Trump’s endorsement. That endorsement almost certainly put Mr. Vance over the top in the GOP primary. At a rally last weekend in Youngstown, Mr. Trump, always the helpful political ally, remarked that “J.D. is kissing my ass”—allowing Mr. Ryan constantly to refer to his opponent as an “ass kisser.”

But Mr. Vance’s disposition toward the 45th president is the least interesting part of the aspiring senator’s continuing ideological development. He achieved fame with his 2015 book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” a memoir of growing up in a family of Appalachian poor folk in Middletown, Ohio, a town halfway between Dayton and Cincinnati. Mr. Vance was raised mostly by his coarse-talking grandparents, Mamaw and Papaw, because his mother, like many others he knew in Middletown, was prone to violence and drug abuse and couldn’t keep a job or a spouse.

The book’s most prominent theme is that the societal pathologies Mr. Vance witnessed in Middletown—alcoholism, indolence, opioid addiction—are not, or at least not primarily, the result of declining economic opportunity. They “run far deeper than macroeconomic trends and policies,” he writes; they are instead the consequence of family breakdown, corrosive cultural habits and bad individual choices. In a moving passage on the aversion to work among the poor of his hometown, he writes: “We talk about the value of hard work but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese.” Elsewhere he recalls the tendency of poor boys to think of schoolwork as “feminine,” fit only for “sissies.” “Can you change that with a new law or program?” he asks. “Probably not.”

To be sure, you can’t run for high office on a platform of telling people to take responsibility for their own decisions and stop blaming government for their ills. You could, however, advocate reforming the welfare system. Mr. Vance writes memorably of the white “welfare queens” he knew in Middletown, but nowhere in his campaign speeches or on his website can one find anything about welfare reform.

I ask him why, having written such a book, he doesn’t talk more about the ills of unhelpful governmental benevolence to the poor. He grants the premise, then reverted to the economic argument he pointedly rejected in his book. “You have to make sure that there are good jobs available for every skill set we have in this country.”

At a Thursday night gathering of wealthy Republican suburbanites near Cincinnati, Mr. Vance briefly connects the pathologies he chronicles in “Hillbilly Elegy” to the sorts of things over which he would have some influence as a U.S. senator. Securing the country’s southern border, he argues, would stop the flow of heroin, fentanyl and other drugs into the U.S. “Think about all the children, all across Ohio, who are being raised by Mamaws and Papaws,” he says, “because of the poison we’ve allowed into our country.”

That’s a fair point. But border security is a small nail on which to hang a political doctrine aimed at saving the working class. I’m left wondering if Mr. Vance’s candidacy is a kind of metaphor for the “national conservatism” or “common-good conservatism” he espouses—a cultural cause trying to turn itself into a political movement, a noble urge to change hearts and renew minds that over time degenerates into a facile political program of trade protectionism and economic planning.

Mr. Vance is a restless man. Anybody can see that. Forgive me, but I doubt he really wants to tie himself down to a six-year term of committee assignments and second readings and meetings with lobbyists and floor debates on amended bills that move slowly and imperfectly. If he wins, as I expect he will, he’ll soon grow weary of the job. Eventually he’ll escape from Capitol Hill, too, and maybe write another elegy.

Mr. Swaim is an editorial page writer for the Journal.

Wonder Land: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has noted a historic shift that no political outrage will change. Images: AP/Zuma Press/AFP via Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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