Ohio’s U.S. Senate race is one of the most consequential in the country as the two candidates vie for a relatively rare open seat in an evenly divided Senate.
“This is a critical election for both parties. The U.S. Senate is currently split 50-50, which means Vice President (Kamala) Harris breaks any ties, so Democrats have the smallest possible majority in the chamber,” said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Cedarville University Center for Political Studies. “Each competitive Senate seat could make the difference between a majority or minority for each party. There are a few competitive seats this cycle, including the one in Ohio.”
The race pits Democrat U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Howland Twp. in Trumbull County against Republican businessman J.D. Vance of Cincinnati.
Thirty-four of 100 Senate seats are on the ballot on Nov. 8.
“The big question is, how many of those are legitimately competitive and how many could be flipped from one party to the other?” said Lee Hannah, associate professor of political science at Wright State University. “Democrats are fairly confident that they can hold most of the states where their incumbents are up for re-election — with the toughest contest being in Georgia followed by Nevada.”
If Democratic Party incumbents win, and they can flip a Republican seat in the tight Pennsylvania race, Hannah said the 51-49 advantage would make it easier for them to pass President Joe Biden’s agenda and approve his appointments.
Under that scenario Democrats could hold the chamber without winning in Ohio, but if Ryan wins on Nov. 8, Hannah said it might be a sign of a very good night for Democrats that could include flipping Republican-held seats in Wisconsin and North Carolina.
“Since this is a mid-term election cycle, and Democrats hold the White House, this is really about our federal government for the next two years. If the Democrats manage to keep control of the House and Senate, they will continue to control the national government, and still have a chance of pursuing the party’s agenda,” Smith said.
“If Republicans win control of either the House or the Senate, we will have a divided national government. This makes it much less likely significant laws will be passed in 2023 and 2024.”
Vance was endorsed by former President Donald Trump and is one of multiple Republican candidates nationwide who promote the falsehood that Trump won the 2020 election.
“By falsely saying that the 2020 election was stolen Vance is trying to show his allegiance to Trump over all else in order to appeal to Trump voters,” said Daniel R. Birdsong, senior lecturer in political science at the University of Dayton. “Unlike Tim Ryan who is trying to show that he disagrees with President Biden, Vance can’t show his independence. If he sways from the former president, then he runs the risk of losing support.”
Democrat Joe Biden won both the popular and electoral votes, an outcome confirmed after multiple investigations, court rulings and election audits. Even so, polls consistently show that about 70% of Republican voters question the legitimacy of Biden’s win. Fewer than 40% of all voters hold that view, said Hannah.
“I don’t think Vance wants to make this election about the Big Lie, but he certainly has shown that he believes staying close to Trump is a winning strategy,” Hannah said.
Smith said that what played well in the Republican primary, where challenging the 2020 results was a “litmus test” in Ohio and other states, may not work as well in the General Election.
“Additionally, Donald Trump is divisive among independents,” Smith said. “To the degree the mid-term elections are about Trump, and the 2020 election, this is much better for Democrats.”
Multiple public polls show Ryan and Vance are running about even in Ohio, something that surprises Hannah given the state’s rightward tilt in recent elections, the popularity of retiring U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, whose seat the men are seeking, and given the historical trend for the president’s party to not do well in midterm elections.
“Ryan understands that Ohio is trending toward being a consistently Republican state. For any Democrat to win a state-wide election, they will have to appeal to Republicans and independents to one degree or another,” Smith said.
Ryan’s campaign focuses on appealing to working class voters and he touts his vote with Trump to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and his disagreement with Biden on things like forgiving federal student loans.
“He definitely has a theory that he needs to run to the center in order to win,” Hannah said.
Birdsong argues that Ryan’s effort to draw Republican and independent voters is a gamble.
“While Vance is preaching to the choir in order to get them to sing, Ryan seems to be betting that progressives will sing no matter what,” Birdsong said. “Democrats’ and progressives’ dislike of the former president may very well be strong enough to provide Ryan with strong base support. As a result, he can spend time and money to reach out to independents and anti-Trump Republicans.”
Smith doesn’t think there is much risk that Ryan will alienate progressive Democrats.
“For them, this is an easy choice. It is possible that Ohio could help decide the entire progressive agenda in Congress,” Smith said. “Even if Ryan is not the ideal Senator for progressives, he will be far more supportive of their agenda than J.D. Vance and a Republican controlled Senate.”
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