“I hear a voice here, and I hear the voice of candidate,” MSNBC host Chris Matthews told him when he appeared on Hardball in September. “Are you running? Why don’t you just say you’re running?”
“I don’t know if I am,” Ryan said.
Ryan has served in Congress since 2003, when he replaced his former boss, the bombastic and legally troubled Rep. Jim Traficant, D-Youngstown.
Once thought to be a bright young light in the party, Ryan has turned into something else: A veteran politician. Of the 16 members of Ohio’s U.S. House delegation, he has been there the fourth-longest.
Over the years, Ryan’s name has become a perennial one for statewide office, such as Senate or governor. But until he challenged Pelosi, he seemed content to remain in his safe House seat, doling out appropriations for projects that he believed would help northeast Ohio, and staying rooted in a district he won with 68 percent of the vote in both 2014 and 2016.
“This is where I grew up,” he would say. “This is where I want to live. I’m not willing to risk this position.”
But 2016 changed all that. He won his election in another landslide, but the region itself had shifted dramatically, and he wondered if Democrats were losing their connection with voters. Mahoning County, which President Barack Obama won by 62 percent in 2008 and 63 percent in 2012, didn’t flip entirely, but Hillary Clinton eked out a 49.8 percent win to Donald Trump’s 46.8 percent.
Trumbull County, which Obama also carried by big numbers in both of those elections, did flip, with Trump carrying the traditionally Democratic county.
Ryan watched as the industrial Midwest that had been so supportive of Democrats fell like dominoes: Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Some of Trump’s message — that NAFTA was sucking jobs out of the U.S., that China was ripping the U.S. off, that U.S. trade policy was hurting the working class — was from the same songbook Ryan had been using for more than a decade.
Ryan questions Trump’s sincerity and commitment to those issues, but there is no doubt that his message was resonating. “There were just two many Trump signs,” Ryan said of Trumbull County, a Democratic stronghold that suffered devastating manufacturing job losses between 2000 and 2010. “There were a lot of Trump signs in a lot of areas where they shouldn’t have been.”
Ryan began to think the Democrats had lost focus. And there was something else: He felt Trump was getting away with telling people what they wanted to hear.
“You know what I thought?” he asks. “He’s lying. He’s lying to people to get them to vote for him. I just think that’s the crudest, most cynical type of politician.”
‘He stole our voters’
Republicans say they’d welcome a Ryan run.
“Tim Ryan is a liberal lightweight,” said Corry Bliss, executive director of the American Action Network, an organization that promotes center-right policies. “The idea of him running for statewide office is laughable, let alone national office.”
For his part, Ryan said he’s neither ruled in or ruled out a presidential bid, simply saying “I want to play a leadership role.”
“I’m a guy from a town Trump did really well in,” he said. “He stole our voters and nobody is doing anything about it.”
Ryan used that same mantra to challenge Pelosi, and it was a wild ride. Pelosi may be 77 years old and a grandmother nine times over, but nobody has ever questioned her control over her caucus or willingness to throw political punches. As Ryan mounted his surprising challenge, his staff briefly hired a satellite truck to follow him so he could have easy access to cable TV cameras looking for a pithy quote on the state of the Democratic party.
In the end, Pelosi won decisively, 134-63, but Ryan — relatively unknown on the national stage until then — found a voice.
“We had an opinion and we wanted to make sure people heard it,” he said in the aftermath of his defeat. “I felt like it was my responsibility to step up and give voice to the people from Ohio that have really, I think, felt disconnected in a lot of ways from the Democratic Party.”
Mahoning County Democratic Party Chair David Betras says Ryan is positioned to win back some of the voters who left the party for Trump.
“Tim’s average constituent makes $54,000 a year,” he said. “Nancy Pelosi’s average constituent makes $110,000 a year. When you parallel those sort of statistics it says a lot.”
The Democratic field in 2020 could include a host of household names: Former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, among others.
But Ryan could have cache, said Mark Caleb Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University.
“He is an experienced member of Congress from the Midwest, which is a battleground right now,” Smith said. “Someone who can appeal to Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania voters could be powerful.”
Those who have watched Ryan through the years, however, know he doesn’t always jump in after sampling the water with his toe.
“I won’t believe he is an actual candidate until he announces,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.