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Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Recent attack ads show how Ohio voters could decide the future balance of the U.S. Senate

tim ryan jd vance
AP
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You couldn’t blame Tim Ryan, the Democratic candidate for Ohio's open U.S. Senate seat, waking up some mornings feeling like a man under siege.

But the attacks coming his way from a variety of sources seem to roll off him like water off a duck's back.

He thumbs his nose at all of them.

Since Labor Day, the 30-second attack ads have been flooding the airwaves, coming at Ryan from all sides on multiple issues — some of them doubtful accusations at best and at worst half-truths and lies.

To Ryan, they are, as he says in his response ad, "bullsh*t."

Millions of dollars are being spent on the anti-Ryan attack ads, including:

  • One from the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC connected with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, calling him "Taxin' Tim Ryan," for his votes for the Biden administration's legislative agenda.
  • Another from Our American Century PAC, a dark money Super PAC with ties to Donald Trump, which is running an ad with a thoroughly debunked claim that Biden's Inflation Reduction Act, which Ryan supported, will hire 87,000 new IRS agents to go after middle-class taxpayers. "They're coming for you," the ad's narrator intones over the video of a fist banging on a front door.
  • And, last but not least, a new ad from Ryan's opponent, author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, in which the Republican candidate saunters down the Middletown street where he grew up, bemoans streets "exploding with drugs and violence, while liberals like Tim Ryan attack and defund the police."

The Vance ad really has to stick in Ryan's craw.

Vance uses some grainy video from a 2019 speech Ryan made at an historically Black college in Georgia, back when he was in a short-lived bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

"The current criminal justice system is racist," Ryan says in the video. "I believe in my heart that it's the new Jim Crow."

Ryan's campaign says he was talking about things like racial disparities in sentencing and that the clip is taken out of context. Vance's campaign says it was an attack on police because they are part of the criminal justice system.

"Tim, fight the criminals, not the cops," Vance says in his ad.

I asked a spokesman for the Vance campaign for a single instance where Ryan acted to "defund the police."

None was forthcoming.

Instead, what I got was basically a quote from the Columbus FOP president, Jeff Simpson, saying that Vance is the right choice in this election. "He has our backs — and he has our support."

The Ohio Fraternal Order of Police has endorsed Vance.

So why are Vance and his Super PAC allies spending incredible amounts of money to attack Ryan?

There's one reason and one reason only: They are scared to death that Vance could lose the seat now held by Republican Rob Portman. That would be a disaster when the Senate now has a 50-50 partisan split, with Vice President Kamala Harris providing the Democrats with a one-vote majority.

Mitch McConnell desperately wants to be Majority Leader when the new Congress convenes in January. Donald Trump desperately wants to avoid the embarrassment of Vance, the candidate he endorsed in the primary, losing the Ohio senate seat.

A Suffolk University poll, done for the USA Today Ohio Network, shows the Vance-Ryan race as a dead heat, with a one point advantage for Ryan — well within the margin of error.

That's why Trump is holding a rally with Vance Saturday night in Youngstown, Ryan's backyard. The rally hasn’t started yet and it is already in trouble. People all over Ohio are laughing at the tone-deafness of holding a political rally at the very same time the Ohio State Buckeyes will be kicking off their game against Toledo in Ohio Stadium.

So Vance gets a rally with Trump — who will mention him a couple of times in passing and then talk for hours about himself — while most of Ohio will be watching the Buckeyes.

Brilliant.

It probably also explains why Ryan — who will no doubt go to the Buckeyes game Saturday night — uses football as a theme for his response to the barrage of attack ads.

Ryan was a star quarterback for the John F. Kennedy High School Eagles in Warren; and he shows off his throwing arm by tossing the ol' pigskin through flat-screen TV images of the attack ads.

"They say you can know a person by their enemies," Ryan says. "Well, here come their bullsh*t ads."

Then, he fires a football at "the people who sell out Ohio workers." Another for "the people who push bad trade deals with China." Another for the people waging "culture wars." And finally, a direct hit on an image of Vance from his Middletown ad.

"Still got it," the old quarterback says.

Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a much-read political newsletter from the University of Virginia, said the Ryan response ad reminds him of ads for Joe Manchin, the maverick Democratic Senator from West Virginia, where Manchin shoots a rifle at the climate bill and other legislation he doesn't like.

"The question is whether Tim Ryan can hold up now that the Republican money spigots have been turned on," Kondik said. "There's a lot at stake here. A lot more than we might have thought in the beginning."

What's at stake could well be the future direction of the U.S. Senate. It may be up to Ohio voters to decide.

We'll have to wait until November to see how accurate Tim Ryan's right arm is.

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.