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Tim Ryan’s Master Plan: Run Like a Republican?

Ohio Democrat takes page from GOP firebrand Lauren Boebert in attempt to distance himself from party

Rep. Tim Ryan (D., Ohio) / Getty Images
• June 20, 2022 6:30 pm

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What do you do when running for office as a Democrat in President Joe Biden’s America? Talk like a Republican—at least if you're one Ohio Senate candidate.

From praising former president Donald Trump on trade to sounding the alarm about the southern border, Rep. Tim Ryan (D., Ohio) is trying his hardest to avoid being lumped in with the rest of the Democratic Party. Earlier this month, Ryan proposed a House resolution that would designate fentanyl a "weapon of mass destruction." That resolution appears to be lifted from a bill proposed the day before by one of the most right-wing members of the House, Republican congresswoman Lauren Boebert (Colo.), who also called fentanyl "a weapon of mass destruction that is destroying our nation."

Ryan, who will face against Republican nominee J.D. Vance in November, is considered a long shot by political analysts. Trump won Ohio by more than 8 points in 2020 and the seat Ryan is running for is occupied by a Republican, the retiring Sen. Rob Portman.

His strategy highlights the difficulty for Democratic candidates trying to pitch themselves as moderates in the current political environment. Biden is the most unpopular president at this point in his term in almost a century, according to the polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight, a fact largely driven by skyrocketing inflation. For Ryan, executing this strategy could prove difficult: FiveThirtyEight also found that Ryan votes in line with Biden's position 100 percent of the time

"Any Democrat running this November is gonna have a tough time running with Biden as president," said Democratic political consultant Dick Harpootlian, a longtime friend of Biden, when asked about Ryan’s conservative messaging. "Biden is beset by huge issues and problems that are not playing well in America right now. I mean, we saw it in 1994 after [former president Bill] Clinton did well in 1992."  

At campaign stops around Ohio, Ryan seeks to distance himself from the Democratic Party by offering a moderate and pragmatic message. In May, Ryan was conspicuously absent from a Cincinnati event where Biden spoke about the necessity of passing a domestic manufacturing bill. The White House later said Biden and Ryan were "in close touch."

"We've got to get away from the Democrat-Republican thing, all these stupid fights," Ryan said at a campaign event last month. "And we can only do that by being Americans first. China and Russia, they want us to keep fighting with each other. And to me, it's playing right into their hands." 

Ryan’s rebrand attempt began in April when he released an ad claiming he has spent his entire political life "sounding the alarm on China" and voting "against bad trade deals." That ad backfired after left-wing Democrats accused him of xenophobia against Chinese Americans. 

Following the Biden administration’s announcement that it would end Title 42 restrictions on the southern border—a federal power first used by Trump that gives law enforcement the ability to rapidly deport migrants—Ryan called the decision "wrong and reckless," breaking with top Democrats such as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.).

"Prematurely ending this policy without a path forward does nothing to keep Americans safe, support our Border Patrol agents, protect asylum-seekers, or bring about the comprehensive fix our immigration system needs," Ryan said at the time. He has also called a "strong border" a "basic American value," a stark contrast to his rhetoric in 2018 when he said Trump's "zero-tolerance immigration policy" showed he didn't have an "ounce of humanity."

His change of heart could be a product of problems on the minds of Ohio voters. As one of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis, many voters in Ohio blame the Biden administration's lax border policies for the influx of fentanyl there. Ryan's rhetoric on the issues, however, hasn't been followed by action in the House. Although Ryan introduced a fentanyl resolution nearly identical to Boebert's Republican proposal, for example, he has yet to cosponsor her bill—a move that would increase its likelihood of passing.

Ryan's office did not respond to a request for comment asking whether he plans on cosponsoring the Republican bill.

Shortly after Vance clinched the Ohio Republican Senate nomination in May, Ryan offered praise for Trump—who endorsed Vance in the Republican primary.

"I agreed with Trump on trade," Ryan says in an ad that debuted earlier this month. "I voted against outsourcing every single time. We've gotta get tough on China. Let’s make things in Ohio again."

Ryan sent a letter on June 10 to Biden demanding the White House not lift any tariffs against China, alleging that such a move would "strip the U.S. of leverage in negotiations" and "inundate American companies with a slew of imports they may not be able to withstand." He implored Biden to "prioritize American workers and American manufacturing companies." The letter came after reports that Biden was considering lifting many of the tariffs in an effort to lower inflation.

As the midterms approach, Ryan seems to have pivoted on trade issues as well. During the Trump administration, Ryan called the China tariffs just a way for Trump to "look tough." In an interview with the Washington Post, he called Trump’s actions "abominable and must be revised immediately."

"[Trump’s tariffs are] designed to inflict maximum damage on the U.S. economy, for minimal gain," Ryan tweeted in July 2018.

Vance has labeled Ryan an opportunist and dishonest. Ryan has responded by saying he is happy to talk about his past comments on a variety of issues, including trade.

"My record is very, very clear," Ryan said last week. "We can squabble about some of the details of it, how things are implemented and all the Washington stuff in the details we have to deal with. But my record is very, very clear on this."

Update, June 21, 11:15 a.m.: This piece was updated with additional information on Ryan's voting record.