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As the importance of young voters grows, campaigning like Tim Ryan will never win in Ohio

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As the importance of young voters grows, campaigning like Tim Ryan will never win in Ohio

Dec 02, 2022 | 4:20 am ET
By Joseph Glandorf
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As the importance of young voters grows, campaigning like Tim Ryan will never win in Ohio
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COLUMBUS, OH — OCTOBER 19: Then-Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate Tim Ryan speaks at a meet and greet with Ohio State University students, October 19, 2022, at the Ohio Union in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Graham Stokes for Ohio Capital Journal. Republish photo only with original story.)

Ohio Democratic voters faced some unwelcome news in this year’s midterm elections: each of their state-wide candidates had gone down in defeat to Republicans. Among the most bitter losses was the closely watched U.S. Senate race between Representative Tim Ryan and J.D. Vance, the Trump-backed venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author. 

Ahead of the election, it was common to hear that Ryan had the winning formula for Ohio all worked out. Many are mourning the state’s rightward drift and questioning whether it’s possible for Ohio to turn blue ever again. But rather than an occasion for despair, these results should be a wake-up call. Ryan’s loss shows that campaigns like his will never pay off. It should prompt Democrats to fundamentally rethink how they run in Ohio.

In the name of appealing to Republicans, Ryan sold out young people and deliberately distanced himself from President Biden’s popular legislative agenda. His campaign’s constant barrage of anti-China messaging prompted sharp criticism from organizations like Asian American Midwest Progressives, who noted the role of such fear-mongering rhetoric in stoking violence against Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities — while obscuring the corporate interests that undermine workers worldwide. 

While his campaign tried pandering to younger voters by posting Taylor Swift memes on Twitter, elsewhere he announced his opposition to Biden’s student debt relief plan, apparently hoping those younger voters wouldn’t notice. Throughout the campaign season, he took swipes at the Biden agenda and tried to tie himself to Trump, boasting that he “voted with Trump on trade” and hosting events with Senator Joe Manchin, the coal millionaire who sank Biden’s Build Back Better plan.

If this right-wing performance was supposed to be the price Ohio Democrats paid for “electability,” the return on investment was virtually zero. Ryan lost to Vance by 6.6%, only a 1.4% improvement from Biden’s loss in Ohio in 2020. While the party that holds the presidency typically does worse in midterm elections, political scientists also find that inexperienced candidates like Vance usually underperform, and Ryan’s campaign outspent Vance by $36 million. Ryan’s slight gains are nothing to celebrate. 

Some have compared the Ohio Senate race to the Pennsylvania Senate contest between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz. Both, this argument goes, were races where “economic populists” with pro-worker messages faced off against first-time celebrity candidates backed by Trump. In reality, Fetterman and Ryan’s campaigns couldn’t be further apart. 

Fetterman didn’t center his campaign on xenophobic rhetoric or tie himself to Trump’s far-right presidency. He explicitly defined himself against corporate insiders like Manchin and declared his opposition to the filibuster to help pass stalled items of the Biden agenda. He is a long-time (if deeply imperfect) progressive who has supported student debt relief, health care as a human right, and cannabis legalization from early on. His campaign successfully used social media to connect with grassroots supporters and make a viral mockery of his opponent, who he successfully portrayed as an out-of-touch millionaire with little connection to those he sought to represent. Where Ryan took young people, progressives, and AAPI Ohioans for granted in his quest for Trump supporters, Fetterman emphasized that his vision was inclusive of everyone in the state, taking up the slogan “every county, every vote”.

The difference in results between the races shows Fetterman’s campaign paid off and Ryan’s didn’t. Fetterman defeated Oz by about 4.9%, outperforming Biden by 3.7 percentage points. Unofficial election results suggest far less voter enthusiasm in Ohio’s race: voter turnout was about 50%, compared to 60% for Pennsylvania’s. Moreover, early surveys indicate young people were pivotal in Fetterman’s victory but were far less motivated to vote for Ryan. Voters aged 18-29 made up a smaller fraction of the total Ohio Senate vote: only 10%, compared to 12% in Pennsylvania. Those who did feel motivated to vote weren’t as progressive as those in Pennsylvania. Voters 18-29 backed both Fetterman and Ryan by wide margins, but the youth vote margin was 22 percentage points higher for Fetterman (70-28) than Ryan (60-40). 

It’s true Ohio Democrats face challenges that go deeper than any one campaign: the state has been drifting towards Republicans for years. But during that time, the Ohio Democratic Party has been failing to conduct serious organizing work or cultivate grassroots support. Instead, they’ve been conceding ground to Republicans: positioning themselves as centrists, voicing Republican talking points, and voting for Republican bills. In a particularly embarrassing example, in 2019 one-third of Democratic state senators and more than a quarter of state representatives voted for House Bill 6, the dirty energy bailout bill now mired in corruption scandals. Tim Ryan’s defeat is the culmination of a long era of self-inflicted failure.

But now we are entering an era which will be defined by the voices of younger Americans. 2022 saw the second-highest midterm youth voter turnout in 30 years. Voters 18-29 were the only age group to deliver a decisive majority to Democrats this year, as all other groups shifted red.

Young Americans have grown up among a historic wave of crises, among them unprecedented levels of mass incarceration, skyrocketing economic inequality, the erosion of electoral democracy, COVID-19, the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and an ever-worsening climate crisis. We will turn out in force for candidates who we know actually care about addressing crises like these, and stay home for those who are only seeking power for themselves.

And while young people can’t swing every election by their votes alone, many of us do know something that Ohio Democratic leaders don’t. An authentically progressive campaign bolstered by strong organizing can win elections. A cynical right-wing campaign without grassroots support can’t.

The organizing component is crucial. In every election year, millions of Ohioans decide not to turn out to vote. Many live in communities left behind by Ohio’s high-dollar political games. Democrats will never win back their votes with red-tinted campaigns. The path to flip Ohio back lies in year-round engagement with communities everywhere in the state, meaningful conversations with voters on the issues they care about, a deep focus on voter registration and outreach to lapsed voters, and investment in every race from the local level upwards. It lies in building grassroots networks of support precinct by precinct, and investing in progressive candidates with both strong ties to their communities and strong commitments to answering to their needs.

Ohio has long been in the grip of Republican dominance. We can choose more of the same, or we can choose something better.