Unions love Democrat Tim Ryan, but is that enough to win Ohio?

ADVERTISEMENT

Ohio loves unions. Unions love Democrat Tim Ryan. That may not mean much for Democrats in Ohio.

Democrats have been bleeding white, working-class voters since 2016. Nowhere is that more evident than in Ohio.

With the exception of Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrats have lost statewide six election cycles in a row.

But it’s not as if Democrats haven’t been pontificating over how to win those white, working-class voters back. Democrats’ biggest bet yet is on the ballot next week. They’re hoping that President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda, designed to revive industry in states like Ohio, paired with a union-friendly nominee in Rep. Tim Ryan, will notch Democrats a victory.

Ryan is certainly performing better than most previous statewide Democrats. He’s polling within a couple points of Trump-endorsed Republican candidate J.D. Vance in the race for Senate. Ryan attributes his strong performance to his currency with unions. While Ohio’s unionization rate has fallen, from 23 percent in 1989 to 13 percent today, it is still a state with a higher rate of unionization than the rest of the country (half of states are under 10 percent). Union households in Ohio went Donald Trump’s way in 2020, according to Edison Research, but are close to evenly split between the parties overall.

ADVERTISEMENT

But while union leaders have been embracing Ryan, working-class voters — the members of those unions — might not be. In a recent Marist poll, Ryan was losing to Vance 40-48 percent among non-college-educated voters (while trailing only 45-46 percent overall). Ryan’s performance was even worse among white men without a college degree — Marist had Ryan trailing 33 to 57 percent. Among white women with a college degree, a key Democratic bloc, the Marist poll shows found Ryan leading 54-39 percent.

Ryan says he represents an “exhausted majority” and leans on his own working-class and union background to appeal to Ohio voters. He’s testing whether the Biden administration’s industrial policy agenda on infrastructure, science, energy and trade — a version of which Ryan has been supporting for decades — actually translates into votes.

“Is Ohio a conservative state? Yes, it is without a doubt,” said Garland Gates, a longtime member of the city council in Shelby, a rural town in North Central Ohio that’s produced steel tubes for over 100 years. “But with Tim’s long connection with working people, that may help him carry the day.”

What is Democrats’ plan for the industrial Midwest?

Ryan’s pro-union, pro-domestic manufacturing, trade-skeptical message has been the same for the 20 years he’s been in Congress. Throughout the decades, union leadership has remained closely linked to the Democratic Party at the national level — with the notable exception of law enforcement unions. But among voters, the party has struggled to shake its association with the North American Free Trade Agreement, a policy that promoted free trade and is attributed to de-industrialization in the Midwest, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in conjunction with a Republican Congress.

Ryan’s stances on trade were “often in conflict with the mainstream in Washington and establishment Democrats,” said Josh Freed, who runs climate and energy policy at the moderate group Third Way. Ryan opposed a series of trade deals proposed by Democratic and Republican presidents (often on the losing side), and waged a primary against a sitting congressman who supported NAFTA. “People know who Tim is,” explained Irene Lin, a strategist working for a pro-Ryan outside group. “He’s been railing against NAFTA and China for decades.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Ryan even ran against Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for speaker of the House in 2016.

But the national Democratic Party has come around to Ryan’s point of view, pushing an agenda of competitiveness with China and promoting more domestic manufacturing and reshoring supply chains.

“Tim Ryan, but also Joe Manchin and Joe Biden, have really been at the forefront of saying the production of clean energy, American manufacturing, good jobs and the foundation of this country,” Freed told Grid, “all of those things are linked.”

This includes the infrastructure bill, which retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman voted for, as well as the Chips and Science Act, which helped support Intel’s planned $20 billion to potentially $100 billion of investment in Ohio. For the building trades, it’s billions of dollars of infrastructure spending and subsidies for semiconductors built domestically. For the AFL-CIO, it’s the domestic sourcing requirements; for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, it’s the Inflation Reduction Act’s subsidies for carbon capture and nuclear plants; for the Steelworkers, it’s the casings for batteries that go into electric cars and the “tires, gas, wires, bolts, and screws” that go into major construction projects, Donnie Blatt, the United Steelworkers director for Michigan and Ohio, said.

Dorsey Hager, executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbus Building Trades, told Grid that for his members, “unfair trade agreements” were in the top most important issues. But the second issue might put any Democrat even further away from winning over appealing economic policy: immigration. Hager said that undocumented workers were “doing the work of some of our members” and “undercutting the market and driving down wages and benefits.”

While Ryan’s stated immigration position in the Senate campaign is a fairly typical Democratic mixture of funding border enforcement, streamlining the legal immigration system and instituting a path to citizenship, Vance and his allies have frequently attacked Ryan on the issue, linking him to the Biden administration’s perceived failure to prevent border crossings.

Trump is, of course, not glossing over that Ryan has tried to position himself closer to him on trade issues but sees it going the other way. “You have to defeat the far-left Democrat phony running for the United States Senate. His name is Tim Ryan, and he looked at my poll numbers, I think he’s running … on an ‘I love Donald Trump’ policy,” Trump said in a speech in support of Ohio Republicans in Youngstown. “Tim Ryan is a militant left-winger who is lying to your faces, acting as though he is my friend on policy, pretending to be a moderate so he can get elected.”

Youngstown has a new Jim Traficant

In conversations with Grid, leaders of several major unions across Ohio were unanimous in their support for Ryan. The Building Trades, for example, endorsed the incumbent Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, pointing to his record in bringing projects to the state, but “pivoted right back to” Ryan, a Democrat, for the Senate race, Mike Knisley, secretary and treasurer of the Ohio State Building and Construction Trades Council said. Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, said he’s “known congressman Ryan since he was a state senator,” going back about 20 years. Blatt, the United Steelworkers Director for Michigan and Ohio, called Ryan “a good friend of ours for many years.”

“Quite frankly, he’s one of us,” said David Wondolowski, the executive director of the Cleveland Building & Construction Trades Council. “He’s never voted against us.”

But that sense of kinship might not extend to the workers themselves, who have historically valued politicians who look and sound like Trump.


ADVERTISEMENT

Ryan’s predecessor in his Mahoning Valley district was Jim Traficant, an eccentric, profane and locally beloved representative who ran as a third-party candidate in 2002 after being expelled from the House following a corruption conviction. Ryan had previously worked for Traficant, both were former standout local football players — Ryan even met Traficant for the first time at a banquet for his football team.

Traficant’s floor speeches frequently attacked NAFTA, which he said would bring jobs like “zipper trimmer, brassiere tender, jelly roller, bosom presser, chicken sexer, sanitary napkin specialist and a pantyhose crotch closer machine operator” to the United States, and criticized China, which he accused of “ripping us off in trade to the tune of $60 billion” and called “the greatest military threat in the history of the United States.” He said the White House “will not wise up until there’s a Chinese rocket stuck stuffed right up their assets.”

“People still love Traficant,” Jennings said. “Trump fits the mold, he sounds just like Jim.”

“Jim was God,” Bill Binning, an emeritus professor of political science at Youngstown State University, told Grid. “Jim was the precursor to Trump.”

Trump has visited Youngstown, the heart of the Mahoning Valley, multiple times, with a similar trade-steel-and-China message. Ryan too has painted China as an economic threat on the campaign trail, even receiving criticism from Asian American groups and lawmakers for an early ad where he said, “It is us versus China.”

ADVERTISEMENT

To be sure, these voters have also supported Ryan, who has his own brand of populism. In a statement that was catnip for Democrats who worry that the party is slipping away from the types of working-class voters that have powered it to victory in the Midwest, Ryan criticized a consultant quoted in the Washington Post for saying the Democrats should go after states with higher levels of college education: “That pisses me off, that is an absolute slap in the face to everyone out there busting their ass who just may not have a college degree. … I will not let the Democratic Party turn into a party where you have to get a college degree as a passport to get into the party.”

“The idea that everybody gotta go to college was a huge mistake,” Ryan said at an event in the eastern part of the state. “75 percent of the people in the state don’t go to college, and we sometimes forget to focus on them.”

Ryan also opposed the White House’s student debt relief plan, saying it sent the “wrong message to the millions of Ohioans without a degree working just as hard to make ends meet.”

Democrats are trying to win both working class voters and “wine yoga moms”

But as much as Ryan needs white, working-class voters, he also needs to overperform in the suburbs, creating a tightrope. On one side, he boasts an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association and a 100 percent rating from NARAL Pro-Choice America, taking key positions important to Democratic voters. But Ryan doesn’t talk about Biden much on the campaign trails and hasn’t campaigned with him. At a recent debate, he criticized Kamala Harris for saying that the border was “secure.”

The national trends that have helped Democrats win in new territory in the last election — suburbs — didn’t skip Ohio. Biden substantially improved on Democratic margins in Delaware County, which includes much of the Columbus area, one of the most affluent and, unlike much of Ohio, quickly growing parts of the state.

ADVERTISEMENT

But a suburban surge is not enough for a Democrat to win in Ohio, said Lin.

“People in D.C. are snoozing and thinking the wine, yoga moms are going to save us,” Lin said.

Lin pointed to two counties in particular that encapsulate Democrats’ problems: Mahoning and its neighbor, Trumbull.

Until 2020, Democratic presidential candidates regularly won Mahoning County’s vote, losing only twice between the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama. Its population center in Youngstown waxed and waned with the fate of the steel industry, becoming a symbol of deindustrialization when the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company’s Jeanette blast furnace closed down in the late 1970s. Trumbull, which includes Ryan’s hometown of Niles, followed a similar pattern, except it tipped Republican in 2016 — four years earlier than Mahoning County, which tipped in 2020. While in 2016 Ryan comfortably outpaced Trump, his Mahoning Valley congressional district’s margins narrowed considerably in 2020. “He was losing his own district,” Lin said.

Replicate that trend across northern Ohio — like Lorain County, a traditionally working-class northeast Ohio county that voted Republican for the first time since Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide — and it’s easy to see how Democrats have become underdogs.

ADVERTISEMENT

“That’s why Donald Trump comes to Youngstown,” John Russo, co-author of “Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown,” told Grid. “The area has changed. The working class is now much more conservative, and they are still pretty angry about what happened to the community.”

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Matthew Zeitlin
    Matthew Zeitlin

    Domestic Economics Reporter

    Matthew Zeitlin is an economics reporter at Grid focused on the domestic impact of major stories such as coronavirus, the supply chain and economic volatility.