COLUMBUS, Ohio — Republican J.D. Vance believes “we’re in a very good place.”
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan believes “things are moving our way.”
One of them will be wrong Tuesday, when their hard-fought Ohio Senate race comes to an end. But together, they have found themselves in a contest that grew more competitive than many expected, given former President Donald Trump’s comfortable wins in the state. And in interviews with NBC News after campaign events here Saturday, Vance and Ryan both spoke as if victory was within reach.
They also wrestled with questions about how they would fit in a seat that in recent history has been held by pragmatic centrists, including Rob Portman, the retiring Republican they are running to succeed.
“I think that we’re in a very good place,” Vance, a venture capitalist best known for his memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” said after a small rally with Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, at a hotel in northern Columbus. “I think that we’re going to win, and I don’t think it will be that close.”
Polling over most of the summer and fall had shown a tight race, with neither candidate leading outside the margin of error. But several polls last week suggested the race was tipping in Vance’s favor, with one independent survey showing him with his first sizable lead. It used to be Vance who questioned whether the data accurately reflected the vote in rural Ohio. Now it’s Ryan, whose Youngstown-area district is ground zero for voters who split away from the Democratic Party in the Trump years, who is doubting the numbers.
“I feel like things are moving our way,” Ryan said after speaking at a “souls to the polls” rally at a church here. “Some of the stuff you can’t just pick up in the polls, you know what I mean? I think the young people aren’t getting picked up in the polls. I think the rural folks, the level of support we’re getting in some of these river towns, isn’t getting picked up in the polls.”
Vance and Ryan have both made overtures to Trump voters. Each has painted the other as a political phony poorly attuned to the plight of workers in a state battered by manufacturing job losses.
Ryan, who curses in his speeches and barks about China in his ads, argues that Vance has lost credibility with those who responded to Trump’s combative style. Vance was a Trump critic in 2016, when his book was a bestseller and offered a window into the world of the white working-class voters who helped decide that year’s presidential election. But Vance publicly recanted ahead of his Senate bid, saying Trump had proved him wrong. And Trump endorsed Vance in a crowded GOP primary, seeming to relish the thought of elevating a high-profile convert. Vance, he joked at a September rally in Youngstown, is now “kissing my a–.”
“The Trump tough guy stuff and J.D. Vance a– kisser stuff, it’s not a coherent thing,” Ryan said. “People gravitate toward one or the other — and they’re not gravitating toward J.D.”
Pressed on his late-blooming fealty to the former president, Vance insisted he would have no problem telling Trump no before launching into a lengthy critique of the media and anti-Trump Republicans.
“When I disagree with President Trump or anybody else, it’s going to be because that’s what I actually feel, not because I feel like there’s this massive pressure campaign,” Vance said. “And I think that that’s a little bit of what some subsegment the Liz Cheneys of the Republican Party get caught up in — this almost obsessive desire to feed the Washington media establishment.”
Both candidates were asked what they feared most about the other winning. Vance said he worried that Ryan would prioritize his “political ambitions” — he briefly ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 — over what’s best for Ohioans. Ryan, who has branded himself a moderate, said he worried Vance would “use his position, his title to follow the extremists.” He singled out Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgia Republican, both of whom have campaigned for Vance, and drew contrasts with Portman and George Voinovich, the late centrist Republican senator who held the seat before him.
“They’re not in with that group,” Ryan said, referring to Cruz and Taylor Greene.
Vance countered that the GOP is realigning from the days of Voinovich and even Reagan Republicanism.
“I think the country is just so different, right?” Vance said. “Like, I don’t define myself in opposition to Ronald Reagan’s worldview, but Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, and I’m trying to be a senator in 2022. The problems of the country are different. The problems that the Republican Party needs to respond to are different. And, frankly, the voters who make up the party are so different from what they were even 10 years ago.”
Although Vance has been viewed skeptically within some Ohio GOP circles and has struggled to raise money, national Republicans have aided his campaign with tens of millions of dollars worth of TV ads, many of them characterizing Ryan as a flip-flopping liberal. Ryan has received far less help from national Democratic groups, which have given priority to other states.
“I don’t spend too much time on resentment and that kind of thing,” Ryan said. “It just drags you down.”
Ryan recalled being counted out in past races that he won, including his first 2002 bid for the House. On primary night, most reporters were stationed at the watch party for a sitting House member who had been redistricted into the Youngstown area. As it became clear Ryan would pull off an upset, one TV station frantically called Ryan’s press secretary in search of his party.
“That was the level of underdogs that we were,” Ryan said. “I thrive on that stuff. Like, it just makes me go. It gets me up in the morning.”