On the night that the news broke that U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan was planning to run for president, former state Sen. Joe Schiavoni was asked if he’d talked to the nine-term lawmaker from his corner of Ohio.
Not recently, Schiavoni replied. He had, however, talked to two other presidential contenders in recent weeks: South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
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The next day, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, also considered a force in Democratic politics in the state, was asked if she’d talked to Ryan about his decision. No, she replied. “He doesn’t even call me when he comes to town.”
As Ryan embarks on what many say is a quixotic bid for the White House, he is truly going his own way – with many in his state party out of the loop about his organization and his plans.
“I kind of don’t get it,” said former U.S. Rep. Dennis Eckart, a Democrat. “It’s funny – the folks who have called me… are mostly calling with, ‘what’s this about?’”
Ryan, 45, starts off as a long shot. He’s well-known in his district, but has never had to ask a statewide audience to vote for him, so his name recognition is low. Because his district is considered safe, he has never had to raise a lot of money. And the last – and only - time a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives was elected president was in 1880, when Ohioan James A. Garfield won the presidency.
Critics say that during a year when Democrats crave diversity, a candidate like Ryan – white, male, a former high school football player with an affinity for sports metaphors – may not be what voters are looking for.
Known for taking on Pelosi
If Ryan has garnered a name for himself recently, it was for running against then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in 2016 and then emerging as a critic to her House Speaker bid when Democrats won the House majority in 2018.
Ryan ultimately voted for Pelosi but has argued that Democrats have hurt themselves by favoring coastal liberals like Pelosi at the expense of the working-class labor Democrats who are key to their success.
Paul Beck, a political science professor emeritus from The Ohio State University, said while Ryan is not known for “major legislation,” “what he is notable for is for opposing Pelosi, which is not going to endear him with his Democratic colleagues or with people who are donors to Democratic campaigns.”
Still, his supporters say Ryan has a compelling story to tell.
General Motors’ decision to close its Lordstown plant earlier this year “really affected him,” said David Betras, chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party.
Ryan is also increasingly frustrated that President Donald Trump has managed to win over working class voters with promises that he’d save their jobs. Trump, Betras said, has not delivered on those promises but retains their trust because “he has go-to things that rile the base up.”
“We need someone to carry the working-class message to voters,” Betras said, “And I think Tim has a voice there.”
Former Democratic Secretary of State candidate Kathleen Clyde, who was one of the few high-profile Ohio Democrats to appear at Ryan’s kick-off event in early April, said Ryan “has been a champion for Ohio workers throughout his career.”
Still, she has not endorsed him. “It’s so early in the race,” she said, adding. “but I am glad to see his voice and the message that he brings as a part of the national discussion.”
It’s going to be expensive
Others wonder if the closely guarded decision to announce is actually a sign that Ryan isn’t that organized.
After his 2018 re-election, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, kept a cadre of staffers on in while he explored the possibility of running. By comparison, Ryan has a far more skeletal operation.
Eckart said it takes about $5 million just to “fuel even an exploratory effort.” Ryan during his last campaign raised $1.6 million total and had $118,195 on hand as of Dec. 31.
“There are not a lot of discernible reasons why Tim is doing this,” said Eckart. “I know what Sherrod went through (to explore running) and where he ended up in this conversation. I’m not seeing, feeling or hearing the same kind of intense preparation and deep analysis.”
Ohio nonpartisan political consultant Mary Anne Sharkey said because Ryan has dipped his toe in the waters of running for higher office before, only to bow out, there’s a level of skepticism about his running.
“I think a lot of people are not yet convinced he’s actually running or will stay in the race,” she said.
Still, she and others describe Ryan as a candidate with a lot of raw political talent. He represents an area that was a key to Trump’s success in 2016 and “he’s a good speaker, has a good appearance.”
“But I’d be hard-pressed to come up with any real accomplishments he’s had,” she said.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said Ryan’s decision to run may be strategic.
Ohio is losing population and will likely lose a congressional seat in 2022. Because he lives in a region of the state that has been losing population, it’s possible that that lost seat will be Ryan’s.
And Ryan’s district, drawn to be safe for Democrats, is nonetheless becoming more Republican: While he won 68 percent of the vote in 2016, he received 61 percent of the vote in 2018, garnering about 55,000 fewer votes – a rare instance last year of a Democrat losing votes rather than gaining them.
“Maybe running for president is partly a way to set him up for something in the future if he performs well but doesn’t get the nomination or the vice-presidency,” Kondik said. “Maybe if a Democrat wins he can be a part of the administration in some way. Who knows? Only he knows his motivation.”
Others say Ryan has little to lose.
There’s no clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination. There’s no Hillary Clinton this year taking the energy and donors from everyone else. In a field of nearly 20, it’s always possible to make a name in New Hampshire or Iowa and rocket to the front of the field.
“I think the era we’re living in is susceptible to people taking unconventional paths to the Oval Office,” said University of Akron political science professor David Cohen.
“Anything can happen,” said Betras. “I know one thing – if you don’t run, you can’t win.”