Rep. Tim Ryan, an Ohio Democrat running for an open US Senate seat against Republican JD Vance, speaks at a townhall-style debate hosted by Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum of Fox News on November 1, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio.
Andrew Spear—Getty Images
November 3, 2022 5:21 PM EDT

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

BOWLING GREEN, Ohio—Tim Ryan clutched his paper Starbucks cup in his left hand as he tossed the football a clean spiral to his 8-year-old son, Brady, with his right. We were walking toward a waiting throng of supporters in a parking lot within earshot of his alma mater’s stadium where crowds were already gathering for the Wednesday night football game, and Ryan, a 10-term Democratic congressman running for Senate, turned contemplative if not somewhat wistful.

“I think you get to the point in your career where you know what you believe, you know what you stand for,” Ryan says as the sky starts to turn a shade of orange to match Bowling Green State University’s colors. “I’m just being myself. I’ve got a great team around me who let me be me, throw footballs at TVs and stuff like that.”

Stuff, indeed. Ryan is running perhaps the most un-consulted campaign of the cycle. Having listened to the so-called experts on his short-lived presidential campaign only to bail before a single vote was cast, Ryan is running on his own terms in what may well be his last campaign. When something upsets him, he drops some salty language. His campaign T-shirts are MAGA red and carry a novel slogan: “Cut the BS. Get Sh*t Done.” He showed up to a Fox News town hall Tuesday night in jeans and ditching the tie. “We kicked J.D. Vance’s ass on his own home turf,” Ryan boasted the day after while doing a drop-by at an early-vote site in Toledo.

And just as Ryan can sip his drink—first coffee, later Miller Lite—and toss the football at the same time, the former star quarterback similarly has found a way to two-track his messaging. He’s kept President Joe Biden at arm’s length while promoting parts of the White House’s agenda such as the Inflation Reduction Act. Ryan is pitching tax cuts and ditching anything nearing the Green New Deal. He wants more cops on the streets and fewer people in jail for marijuana. His campaign soundtrack is heavy on country, his standard speech heavy on faith and family. (The most common piece of advice in the Bible, he notes, is some version of Be not afraid.) He drops in some Bobby Kennedy for good measure, but there are glimmers of Ronald Reagan’s optimism in there, too.

That’s not to say Ryan’s posture has been universally embraced, even among those who have already voted for him. “He’s more centrist than I am,” Karen Schubert told me in Youngstown on Tuesday. The 62-year-old director for the nonprofit literacy group Lit Youngstown says she would have preferred a more progressive candidate, but is holding her nose and backing Ryan because she wants no part of a Vance regime. “I think he gets it and is right for Ohio,” she says of Ryan before betraying some doubts: “Whatever happens, I’m proud to support them” she says of the Democratic nominees.

It’s not an uncommon thread. “I’m further to the left than he is. But at this point, he’s the best chance Ohio has,” says Kevin Ankney, a 38-year-old lawyer with the Lucas County Children Services Board who caught Ryan’s stop in Toledo on Wednesday, where the candidate, wearing an International Association of Fire Fighters half-zip, arrived with an escort of electrical workers on their motorcycles. “If elected, he’s Ohio’s version of [Joe] Manchin.”

And, in that, Ryan might have tremendous power in a closely divided Senate. At present, the chamber stands at 50-50, with West Virginia Sen. Manchin having effective veto power over the Democratic agenda. Add Ryan to the mix, and it gets even dicier. Although he’s has been a reliable vote for Biden’s agenda, he’s also mercurial. He challenged Nancy Pelosi’s bid for Speaker, has been openly critical of his party’s leftward drift, and sounds an awful lot like a Trumpist when he talks about trade and China—so much so that Asian-American groups objected to his first ad of the cycle that sounded like a protectionist’s fever dream.

“He’d done a good job of separating himself from Trump, but without alienating the people who think that not everything Trump did was bad,” says Nicholas Wainwright, a 29-year-old lawyer from Maumee, who joined Ryan’s tailgate in Bowling Green. “People live and die by Trump, but Tim says, Let’s look at this on an issue-by-issue basis.

Ryan makes zero apologies for threading the needle as he mills around the quickly darkening parking lots at Bowling Green State University. By this point, he’s ditched his firefighters’ fleece for a BGSU hoodie and traded his coffee for beer. It’s a lot of small talk and selfies, but Ryan—with his wife and son dutifully playing supporting roles—is lapping it up before he puts an orange lanyard around his neck to watch the game from the president’s box. It’s quite an upgrade for a kid from suburban Youngstown.

“I feel like things have lined up,” Ryan tells me, citing his opponent’s awkward embrace of Trumpism, the Supreme Court’s end of federal protections for abortion rights—and the corresponding outrage among female voters—and polling that shows a tight race in Ohio, a state that sided with Trump just two years ago by 8 percentage points. “I only believe the polls I’m winning,” Ryan joked Wednesday morning during a roundtable with entrepreneurs in Dayton.

Those polls, it must be noted, are few and far between. Strategists in both parties see a tight contest unfolding next week between Ryan and Vance, a venture capitalist and Hillbilly Elegy author. Vance contorted himself into very uncomfortable postures to secure an endorsement from Trump, a one-time foe. Trump is returning to Ohio on election eve for a rally for the Ohio GOP, including Vance. It may well be what puts Vance over the top.

“People overthink this stuff. I think the President was a good President. Most people in Ohio agree,” Vance told me Thursday afternoon in Zanesville. “Even those who disagree, a lot of them don’t like the policies of the Biden administration. They’d like to get back to common sense. I think the only way you can make a mistake here is to overthink this stuff.”

Vance then rings the bell of inevitability: “He’s going to come. And we’re happy to have him.”

So, too, is Ryan, who spends a whole lot of his time on the trail linking Vance to Trump. With one last visit from the former President, there’s no way to dispute the connection.

“He runs around with the most extreme people in politics,” Ryan marveled Wednesday in Toledo.

It may turn out those people are also the most effective.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

You May Also Like
EDIT POST