The debate between Democrat Tim Ryan and Republican J.D. Vance in Ohio’s closer-than-expected Senate contest began with a testy exchange on the economy and quickly devolved from there into a contentious – and at times personal – clash.
This race was not a contest Republicans believed would require as much money and attention as it has, given the Republican tilt of the state, which former President Donald Trump comfortably carried twice. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the seat “Lean Republican,” while top-tier Senate campaigns in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, and Nevada are all still seen as more competitive. Still, Ryan’s bid to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman has proven a strong match for an underfunded GOP nominee that Trump pulled through the primary.
Monday night’s acrimony highlighted the urgency of the moment for both candidates.
For Ryan, millions in ads will be spent against the congressman in the coming weeks, testing the so far relatively resilient Democratic campaign in a state that’s trending red. For Vance, the Republican has found his footing after a tough summer, leaning on the natural political lean of the state by accusing his Democratic opponent of faking his moderate bona fides.
In a debate where neither candidate was afraid to directly go after his opponent – Ryan called Vance an “ass kisser,” while Vance compared Ryan to a toddler – it was clear both candidates felt they had ground to make up in the race with less than four weeks to go until Election Day.
Here are five takeaways from Ohio’s first Senate debate:
Abortion was a flash point
Abortion has come to shape political campaigns across the country in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning national abortion protections, and the Ohio Senate contest has been no different.
Ryan sought to cast himself as the moderate on the issue in Monday’s debate, saying he backed “going back to Roe v. Wade” and arguing for “some moderation on this issue.” He then turned the issue on Republicans, calling efforts to pass stricter abortion laws “the largest government overreach in the history of our lifetime.”
Vance, who said he was “pro-life” but “always believed in reasonable exceptions,” responded by delivering one of his most scathing lines of the night, seemingly blaming Ryan for the rape of the 10-year-old Ohio girl who sought an abortion in neighboring Indiana by noting she was allegedly raped by an undocumented immigrant and that Ryan had voted against border wall funding.
“If you had done your job, she would have never been raped in the first place,” Vance said, turning to Ryan. “Do your job on border security, don’t lecture me about opinions I don’t actually have.”
Later in the debate, Ryan said he supported walls along the US-Mexico border where it made sense but not one wall from “sea to shining sea.”
Ryan seeks distance from Democratic Party
As he has done on the campaign trail and in paid ads, Ryan sought throughout the debate to tout his independent bona fides, noting how he broke from his own party and at times backed Trump on trade.
“I think everybody is to blame,” Ryan said when asked if President Joe Biden is to blame for rising inflation. “Kamala Harris is absolutely wrong on that,” he added when asked if the vice president was correct when she said the border was secure.
More on key Senate races
Ryan then used this argument to hammer his opponent, arguing that he “can’t stand up to anyone” because even after Trump said at a recent campaign rally that Vance was “kissing my ass” to get him to campaign for him, the Republican nominee didn’t stand up to the former President after he took his “dignity from him.”
“He was called an ass kisser by the former President,” Ryan said, adding later, “Ohio needs an ass kicker, not an ass kisser.”
Vance went with a timely response. After noting Halloween is close, he added, “Tim Ryan has put on a costume where he pretends to be reasonable moderate.”
And the Republican did little to distance himself from Trump, his party’s standard bearer. When asked if Trump had done anything that concerns him, Vance urged letting “the criminal investigation play out” on the mishandling of classified documents stored at Mar-a-Lago and criticized the focus on past scandals around the former President.
Vance paints Ryan as a creature of Washington
Vance closed the debate by contrasting his personal choice two decades ago – to enlist in the Marines – with Ryan’s decision to successfully run for Congress.
To Vance, the race between him and Ryan is a referendum on “failed leadership” in Washington, positioning that allows the Republican to carry himself as the political outsider and Ryan as the career politician.
“He has been failing at his basic job for 20 years,” Vance said of Ryan, who was first elected to Congress in 2002. “Talks a big game but the record of accomplishment just isn’t there.”
Although Ryan pushed back against this narrative – “I’m not going to apologize for spending 20 years slogging away to try to help one of the hardest economically hit regions of Ohio,” the Democrat said – Vance’s strategy was clear.
“Ohioans deserve certain things from their federal leadership,” Vance said, capturing his entire electoral argument. “They deserve to go to the grocery store and be able to afford food without it breaking the bank. They deserve streets you can walk down safely. They deserve a country that has a border.”
Wide gulf between candidates on foreign policy
Some of the biggest differences of the night came on foreign policy.
When asked how the United States should respond to the potential Russian use of nuclear weapons, Ryan said it would call for an “aggressive response” but added, “I don’t think we are at that point where (Russian President) Vladimir Putin will.”
Ryan than tried to turn the issue on Vance, noting that the Republican once said he doesn’t “really care what happens to Ukraine.”
“J.D. Vance would let Putin roll right through Ukraine,” Ryan said, noting the large Ukrainian population in Ohio. “J.D. Vance is weak on this.”
Vance, however, did not shy away from those comments, saying, “The answer is that no one knows how we would respond,” and mocking Ryan for saying the use of nuclear weapons would call for an “aggressive response.”
“What exactly does that mean? Does that mean we should be in a nuclear shooting war?” Vance said, accusing Ryan of being part of the “bipartisan foreign policy establishment.”
Vance attacks Ryan on crime
Vance hit Ryan repeatedly on crime and fentanyl coming into the country. When the Democrat was pressed on crime by the moderators, he said, “We need more cops. We need better paid cops. And, yeah, we have to get rid of bad cops.”
Still, it was clear the Republican’s attacks got to Ryan, who responded by saying he would not be lectured to on crime by someone who raised money for the legal defense fund of the January 6, 2021, rioters.
“I am not going to take a back seat to JD Vance on law enforcement,” Ryan said, urging Vance not to “even try to deny it” because “we’ve got your Twitter posts and everything else.”
Ryan used the moment to cast Vance as fake: “Can you imagine one guy saying out of one side of his mouth he is pro-cop and out of the other side of his mouth he is raising money for the insurrectionists who were beating up the Capitol Police?”
Vance responded by comparing Ryan to a toddler and said Ryan “threw the police under the bus” at the height of the summer of protests over police brutality.
“He attacked them as the new Jim Crow, as systemically racist, and he voted for legislation that would have stripped funding from them and redirected it toward litigation defense,” Vance said.
Vance also tried to make a broader point about Ryan in his attack: “Tim, you don’t sound too bad. If you actually tried to do the things you talk about wanting to do, you wouldn’t be half bad. The problem if you got 20 years and you failed to do any of it.”