COLUMBUS, Ohio—In the race for Ohio’s open U.S. Senate seat, Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat, fought off a debate attack by talking about his fondness for natural gas.
“In the Inflation Reduction Act, we’re going all in on natural gas,” Ryan said in an Oct. 11 debate in Cleveland. “I’ve been a natural gas proponent since I’ve been in Congress and we have to get this right. We need to increase our production of natural gas.”
He is running against J.D. Vance, the investor and author, who also wants to see an increase in production of gas, a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change.
It’s not difficult to see why some environmental advocates are leery of some of Ryan’s views. But Ryan’s voting record shows him to be firmly within his party’s mainstream, despite his emphasis on positions that appeal to the political center.
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Meanwhile, Vance casts himself as an outsider in the tradition of former President Donald Trump and has adopted much of Trump’s approach to energy and the environment, downplaying the risks of climate change and criticizing the transition to renewable energy and electric vehicles.
The race shows how energy gets discussed in a state that ranks sixth in the country in natural gas production and where Democrats, with the exception of Sen. Sherrod Brown and Ohio Supreme Court justices, are on an extended losing streak in statewide races.
With polls showing a dead heat, the race is surprisingly close, considering that Trump easily won Ohio’s electoral votes in 2016 and 2020. If Ryan were to win, it would be an upset that would help to tilt the Senate, now divided 50-50 between the parties, in Democrats’ favor.
“I don’t think Democratic enthusiasm is functionally going to be a problem for Ryan,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, and an Ohio native.
Inside Climate News contacted both candidates’ campaign offices and neither responded.
In the Cleveland debate, Vance sought to tie Ryan to President Joe Biden and national Democrats. Part of this attack was to blame Democrats for the rise in inflation, including the rising energy costs.
“Tim Ryan just told a big fib,” Vance said. “He said he supported Ohio’s natural gas industry and he’s always done so. And yet Tim Ryan, when he ran for president two years ago, (he) supported banning fracking, both on public lands and generally speaking. That crushes the Ohio energy sector. And that’s one of the reasons why manufacturers are going to China.”
Ryan’s support for natural gas helps him appeal to independent and moderate Republican voters, but it doesn’t endear him to voters who want to see a rapid transition to renewable energy.
And yet, those concerns pale in comparison to the disdain that Democrats and many others feel for Trump and, by extension, Vance.
Despite Playing to the Center, Ryan Retains Support From Progressives
On Saturday at my local farmers market in Columbus’ Clintonville neighborhood, some customers picked up yard signs for Ryan along with fresh fruits, vegetables and honey.
“This neighborhood is pretty blue,” said Elise Porter, a retired attorney, who carried a Ryan sign.
If there were cracks in Ryan’s support from the Democratic Party base, they would show up at a place like this.
“He’s running a pro-worker campaign,” she said. “If you want to run as a Democrat in Ohio, that’s what you’ve got to do.”
But what about Ryan’s support for expanding natural gas drilling?
“There is a bit of a cringe factor,” said Chris Heldman, who works in healthcare administration. He was volunteering at a table for Clintonville Area Progressives, handing out signs for Ryan and other Democratic candidates.
But any reservations Heldman has are small, especially in comparison to how much he dislikes Vance.
Bruce McComb, a retired consultant to nonprofits and businesses who also was staffing the sign table, summed up this sentiment:
“When you consider the alternative, J.D. Vance, there’s just no question,” he said.
He’s describing the dynamic that has allowed Ryan to tack to the political center without needing to worry much about losing support on the left.
In contrast, Vance is trying to reconstruct the winning formula of the Trump coalition by talking about “America first” foreign policy, limits on immigration and a 15-week ban on abortion.
Vance, Once Ambivalent About Trump, Now Echoes Him
Vance became a public figure because of his bestselling 2016 memoir, Hillbilly Elegy.
He spent much of his youth in Middletown, Ohio, an industrial city in the southwest part of the state. He wrote in his book about the struggles of his family and community, and how he overcame many challenges to make it to Yale Law School and a career in venture capital.
The book has a strong undercurrent of judgment of the people of Middletown, and a message of the need for self-reliance. The book’s message resonated with many readers, but Vance also faced criticism from writers and scholars familiar with the area who said he had engaged in an unfair stereotyping of the working class.
In the wake of Trump’s election in 2016, many people said Hillbilly Elegy helped to explain why some white working class voters had turned away from Democrats and supported Trump. At the same time, Vance shied away from supporting Trump and cast himself as a political moderate who would use his newfound fame to help Ohio. He moved back to the state and started a nonprofit to help find solutions to opioid addiction. (The nonprofit didn’t do much, which has been an issue in the campaign.)
Around the same time, some Republicans began to view Vance as a potential candidate for statewide office.
He announced his run for the Senate last year, aiming to fill the seat being vacated by the retirement of the Republican Sen. Rob Portman. Vance joined a crowded primary race in which he and several of his rivals cast themselves as leaders in Trump’s mold.
Rather than try to appeal to Ohio’s Republican establishment, like Portman or Gov. Mike DeWine, Vance crafted a message that would appeal to Trump and his supporters. He also had the advantages of free exposure from frequent appearances on Fox News and a big infusion of cash from his former boss, the PayPal cofounder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel.
Trump endorsed Vance about two weeks before the primary election, giving Vance the momentum he needed to narrowly win his party’s nomination.
Vance’s views on energy are in line with Trump’s.
“Even if there was a climate crisis, I don’t know how the way to solve it is to buy more Chinese manufactured electric vehicles,” Vance said in an interview with conservative radio personality Buck Sexton, criticizing incentives for EVs in the Inflation Reduction Act. “The whole EV thing is a scam, right?”
While this kind of talk is appealing to many Republican voters, Vance is viewed by others in the party as an opportunist who is willing to shift his stances to whatever is needed for short-term gain.
“If you don’t know who J.D. Vance is, you’re not alone. Neither does J.D. Vance,” said Joan Lawrence, a Republican who was a member of the Ohio House of Representatives from 1983 to 1999, in an opinion column in The Columbus Dispatch.
She pointed out that Vance went from criticizing Trump’s rhetoric in 2016 to imitating it soon after.
“He’s a chameleon who will do anything to get elected,” she wrote. “That’s why we shouldn’t elect him.”
Run Like a Moderate, Vote Like a Typical Democrat
In contrast to Vance’s sudden rise, Ryan has been a public figure for decades, elected to the U.S. House for the first time in 2002. His political base is in Youngstown, an industrial city whose industry has mostly gone away, that’s known for rough and tumble politics.
He has a history of challenging his party’s liberal wing, including an unsuccessful run in 2016 for House minority leader against Nancy Pelosi. He had a brief presidential campaign in 2019.
But his voting record, especially in recent years, is that of a mainstream Democrat. His lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters is 91 percent, which means he has voted in line with the environmental group’s positions nearly all of the time.
He talks about the need to take action to address climate change and the economic opportunities for Ohio to build the equipment used in renewable energy and electric vehicles. Ohio is already a hub for clean energy manufacturing, and is becoming more so with announcements like the one from Honda this month that it would spend $3.5 billion to build a battery factory in the state that would employ about 2,200 workers.
“Ryan is not that much different from the national Democrats,” said Kondik, of the University of Virginia.
“He’s not Joe Manchin. He’s not Kyrsten Sinema,” Kondik said, naming the two Senate Democrats who have most frequently disagreed with their leadership.
A better model for what kind of senator Ryan might be is Sherrod Brown, Kondik said. Brown has won statewide elections in Ohio by appealing to working-class voters and union members, but has rarely gone against his party leadership on major issues. Brown’s lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters is 94 percent.
The upshot is that Vance’s criticism—that Ryan is running like a moderate but will vote like a typical Democrat—is probably a fair one, and that is comforting to environmental advocates.