Tim Ryan and J.D. Vance, U.S. Senate candidates in a photo stitch
[Andy Chow | Statehouse News Bureau]

What the Mahoning Valley might tell us about this year’s US Senate race in Ohio

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MAHONING VALLEY, Ohio (WKSU) – In just a few weeks Ohioans will choose a new senator to replace retiring Republican Rob Portman. For voters in the Mahoning Valley, that choice hits close to home. One of the candidates, Tim Ryan, is from the area and has represented folks here for nearly 20 years as their Congressman. The other, venture capitalist and “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, has the backing of former President Donald Trump, a popular figure locally.

Not long ago, it would have been easy to predict the outcome of a race like this in the Mahoning Valley. Sometimes dubbed the Steel Valley, it’s centered by Youngstown and includes Mahoning and Trumbull counties as well as parts of Pennsylvania. It’s overwhelmingly white and working class. Once a bastion of American manufacturing, it was for decades ruled by unions and their allies in the Democratic party.

“This area, the Republican party barely existed, this was a solidly Democratic area,” Youngstown State University Political Science Professor Paul Sracic told Ideastream Public Media.

But that all changed in 2016 when local boards of elections offices were rushed with voters looking to change their party affiliation.

“When they showed up at the boards of elections, they said they were joining Trump’s party,” Sracic said. “Trump came in here and said ‘Yeah, you guys were right, all your problems are caused by these awful trade agreements that were negotiated in the past by Republicans and Democrats.”

Now the area is not just Republican – its “Trump Republican.” Folks here voted for Trump in 2016 and again by an even wider margin in 2020.

At a debate watch party at the Mahoning County GOP’s headquarters, Traci Clement told Ideastream that she decided to vote for Vance in the primary after he secured Trump’s endorsement.

“Right now he’s not a politician, this is his first time running so we have to give him a chance and I’m going to give him a chance,” Clement said. So far, she said she likes what Vance has to say.

“He believes in what I believe in,” she said, “which is not having an abortion, the border crossing, the fentanyl coming over. I am a 911 dispatcher, there’s been a tremendous amount of overdoses in Youngstown. It’s pretty bad.”

Despite its Democratic history, this area has long been socially conservative and deeply religious. That’s a boon for Vance, who has dubbed himself a “conservative outsider” and has been embraced by many of the MAGA movement’s most prominent figures.

But the top issue for most voters around here is still the economy. The Mahoning Valley was ravaged by job losses as steel mills shuttered and factories closed. For many, the deepest wound was the closing of the General Motors automobile plant in 2019, which had been providing a steady stream of jobs since 1966.

That plant has since reopened as a producer of electric vehicles, first under Lordstown Motors and more recently under the ownership of Foxconn. These days the factory employs several hundred people and has produced two electric Endurance pickup trucks, but that workforce is a fraction of what it employed in its heyday.

Many in the Mahoning Valley blamed tax policies and various trade deals, including NAFTA, for the closing of the plant and the decimated local economy. It was in large part these voters who Trump appealed to so much.

Trump’s endorsement helped Vance get through a contentious primary election, but he believes he can appeal to more than just “Trump Republicans.”

“I think there are a lot of voters who are neither MAGA voters nor traditional Republican voters, they’re just sick of the place. They love going in the wrong direction,” Vance said. “I think they’re going to vote Republican not because of any ideological affiliation but because they’re frustrated that their leaders have failed them and they’re right to be frustrated.”

Once a swing state, these days Ohio leans Republican, but not overwhelmingly so. That means both candidates have to steal some voters from their opponent’s party. Vance said he’s confident he can do that.

“I think we’ll win a lot of Democrats, especially in the Mahoning Valley,” he said.

Vance said he was recently approached by one such voter at a restaurant in Vienna just before his second debate against Ryan, and he told this story during that debate.

“A union Democrat came up to me and said, “Look, I’m rooting for you because Tim Ryan’s been in there for 20 years. He had his chance, and he hasn’t done a damn thing,’” he said.

But his opponent Tim Ryan has his own tales of seducing members of the opposite party.

On a recent Saturday morning, Ryan told a room full of volunteers about a recent trip he took to a deep red county.

“I start walking with one of the countywide officials and I said, ‘How am I doing down here?’ and he said, ‘You have absolutely no idea how many Republicans are voting for you in this county,’” Ryan told an enthusiastic audience. “I was like, ‘Really, tell me that one more time. I wanna hear that, that’s like music to my ears.’”

Ryan said he’s confident he’ll snag plenty of conservative voters around the state, voters he believes are part of what he’s dubbed the “exhausted majority,” who don’t want Trump and his allies in office.

“They’re thoughtful, Midwest, tolerant and they believe in democracy and they know I do too,” he said. “And that I believe in a strong defense, and that I believe that you can be hostile to greed, you can be hostile to a concentration of wealth, you can be hostile to income inequality but you can’t be hostile to business. We gotta work with the business community and not hate them. You know we want workers to get a piece of the action, we want them cut in on the deal for sure, but we’re not hostile.”

One of those volunteers for Ryan is Jack Hineman of Bazetta. The Vietnam Veteran has voted for Ryan since he first saw him campaigning on a street corner two decades ago. Hineman said Ryan has always been bullish on the one thing that really matters to him: the economy.

“He has always from day one been aware of China, the problem, and that’s kind of funny because other people are jumping on the bandwagon now,” Hineman said. “He’s always said watch out for China, they’re manipulating their currency and this has been for decades that he’s been aware of that and for that and never changed position.”

Hineman said Trump’s allure in this area wreaked havoc not only on Democrats’ sense of stability in office, but on friendships and family relationships. Still, he thinks there is one thing that could sway some voters to swing back.

“The numbers, I don’t know, it’s too close to tell,” he said. “There’s a very vocal opposition, but then particularly since Roe v. Wade went the way side there’s an undercurrent and so we will have to see.”

But, of course, it’s not just the voters of the Mahoning Valley who will pick the state’s next senator. According to University of Akron political scientist David Cohen, many parts of Ohio have undergone recent political transformations.

“It’s a trend that you see in different parts of Ohio in which formerly strongholds that Democrats did better in are starting to slip away and go over to the Republican party. And just like you see areas of Ohio that were typically Republican areas, particularly in suburban areas, that are now starting to trend Democratic,” he said.

Ryan has toured the state, visiting all 88 counties. He’s out-raised and out-spent Vance according to the latest campaign finance figures. Vance, once criticized for not campaigning much, has had some high-profile events, including a rally with Trump in Youngstown, and received a significant financial boost from national Republicans.

Both campaigns have blanketed Ohioans’ airwaves and social media feeds with ads, and both have gone on the offensive sparring in two televised debates.

Polls have consistently shown the two candidates embroiled in an increasingly tight race.

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