When Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown handily beat mini-Trump Jim Renacci by six points in the 2018 midterm election, he inspired many in the party to rethink their slate of 2020 presidential contenders — a list so crammed with coastal elites that it could qualify as caricature. Even the 66-year-old Brown, the self-styled rumpled populist who’s long demurred from having any ambition for higher office, has said he’s now seriously considering a presidential run.
The shift makes sense. The thought of President Beto may enrapture progressives, but if the midterms are any indication of how the Democrats can win back the White House, the electoral path runs through Rust Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, not through Texas (see Beto) or Florida (where even the Obama-esque Andrew Gillum was unable to prevail), and certainly not through California and New York (sorry, Kamala and Bloomberg).
And if Brown’s capturing 53 percent of a Trump state in 2018 is something to crow about, what about a Democratic congressman who, in 2016, won 68 percent of a Trump county?
Meet U.S. Rep. Timothy John Ryan — Irish and Italian Catholic; raised by a single mother in northeast Ohio’s struggling Trumbull County; former quarterback for the John F. Kennedy High School Eagles of Warren, Ohio; alumnus of Bowling Green State University; and husband to an elementary school teacher. The successor in the U.S. House of Representatives to the Mahoning Valley folk hero and foul-mouthed proto-Trump James Traficant, Ryan is a “guy’s guy,” as his wife calls him, who drops his Gs and can talk huntin’ and football and steel tariffs and NAFTA reform and infrastructure bills with Midwestern voters who love such things.
In 2016, of the 300,000 people who voted in Ohio’s 13th Congressional District, 45,000 voted for Trump and Ryan at the same time. Like Brown, that makes him a valuable commodity, and something of an outlier in a party increasingly incapable of communicating meaningfully with working-class white people. It has even earned him an unusual sobriquet on the Hill: “We call him the white male whisperer,” one House Democrat told the Washington Examiner. And unlike Brown, who went to Yale and is married to a Pulitzer Prize–winner, Ryan isn’t just a champion of the working class, he is working class.
For these reasons and more, Tim Ryan is definitely running for president.
“Are you running for president?” I ask him over a Reuben sandwich at O’Donold’s Irish Pub in downtown Youngstown, Ohio.
“No idea,” the tall 45-year-old tells me, clearly enjoying the speculation. “Sorry, I’d love to break news with ya, but… man, these fries are unreal!”
But Tim Ryan is definitely running for president. It’s why in July the eight-term congressman hired Pete D’Allesandro, one of Bernie Sanders’ top advisers in Iowa in 2016, and why in August he headlined the Iowa Wing Ding, a Democratic fundraising event and required engagement for those seeking the presidency.
“It’s about getting people into office that represent working-class people, the people who take a shower after work, that have been forgotten largely in our country.”
And while Ryan won’t yet make it official — at least not until after the House speakership is settled (Ryan is ardently opposed to Nancy Pelosi, of course, having challenged the San Francisco Democrat in 2016 for minority leader, and not doing badly at all, losing 134 to 63) — he’s already making his case. He’s only too happy to explain how a Democrat like him from a place like Trumbull County could win back some of the folks in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania who crossed over to the Republican Party in 2016.
“I think there’s a generational desire among a lot of people in the Democratic Party for change — geographical change,” says Ryan, wiping a bit of Russian dressing from his chin. “A lot of people think it may be better to start recapturing some of the workers that we lost — somebody who knows ’em and has represented ’em. It’s about getting people into office that represent working-class people, the people who take a shower after work, that have been forgotten largely in our country.”
With the midterms over and the 2020 Democratic presidential primary race underway, Democrats may be wise to consider Ryan’s pitch, which is this: Those 80,000 voters in the Rust Belt who shattered Hillary Clinton’s Blue Wall and turned the election did not care about the Access Hollywood tape. They did not care about David Duke’s endorsement or Trump’s insulting a Gold Star family or his flouting of democratic norms. They cared about their communities, which have been in free-fall since the 1970s. Trump knew this, and so does Ryan. And Ryan, as I learned spending time with him on his home turf, wants the Democrats to know it, too, before it’s too late.