Opinion: What Ryan vs. Vance in Ohio means for America

Editor’s note: Paul Sracic is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Youngstown State University and co-author of “Ohio Politics and Government” (Congressional Quarterly Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @pasrazikoa. The opinions expressed in this comment are his own. See more reviews on CNN.


In more than 50 years, from 1964 to 2016, no one was elected president without carrying Ohio. This all changed in 2020, when Ohio supported the loser, former President Donald Trump.

Does this mean candidates should stop thinking of Ohio as a presidential trigger? And is Ohio currently a state with electoral votes that can safely be placed in the Republican column for 2024 and beyond?

The results of the 2022 US Senate race in Ohio, pitting Democrat Tim Ryan against Republican JD Vance, will be very significant data in trying to answer this question. And the answer to this question is not only important for Ohio, but for the nation’s political future.

Among the so-called swing states, the Buckeye State is fourth in electoral weight behind Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania. With Ohio behind, and changes in electoral votes allocated after the 2020 redistricting, a GOP candidate would need to add Georgia and Pennsylvania to Trump’s list to win the electoral majority in 2020.

What should we look for when looking at the November 8 Ohio vote? Political scientists like to divide Ohio into five somewhat distinct regions: Northeast, Northwest, Central, Southeast, and Southwest. Most of the changes in Ohio’s political behavior after 2016 occurred in just one of those regions: Northeast Ohio.

Northeast Ohio consists of 12 counties, includes the cities of Cleveland and Akron, and is the state’s most populous region. Historically, it was also the most democratic, a legacy of the influence of organized labor when the area was a manufacturing powerhouse.

In 2012, then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama cruised to victory in Ohio, in part because he carried eight of those 12 counties. That all changed four years later, when four northeastern Ohio counties voted for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. By 2020, that number had dropped to two for Joe Biden.

Between 2016 and 2020, however, were the 2018 midterm elections, statewide races for governor and US Senate. In the gubernatorial race, former Republican senator and former governor Mike DeWine won, nearly matching Trump in taking seven counties in Northeast Ohio.

But Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, who was running that same year, was re-elected while winning one more county in Northeast Ohio than DeWine had captured. In fact, with one exception (Stark County), Brown’s performance mirrored Obama’s 2012 victory. And Brown beat Obama in Lake County (East of Cleveland, near Lake Erie), and Obama lost by about 1,000 votes.

Now, Brown is a household name in Ohio, having been elected to the state legislature nearly 50 years ago. Therefore, one must be careful to generalize from elections involving such a well-known political figure. But the same could be said about the DeWine election. DeWine was elected to the state legislature six years after Brown.

On November 8th, the candidate who captures a clear majority of these 12 Northeast Ohio counties will likely be the winner of Ohio’s US Senate race. However, what makes this year’s race so foreboding about the future is that none of the candidates are all that popular.

While Ryan ran for president in 2020, he was among more than 20 candidates and withdrew in October 2019, well before the first Democratic primary. And while he has represented parts of Northeast Ohio during his 20-year term in Congress, he has never run for statewide office in the Buckeye State. Ryan’s Republican opponent, Vance, is a minor celebrity, having written a best-selling book that was later turned into a Netflix movie. However, Vance is a political novice, and the title of his book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” was probably better known in Ohio than his name before he decided to enter politics.

All of this means that the 2022 US Senate race in Ohio is a mere measure of whether Democrats have once and for all left what used to be the most Democratic part of the state for good. Given Ohio’s traditional role in electing presidents, it’s a result that will have ramifications far beyond the borders of the Buckeye State.