In Ohio Senate Race, Democrats Pin Their Hopes on the Suburbs

LORAIN, Ohio — J.D. Vance’s convincing victory Tuesday in the Republican Senate primary in this red-tinged state may have put an exclamation point on the power of former President Donald J. Trump’s imprimatur among conservative activist voters.

But Mr. Vance, the shape-shifting author and venture capitalist — once a Never-Trump antagonist, then an acolyte of the former president — has one possible battlefield left for the general election: the suburbs.

That is where Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat hoping to appeal to establishment Republicans and working-class voters, will have to drive up the vote to overcome conservative shifts in more rural parts of the state. The suburbs are also the places here and across the country where demographics are the most racially and ethnically diverse — and where Republicans are slightly more split, centrists often feel without a party, and many voters are only now awakening to the 2022 midterm cycle.

In Lorain, a working-class, industrial city west of Cleveland, some of that budding interest was elicited by Mr. Trump’s sway in this week’s primary elections, and by news of a draft Supreme Court ruling that would overturn a woman’s right to abortion. At her desk at Dye’s Appliances, Tara Ortiz, 43, a co-owner and manager, shuddered over the thought that her daughters were on the verge of losing control over their bodies that she had long taken for granted.

The abortion news made the November election more intriguing, said Ms. Ortiz, who added that she was planning to vote when the time comes but had not yet chosen a Senate candidate. Her husband is a major Trump supporter, she added, but she leans Democrat.

“I’m for whatever is going to make a better life for my children, and my Tom,” she said, referring to her husband.

A 20-minute drive east toward Cleveland, where wood-paneled homes give way to mansions alongside Lake Erie, Bay Village is among the suburbs and historically Republican communities across Ohio that have seen something of a liberal shift. Heading into a pharmacy with his 9-year-old son, Michael Edelman, 43, said Mr. Vance’s groundswell of support across the state was “a little terrifying.” But he said he believed Mr. Ryan could still have a path to victory if enough people show up at the ballot box in Ohio’s eight large urban centers.

“If rural counties carry the state, he doesn’t stand a chance,” said Mr. Edelman, the director of education at Ideastream Public Media, which runs several local public television and radio stations.

To be sure, Mr. Vance enters the general election season heavily favored against Mr. Ryan. Mr. Trump carried Ohio twice in far less favorable political climates, and with inflation surging and gas prices over $4 a gallon, the Buckeye State is not sheltered from the political winds.

In Ohio’s old battlegrounds, where union families voted Democratic for generations, and Appalachian voters tended to shift their allegiances and parties, the Trump era appears to have locked down Republican support. Blue-collar counties that hug the Pennsylvania border to the east and Appalachian regions along the West Virginia and Kentucky state lines — which starred in Mr. Vance’s best-selling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy” — were walls of support for him.

“Trump changed the game here,” said Tom McCabe, chairman of the Republican Party in Mahoning County, where a decade ago Republicans were scarce and now they dominate.

Four years ago, Mr. Vance, working as a venture capitalist, was all smiles as he hitched a ride on a three-day bus trip, scouting investment opportunities in Youngstown and Akron, Ohio; Detroit and Flint, Mich.; and South Bend, Ind. — a tour that was organized by none other than Mr. Ryan. Mr. Ryan, at the time, was the popular congressman from Mahoning and Trumbull Counties, eager to show off progress, like the electric vehicle batteries being built in what he called Voltage Valley.

That same year, 2018, Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat running for re-election, beat his Republican challenger, Jim Renacci, by 21 percentage points in Mahoning County.

But in a very short span, the tables have turned. As president, Mr. Trump effectively stole what differentiated Ohio Democrats like Mr. Ryan from their national party — protectionism and heated anti-China rhetoric — while winning over social conservatives, especially conservative Catholics, with his opposition to abortion rights and attacks on immigrants and transgender people.

Mr. Trump slipped by Joseph R. Biden Jr. in Mahoning County 50 percent to 48 percent in 2020, and Mr. Vance slid into Mr. Trump’s wake with scalding attacks on the free-trade policies of both parties as well as with anti-China rhetoric every bit as heated as Mr. Ryan’s. Mr. Vance’s biography — the son of a drug-addicted mother, he was raised by his grandmother in hardscrabble Ohio, joined the military and went on to college and Yale Law School — is every bit as compelling as Mr. Ryan’s tales of high school football stardom and a union mother who raised him on her own.

“J.D. Vance is the worst possible candidate for the Democrats to go up against,” said Paul Sracic, a political scientist at Youngstown State University who specializes in the voting patterns of blue-collar Ohioans. “Democrats like Ryan because they think he can talk to these working-class voters and get them back. They’re not coming back.”

Not everyone likes Mr. Vance in the Mahoning Valley.

“He says whatever he has to say to get done whatever he wants to do,” said Hank Zimmerman, 73, a retired union carpenter sipping a $1.25 glass of Genesee beer at the bar of the 90-year-old Golden Dawn on the weathered outskirts of Youngstown. “That’s J.D. Vance.”

Tex Fischer, the youthful communications director of the Mahoning County G.O.P., who said he voted on Tuesday for Josh Mandel, freely admitted a strong distaste for Mr. Vance. “Personally, I hated his guts,” he said. “I didn’t see him as authentic.”

But Mr. Fischer said he was now all in for Mr. Vance.

If Mr. Ryan’s own backyard is lost, that leaves Democrats battling for Ohio’s fast-growing suburbs, especially around Cincinnati and Columbus, said Justin Barasky, a Democratic consultant from Cleveland. The hope for Democrats is that Mr. Vance’s hard-right pivot in the primary, his embrace of Mr. Trump and his Trump-style use of vulgarisms like “scumbag” will turn off the suburban voters who once were the core supporters of lower-key conservatives, like Gov. Mike DeWine and Senator Rob Portman, who is retiring from the seat that Mr. Vance and Mr. Ryan both want.

In Lorain County, which Mr. Brown carried for the Democrats in 2018 but which voted for Mr. Trump in 2020, Jeffrey Yates, 44, a janitor at a Ford plant and a onetime Republican who said he voted twice for Barack Obama, said he had grown skeptical of a newer wave of Democrats who, he argued, seemed hellbent on taking away people’s guns and shaming those who offended them. He said those Democrats did not seem to be thinking through the costs of sweeping progressive policies for people in lower-income tiers like himself.

Yet, Mr. Yates said that Mr. Trump’s rise had halted his drift back to the Republican Party. Republicans seem “almost like fundamentalists, almost like cultish” about the former president, he said. That scared him, he said, and he was weighing whether to vote for Mr. Ryan or to not vote at all.

But Republicans, even those who remain leery of Mr. Trump’s influence, say the state has simply been trending more conservative. Even Mr. DeWine has been pushed to the right, signing legislation to permit people to carry concealed weapons without licenses, and asking two Ohio State Board of Education members to resign after they declined to vote against an antiracism resolution criticized by conservatives.

There is also the matter of electability.

Chris Gagin, the former G.O.P. chairman of Belmont County, along the West Virginia border, said he was not fond of Mr. Vance personally but admired his political skills.

“He’s already outflanked Ryan with Trump’s blue-collar base,” Mr. Gagin said. “But in the suburbs, he’ll be the Yale-educated lawyer, author and venture capitalist. He can pull it off.”

Indeed, Kristi Woolard, 56, brought her copy of “Hillbilly Elegy” to a recent meet-and-greet for Mr. Vance in an exurb of Columbus — the kind of affluent area that is supposed to be trending away from Republicans.

“I loved this book,” she said. “He had so many things going against him, and he made it. He gives people confidence to know, if you press forward, if you just keep going, life can be good.”

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