A senior employee from rep. Tim Ryan’s (D., Ohio) Senate campaign told Atlantic in May that the candidate only had a chance to win if President Joe Biden’s approval rating in Ohio was above 42 percent on Election Day. Since that article was published, not a single poll has Biden’s approval above 41 percent.
But that didn’t stop mainstream media journalists from pitching Ryan as the kind of culturally conservative Democrat who could pull off an upset in November. Without presenting evidence that he had any broad appeal in his home state of Ohio, article after article characterized him as the kind of Democrat who had a playbook for success in a red state.
Politico declared Ryan the “Democrats’ best messenger on the economy,” and Time the magazine praised his ability to channel both Bobby Kennedy and Ronald Reagan on the tracks. Ryan had “blue-collar credibility,” in the words of New York Times, winning over voters with an “appeal for unity in these divisive times.” Ryan was “the perfect test case for whether anyone can bridge the gap between the moderate and progressive wings of Democrats,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
That kind of treatment likely led small-dollar Democratic donors around the country to believe Ryan had the secret formula for pulling off an upset. Ryan successfully rode his army of small donors to a 400 percent cash advantage over his Republican challenger JD Vance. Ryan managed to raise more money than other Democrats who would end up losing their races by much smaller margins, such as Mandela Barnes in Wisconsin and Cheri Beasley in North Carolina. Ryan even raised more than the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee.
Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball and author of Bellwethera book about Ohio politics, said praise from mainstream media attracts donations from its readers.
“I think Ryan probably got a lot of credit for the quality of the campaign he ran before the results actually came in,” Kondik said. “If you look at who reads these kinds of publications, they tend to be wealthy and highly educated and willing to give money.”
Down the stretch, Ryan was soaking up Democratic donations. In the first half of October, Ryan received $8 million in contributions through ActBlue, the Democratic Party’s main fundraising platform. Ryan was the third leading receiver in that time period. Ryan ultimately lost Ohio by about 7 percentage points, a significantly larger margin than Barnes lost in Wisconsin, where Democrats came within just 1.5 percentage points of unseating Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson. Beasley in North Carolina, a state former President Donald Trump won twice, lost by 4 points.
It’s impossible to say what either would have done with more money, but in retrospect, strategists say Ryan’s campaign wasn’t the best place for such a large chunk of Democratic donor money.
“I think in any race where a lot of money is raised, and that candidate loses by a margin like Tim Ryan, you can look at it as costing other candidates in closer races,” said Ohio political strategist Mike Hartley. “Despite what we might think, money is finite in campaigns. There’s only so much to go around, but liberal donors have developed a reputation for donating with their emotions and ignoring reality.”
A person close to Vance’s campaign said Ryan’s massive online fundraising apparatus amounted to an “own goal” for Democrats. Ryan’s massive campaign war chest came at the expense of other candidates who had a better chance of winning, the individual said.
“ActBlue is a big source of money, but it forces candidates to say unpopular things and it gives liberal media figures the opportunity to play gatekeepers to small-dollar donors,” said Luke Thompson, who ran a pro-Vance super PAC.
“Democratic donors sunk money into a white mediocrity who underperformed like Ryan instead of two black candidates,” Thompson said.
Ryan enjoyed a string of good polls over the summer, sometimes tying or leading Vance, but election prognosticators consistently kept the state in the Republican column. However, the reality that the media presented to the electorate was that the state until election day was a pure dump.
Despite momentum shifting in Vance’s favor in October, the media re-committed to the narrative that Ryan was poised to pull off a shock win. The Times said Ohio was “the nation’s most unlikely Senate battleground” and just five days later said “Democrats are predicting an upset” in the state.
The media played up the race’s competitiveness by highlighting Vance’s fundraising struggles, which were very real. But Vance’s paltry fundraising numbers over the summer — in July, his Senate campaign account was catastrophically low, with several outlets calling him “broke” — prompted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R., Ky.) Senate Leadership Fund to pour in nearly $30 million in August in his race. McConnell’s move fueled the media feedback loop that the Ohio Senate race was a tossup. As Politico declared that month, Ryan “turned his race into a surprise Senate battleground.”
By early September, however, McConnell’s team believed Vance was, as an individual close to the group’s spending put it, “in good shape.” Internal polling indicated that the race was not likely to be competitive at the time. A Republican operative close to the Senate Leadership Fund predicted a victory of at least 7 points, which turned out to be within half a point of the actual margin.
In late October, Vance led in six of eight polls. But on Nov. 3, the same day a poll showed Vance leading by 6 points, Politico said Ryan ran a “surprisingly competitive” campaign.
Coverage of Ryan as a uniquely moderate Democratic candidate was also far from reality. Bloomberg News, in a story gushing over Ryan’s background as “a high school quarterback” whose “grandfather was a steelworker for 40 years,” said Ryan often “breaks with Biden.” The story failed to mention that the congressman votes with the president 100 percent of the time.
As the Washington Free Beacon documented, Ryan’s record was indistinguishable from the average left-wing Democrat. He supported Medicare for All, free college, eliminated gas trucks and fracking, released large numbers of criminals from prison, and cut the Immigration and Customs Enforcement budget.
Even after his loss, Ryan remains a media darling. The day after his loss, MSNBC reporter Chris Jansing said a “top Democrat” had high hopes for Ryan’s political future: “Watch out for Tim Ryan years in the future to run for president.”
Ryan has already run for president, although he didn’t even make it to the Iowa caucuses. Ryan’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment about Ryan’s future plans.