YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio—The night before the Secret Service, RV merchandise salesmen, and thousands of MAGA superfans would descend on Youngstown for the Trump rally in honor of Republican Senate contender J.D. Vance, the biggest show in town was under the lights at Rayen Stadium.
Paid for with COVID-19 relief funds and the site of the first-ever penalty flag thrown in an American football game back in 1941, the renovated ground hit its maximum capacity of 7,000 by halftime for the hotly anticipated matchup of Chaney vs. Canfield, a city-suburb rivalry with both high school football teams coming into the game undefeated at 4-0.
Along the railing at the top of the stands under one of the floodlights, standing with his arms folded and gaze tethered to the line of scrimmage, Charles Stevens said he isn’t sold on Vance, whom he described as “an opportunist.”
Despite voting for Reagan and both Bushes—and still with the intention of voting to re-elect Republican Gov. Mike DeWine—the 66-year-old financial adviser who grew up in Youngstown furrowed into the pockets of his windbreaker jacket, taking a pause to explain why he’s planning on voting split-ticket for Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan.
“It’s hard not to know Tim Ryan,” Stevens, who came to see his grandson play for Canfield, told The Daily Beast, lauding the congressman’s popularity among the union guys in his social circle.
To have a realistic path to victory against Vance, Ryan will need voters like Stevens and his friends in order to build a coalition similar to that of Sherrod Brown, Ohio’s senior senator, who secured each of his three terms in wave years for Democrats: 2006, 2012, and 2018.
“Tim Ryan can definitely assemble a Sherrod Brown-type coalition and has already been doing it with a campaign that is going to parts of the state traditionally ignored by Democrats not named Sherrod,” David B. Cohen, a political science professor at the University of Akron, told The Daily Beast.
While conservatives have rolled their eyes at Ryan’s working-class campaign branding—such as the congressman slinging footballs at 1990s-era TV sets in one of his ads—the once-considered longshot candidate might have a real chance at flipping the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman.
“He’s been in the U.S. House for 20 years representing places like Youngstown and Akron and has a strong base of support from working-class folks. Ryan has always been an economic populist and it is authentic, not some campaign gimmick,” Cohen added.
The RealClearPolitics average rates the Ohio Senate race as a toss-up with Vance leading by an average of 2.7 percentage points, while the FiveThirtyEight Senate model gives Ryan a 29 in 100 chance of winning.
Cohen noted that Ryan’s support remained solid in the Trump years “because he has never wavered in his support of union rights” and “crossover appeal with independents and disaffected Republicans.”
Stevens, who voted for Biden in 2020 but couldn’t bring himself to vote for Hillary Clinton against Trump in 2016, considered himself one such disaffected Republican. He said he switched his party registration in 2017 after being horrified at the early stages of the Trump administration.
Abortion, Stevens went out of his way to add, has completely shaken up how he views the upcoming midterms. Despite DeWine signing a law—temporarily blocked by a county judge—banning virtually all abortions, Stevens said the governor’s handling of the pandemic and the economy earned his vote.
“I personally am not in favor of abortion, but I’m also not in favor of making decisions over other people’s bodies,” Stevens said. “I think they made a mistake, the Republicans. They’ve galvanized women.”
Former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, DeWine’s opponent, told The Daily Beast the key to winning statewide for both her and Ryan will be to perform better with suburban women.
“We compared the collar counties of Detroit with the collar counties around Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati,” Whaley said, referring to a gubernatorial post-mortem from 2018. “And we found, we were underperforming 6 to 10 points with women in suburban areas.”
Lisa Ricciardi, a 44-year-old hair stylist from Boardman, Ohio, who was at the game to see her son suit up on special teams for the suburban Canfield squad, said she hasn’t seen much of the bombardment of TV ads yet, but is certain on voting for Ryan. She said she’s voting for his character, but also that abortion is a top issue after the Dobbs Supreme Court ruling.
“I think he’s a man of his word,” Ricciardi told The Daily Beast. “He does what he says he’s gonna do.”
While Vance, a businessman and author of The Hillbilly Elegy, has previously compared abortion to slavery, he did not mention the topic or any anti-abortion rights messaging during his speech at the Trump rally nor at a campaign event in Avon, Ohio, that Saturday morning. When asked at the Avon event whether he’d support Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s national ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, Vance dodged the question before being pulled away by a staffer.
Vance has struggled with fundraising and several attendees at the event in Avon asked about why the campaign hasn’t had more ads on TV compared to the Ryan campaign, something Vance acknowledged in his speech.
National Republicans have rushed to the state to bail him out both on the airwaves and in person.
Last month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, bought $28 million worth of statewide TV and radio ads, a purchase first reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
At the rally in Youngstown on Saturday, the MAGA cavalry were out in full force for Vance, with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) bringing the house down in a tirade against transgender people and several applause lines about the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen. MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell got a standing ovation just for walking around. Rep. Jim Jordan, a fellow Ohio Republican, also revved the crowd up for the Republican Senate hopeful.
But off-stage, enthusiasm for Vance at the rally was lukewarm.
John Conley, a retired union electrician from Fairlawn, Ohio, who attended the rally wearing an “ULTRA MAGA” T-shirt, told The Daily Beast he doesn’t “know a lot about Vance” and primarily wants to see Trump retake power, ideally with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on the ticket.
“I’m not that concerned about J.D. Vance,” Conley said, adding that he didn’t know much about his views on abortion.
“Donald Trump is the best right-to-life president there's ever been,” he continued. “Yeah. I don’t give a shit about his, what he does with his, you know, morality. I don’t care. He runs the country really well.”
Conley said he is pro-union, but bemoaned his fellow union members for preferring Ryan, a recurring theme for rallygoers who similarly found themselves split from the rank and file over their support for Trump.
Facilities manager David Bowen of Mayfield, Ohio, said he was initially “upset” that Vance had taken anti-Trump stances in the past, but ended up changing his mind about the candidate.
“When I listened to him talk several times, I realized that he just kinda turned himself around,” Bowen said.
Jacob Spor, another pro-union but anti-Ryan voter who works as a union bricklayer, said he’s much more enthusiastic about voting for Vance than DeWine, whom he still begrudges for taking COVID-19 shutdown measures.
“With regards to Vance, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s so much better than Tim Ryan,” Spor, sporting a “Let’s Go Brandon” T-shirt emblazoned with an Ohio State logo and a Brutus Buckeye tattoo underneath, told The Daily Beast.
Other rallygoers said they weren’t that familiar with Vance, but their antipathy toward Ryan is enough for them to pull the lever for the Peter Thiel acolyte in November.
“I hate Tim Ryan’s guts,” said Donny Betts, a truck driver from Austintown, Ohio. “He’s a nasty douchebag. I’ve got all kinds of war names for him. He’s done nothing for Mahoning County. Make sure you put that in there.”
Ryan, who was off the campaign trail over the weekend to attend a family wedding, skewered Vance for leaning on Trump’s roadshow, saying it was “no surprise” he brought “his out-of-state allies to lie about Tim’s record and kickstart his flailing campaign.”
At both Vance events, there was a palpable anxiety about the current state of the race.
As the meet-and-greet wrapped up, several voters asked about why the campaign has not been on the air as much as the Ryan campaign with TV ads.
Jim Thompson, a 75-year-old retiree from Elyria, Ohio, said he first heard about Vance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, and that even though he liked GOP primary rival Josh Mandel, he decided to back Vance once he got the Trump endorsement.
“My impression is the fact that I believe he represents what people are all concerned about,” Thompson said of Vance. “To me the three things are inflation, the border, and crime. I thought he could have touched on crime a little bit more.”
Back at the rally, Rob Burton, a 56-year-old contractor who drove to the Youngstown from Tionesta, Pennsylvania, offered an outside perspective on Vance’s woes, comparing him to his state’s Republican Senate nominee, Mehmet Oz.
“I think they’re both a little shy of being out and about, honestly,” Burton said. “I think they need to be out in the public more. I don’t know where either of them stand.”
Burton said he ultimately feels Oz is the bigger liability as a candidate, and would swap in Vance “in a heartbeat” to run in Pennsylvania.
Eric Knoth, a 47-year-old small business owner from nearby Warren, Ohio, who skipped the Ohio State Football game for the rally, shrugged when asked if it was worth seeing Vance instead of catching the Buckeyes kickoff.
Ohio State defeated Toledo 77 to 21 in front of a hometown crowd in Columbus, a much less riveting affair than the 16-13 victory for Chanley over their suburban rivals the night before.
“C’mon,” Knoth said, sporting the scarlet and grey jersey. “It’s Toledo.”