Whose America will win in JD Vance-Tim Ryan Senate race?

US eyes are on the close Ohio race, with Trump pick Mr Vance polling closer to his Democratic opponent than expected

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The American saying “as goes Ohio, so goes the nation” is a living reality in the Midwestern state's Middletown community — or so says its mayor.

“Middletown is America,” said Nicole Condrey, sipping coffee outside a newly renovated senior centre she frequently visits. “It's the heartbeat of our country.”

The saying is a political one, referring to the state's critical role in national elections. Candidates that have won in the battleground state have consistently predicted who would win the whole election.

But that is changing.

In 2020, Ohio voted in favour of Donald Trump over Joe Biden, further solidifying the state as Republican.

So for many, it has been a surprise the midterms Senate race between Democrat Tim Ryan and Republican JD Vance, a Middletown native, has been such a close one.

The race was supposed to be an uphill battle for Mr Ryan, but a recent Marist Poll showed support for him at 45 per cent compared to Mr Vance's 46 per cent.

Other polls show favour for Mr Vance, with the Cook Political Report ranking the Ohio Senate race as “leaning Republican”.

“[Ohio] is moving in the direction of not being a swing state anymore,” Nancy Martorano Miller, associate professor of political science at the University of Dayton, told The National.

“I think [Republicans] assumed that it was going to be an easy win, regardless of the candidate that got that got the nomination.”

Both candidates are doubling-down on messaging that touts “real” American values and policies, campaigning on protecting middle and working-class interests and standing up to foreign economic influence as well as focusing on family-centric issues.

Why is the Senate race so close?

On a recent chilly Wednesday morning at the Hamilton County Board of Elections just outside downtown Cincinnati, the partisan split was on full display.

Republican and Democratic canvassers campaigned side-by-side in their final efforts to sway early voters heading to the polls.

“For some voters, democracy is on the ballot. And justice is on the ballot. The strife that's been going on across the aisle between the parties is unusual,” Bernard Mundy, a Democratic-endorsed candidate for judge, told The National.

“I'm 57, I've been voting since I was 18. And I've never seen it quite this tribal, if you will. So I'm anxious about how the election is going to turn out.”

But partisan politics underscore bipartisan areas of concern for these Ohio voters, with both sides sharing anxieties about the economy, inflation and jobs.

“[Tim Ryan's] really, really concentrating on bringing manufacturing jobs back to Ohio. And that's very important, because we don't want to be a rust belt anymore,” former high schoolteacher Pat Basler, a Tim Ryan voter canvassing for Democrats, told The National.

“We need to have more modern jobs, such as other types of energy, other than coal, oil.”

On the Republican side, Air Force veteran Markuz Jenkins, who began backing Mr Vance after the Trump endorsement, told The National he believes the Democrats have driven down the economy.

“We're suffering, we're at $4 a gallon [for petrol] right now,” he said.

Opec just stopped pumping all to a certain extent... so they can make as much money as they can on their own right now … It's just looking really ugly for the average person in the United States of America. And it's sad.”

Ms Martorano Miller said the close Senate race is a test on whether the right-wing political energy around Mr Trump carries any credible weight.

“I think that what's still the outstanding question for a lot of people is whether or not Trump brings out voters when he himself is not on the ballot,” she said.

But for Ms Martorano Miller, the closeness of the race may come down to old-fashioned campaigning expertise.

“Not being a politician, not being someone who had run for office before, I think there was a little bit of JD Vance, his organisation not knowing what it was supposed to do once they won the primary,” she said.

“Tim Ryan was able to raise enough money to [run TV advertisements] during the summer … He was the only one running television ads. So I think he got some name recognition, while JD Vance kind of was off the airwaves.”

Mr Vance's platform is partly based on his best-selling book about his childhood, Hillbilly Elegy, which is also a Netflix film. Middletown, a former steel town, became impoverished as industrial jobs moved out and a surging national opioid crisis tightened its grip on the Ohio suburb.

The book's success made Mr Vance, who was once anti-Trump, the default voice for a disillusioned white working class learning to navigate a post-Trump America. And as he moved into politics, Mr Vance cosied up to far-right “culture warriors” such as Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz.

“Middletown is America”: a view from JD Vance's home town

Middletown has a population of a little less than 50,000 and, located in heavily Republican Butler County, it is aptly named, nestled between the larger cities of Cincinnati and Dayton.

The median household income was a little more than $42,000 in 2020, compared to the national median of about $71,000, US census data show.

Despite that economic gap in Middletown, the wider Butler County area has been the site of sprawling development in recent years — suburban housing and shopping malls now fill what was farmland and fields 10 or 15 years ago.

“We chose Middletown as the place that we wanted to raise our kids,” Michelle Novak, a former member of the Middletown Board of Education and a Muslim American, told The National.

She said her family moved to the area following the 2008 housing crisis due to its affordability and community culture.

There's so much more wealth here that I don't think a lot of people really understand
Marc Morgan, former local politician and anti-Vance Republican

Ms Novak identifies as a Democrat and is a vocal supporter of Mr Ryan in the Senate race. But she highlights that she does not consider herself a partisan — she has previously supported Republican incumbent Rob Portman because of his work on state education issues.

“People have seen Tim Ryan in our community, and he's talking to people and he's listening. And it makes a big difference,” said Ms Novak.

“People just need to feel heard, because there's a lot of people who have felt ignored, especially in rural Ohio."

Michelle Novak is a supporter of Democratic Senate candidate Tim Ryan. She says Republican JD Vance, who is from her town, says as a member of the Middletown community, she 'feels a little used' by Vance's campaign. Photo: Facebook

But Middletown has continued to face particular struggles with poverty and the opioid crisis that has plagued much of America.

During a three-year period from 2016 to 2018, the town had 1,991 drug overdoses, including 204 fatalities, fire department records show.

Mr Vance's Hillbilly Elegy emphasised those struggles, but some Middletowners said that focus has ignored the rest of the vibrant, engaged community.

When I hear people say that [Hillbilly Elegy] is not Middletown. Well, it's not half of Middletown, but it is the half that I grew up on
Rodney Muterspaw, former police chief of Middletown

Marc Morgan is a lifelong Republican fundraiser and former local official.

His family's involvement in local politics is generations-deep, his grandfather “a very active African-American Republican” and former chairman of the Butler County Republican Party.

Mr Morgan rejected Mr Vance's characterisation of the community his family has been a part of for generations.

He pointed to the region's rich history such as former president John F Kennedy's stay at the historic Madison Inn, community members who marched with civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and enduring family businesses that line the downtown strip.

'The Republican Party has changed. I don't recognise it," said Marc Morgan, a lifelong Republican who will be voting for Democrat Tim Ryan in Ohio's contentious Senate race. Joshua Longmore / The National

“There's so much more wealth here that I don't think a lot of people really understand,” Mr Morgan told The National, sitting in a renovated library, the site of his first job as a teenager.

“When you look at Middletown, it is sort of like the heartland of Ohio. You have everyone from all types of life that live here … So it's not such a segregated community as I feel that that book made it appear.”

For Mr Morgan, Mr Vance has used the community for a political platform and national attention.

“I've not seen him knocking on doors. I've not seen him holding events here. And I think that's a disservice: you make your name off of our city, but yet you fail to come here, you fail to interact with the people who live here,” Mr Morgan said.

But Rodney Muterspaw, Middletown's former police chief, told The National that Mr Vance's book and his campaign has captured Middletown's struggles and speaks to the community.

“I just I know where he's from, because I grew up just like he did. So when I hear people say that that book is not Middletown, well, it's not half of Middletown, but it is the half that I grew up on,” said Mr Muterspaw.

“That movie and that book, those are the same calls I went on as a police officer for years, to go over to the alcoholics, the fights in the streets. That's real. That happens here.”

Ms Condrey admits that she has not read Hillbilly Elegy, but said that the majority of the Middletown community is “proud of” the book that launched Mr Vance's political career.

“I've heard some people say, 'oh, yeah, such negative bad views of Middletown'. That is definitely the minority. Most people recognise it as telling the story of a culture and a movement to a city … And I think Hillbilly Elegy talks about how those roots got started... and now generations just continue. So people are proud of it.”

Billie Bowling and her husband Shawn have lived in Middletown all their lives and run one of the “rare” bipartisan households in the community, they said.

The couple, who has three daughters, laughed as they described the importance of “love, patience, be kind to each other” when living in a house with opposing political views.

Mr Bowling, a conservative voter who is currently undecided, cited the economy as his biggest concern going into the election.

Ms Bowling said she could never vote for Mr Vance based off of his stance on abortion, Mr Trump and the way his book portrayed the community.

“JD Vance put it out there that we're just some backwoods hillbillies,” Ms Bowling, the self-described “house liberal”, told The National.

Her husband disagrees.

“I just saw it as an autobiography,” Mr Bowling said, evoking an eyeroll from his wife.

“I find it funny, though, that everyone I know that doesn't like [Hillbilly Elegy] is a Democrat or liberal. Everyone I know that likes the book is Republican,” Ms Bowling added.

Updated: November 07, 2022, 2:28 PM