Greenville, Ohio — Steaks are sizzling on a grill outdoors as Republican Senate candidate JD Vance takes the stage at the Darke County fairground, on a wagon decorated with hay bales and pumpkins, and outfitted with a lectern draped in an Ohio state flag.
“I don’t like Joe Biden, but I’ve been shocked by how much damage they’ve been able to cause in just 18 months,” Vance, the Trump-backed venture capitalist and author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” tells the crowd gathered at the fairground. Some voters are wearing flannel, others in sweaters and scarves on this sunny but chilly day in western Ohio.
Vance, decked out in a gray Cincinnati Bengals hoodie, is here for the Darke County Republican Party Hog Roast. GOP Gov. Mike DeWine, members of Ohio’s congressional delegation and other GOP officials are also in attendance.
Republicans aren’t worried about winning this county — it’s undisputed Trump country. But they are working to drive up enthusiasm and turnout in GOP strongholds as part of a larger effort across the state.
Former President Donald Trump won Ohio by 8 points less than two years ago, but polls have shown the Ohio Senate race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman is competitive. The Real Clear Politics average has Vance up by just 2.5 points over his Democratic opponent, Rep. Tim Ryan.
Vance argues Ohio polls aren’t fully counting Republican support, and he claims that if the race were held tomorrow, he’d win. Republican officials and strategists also remain bullish the party will hold onto the Senate seat. Ohio has been trending Republican over the last two presidential elections, with Trump easily winning in 2016 and 2020.
“I think it’s going to be a red wave. Ohio is a conservative center-right state and right now I can tell you, Ohio’s Republicans and conservatives are getting excited, and they’re going to vote,” state auditor Keith Faber told CBS News.
GOP strategists in the state also contend Vance is also getting a boost because he’s on the ticket with DeWine, the state’s popular governor. And Democrats, who control the White House and Congress, are facing headwinds in the midterms, as Americans are struggling every day with soaring inflation. Recent polls show President Joe Biden’s approval is underwater in the state. It’s no surprise Vance has been linking Ryan to Mr. Biden on the trail.
“It was Joe Biden and my Democratic opponent Tim Ryan who decided to open the United States border to a wave of illegal aliens and a ton of fentanyl. It was Joe Biden and Tim Ryan that raised taxes and raised spending in a way that jacked up inflation for all of our families, from the grocery store to the gas pump,” Vance said.
Ryan is on the campaign trail trying to counter that storyline and build a coalition of what he calls the “exhausted majority” of Democrats, Republicans and independents to send him to the Senate.
On Monday, he rolled up outside the City Club of Cleveland in an orange and blue bus with the message “put workers first” splashed across the side. The 10-term congressman has been crisscrossing the state running an economy focused campaign where he talks about bringing jobs back to Ohio and taking on China. A couple on the sidewalk stop him for a photo before he enters the event.
“I’m not asking anyone to sign up to be a Democrat,” Ryan told the crowd. “I’m asking you to sign up to be an American. We got to be Americans first.”
Ohio has more registered Republicans than Democrats: nearly 1.4 million to just over 1 million. But there are more than 5.5 million who identify themselves as independents, according to the secretary of state’s office.
In an ad, Ryan and his wife Andrea said if they agree in seven of 10 conversations in one day, they crack a bottle of wine. “The same goes for the country,” Ryan says in it. “We have to stop the stupid fights.”
He has also sought to distance himself from national Democrats, dismissing the idea of bringing Mr. Biden to help campaign in the Buckeye state.
Vance accuses Ryan of pretending “that he’s a MAGA Republican.”
Ryan says Vance is an extremist who helped raise legal funds for. He also slams Vance’s support for a and his past remarks rejecting abortion exceptions for rape or incest.
With Vance’s slight edge in the polls, outside GOP groups are pouring tens of millions into the race. The Senate Leadership Fund, aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has spent $29 million since the beginning of September, according to tracking by AdImpact, with ads attacking Ryan, largely over the economy and taxes. Trump’s MAGA Inc. has dropped over $2 million into advertising including $1 million added Tuesday.
Ryan is the top Democratic spender in Ohio in the final stretch, with $17 million on ads from the start of September through Election Day. The Save America Fund (not affiliated with Trump) has also put in more than $3.3 million with ads accusing Vance of being a fraud.
Voters in Ohio say they’re feeling the strain of inflation. Polls show the economy is the most important issue for Ohio voters.
“We used to have everything we need right here in the United States, but now we depend on overseas. That’s not helping us at all,” said Diane Delaplane, a Republican, who partially blames the Biden administration for rising costs.
Ohio Democrats are also suffering because of rising prices but are less likely to pin it on the president, instead blaming supply chain issues and corporate price-gouging.
In Youngstown, a local coffee shop owner said the past few years have been devastating because of the pandemic. Now, there’s inflation to contend with and it’s hard to find workers. Despite that, she’s cautiously optimistic. She’s shied away from talking about politics saying it wouldn’t be good for business. But she says the energy is definitely there: people are paying attention.
With three weeks until Election Day, more than 943,100 Ohioans have already voted or requested absentee ballots by mail, a 2.7% increase over the same point in the 2018 midterms.