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Tim Ryan turned his race into a surprise Senate battleground. Now comes the hard part.

Written by Javed Iqbal

The lead is the product of a lopsided campaign so far: Ryan has spent more than $8 million on advertising, including $6.5 million on television since May. But until this week, Vance’s campaign had been off the air for that entire time. Ryan has also stayed well ahead of Vance in the cash race, thanks in part to an aggressive small-dollar donation drive.

The outcome of the Ohio race has big stakes for the 2022 midterms. The Senate is finely balanced at 50-50, and Democrats have enjoyed a summer of solid polling in top swing-state races despite the challenging political environment. Adding another seriously competitive GOP-held seat to the list of battleground races this fall could tip control of the chamber next year.

Ironically, the spate of negative stories surrounding Vance’s campaign in recent weeks — that he’s struggling with fundraising and his own party is questioning whether Ryan is challenging him on the air — may have had a net positive effect on Vance’s campaign. Fundraising has picked up since, and national Republicans have stepped in to start buying ads in the race.

On Thursday, Vance joined Trump at his golf club in Bedminster, NJ, where he raised about $300,000 by holding a golf fundraiser, according to a person with knowledge of the event.

Donors who had stayed on the sidelines since the primary have suddenly started writing checks, Vance allies said. And after a bitter primary battle, Vance’s former opponents are now stepping up to lend their support. Jane Timken just held a fundraiser for Vance, and the campaign is now planning additional events with Josh Mandel and Mike Gibbons.

This week, One Nation, the nonprofit arm of the external spending machine affiliated with the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), announced a $3.8 million ad buy in the Ohio Senate. It follows a nearly $1 million TV buy launched this week as a campaign partnership between Vance and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

In an interview with POLITICO, Ryan said national Republicans are “panicked” about Vance’s prospects and pushed back on the idea that his internal polling represents the high point of his campaign.

“We have a lot of room to grow,” Ryan said. “In many ways, this race has strengthened itself.” He added, “It’s just going to be about how many more Republicans and independents we can draw in the next three months.”

On that front, Ryan is still making progress. Departing Sen. Rob Portman‘s former chief of staff John Bridgeland, a former director of George W. Bush’s Domestic Policy Council, is expected to write an endorsement on Ryan’s behalf in an upcoming Sunday edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer, tapping into his state-based Republican rolodex, POLITICO has learned.

“Tim spends time in every county in Ohio, including heavily Republican counties in southwest Ohio,” Bridgeland told POLITICO. “He really listens to people, wants to know what their concerns are. And JD Vance is tearing people apart. And the last thing this country needs right now is more people igniting the worst dimensions of human nature. “

Ryan’s internal polling also shows him making inroads with independents: It showed him up 20 points with those voters. According to the poll, Vance also has 85 percent name recognition and a 50 percent unfavorable rating after a bruising and expensive Republican primary. Ryan, who enjoyed a smoother ride to his party’s nomination, finds himself with 80 percent name ID and a 36 percent unfavorable rating).

But Republicans on the ground in Ohio and national operatives in DC say they are confident the liberal congressman will fall dramatically as Vance hits the airwaves with positive spots, and especially as Ryan begins to face attack ads in the Republican-leaning state

A person familiar with One Nation’s decision to buy ad time in Ohio said “the cash disparity between the two candidates is a concern,” but they expect a Vance victory “if he closes that gap a little bit.”

Protect Ohio Values, a super PAC that backed Vance in the primary with $15 million from Thiel, will also spend on Vance’s behalf again during the general election, according to a person familiar with the group’s plan. Thiel has not yet said whether he will cut another check, but the super PAC has added new donors and intends to spend seven figures on Vance this fall.

“In terms of what’s ahead, I think he’s probably at his high-water mark now,” said Tony Schroeder, chairman of the Putnam County Republican Party, referring to Ryan. “Honestly, we’re in a period where people aren’t paying a hell of a lot of attention. When the engagement comes, there’s not going to be anything that’s going to help Tim Ryan.”

Vance has left the campaign trail in Ohio several times this summer, including trips to Conservative Political Action Conference events. But in addition to catering to crowds of activists, the tours have also served as fundraising opportunities. On Friday, before speaking in Dallas at CPAC Texas, Vance hosted the organization’s donor breakfast. He also held one-on-one meetings in the donor-heavy city, as he did when he traveled to Tel Aviv last month for CPAC Israel.

“A lot of this is midsummer bedwetting, to be honest,” said one person close to the campaign, noting how unpopular President Joe Biden remains in Ohio and how closely Republican ads will seek to tie Ryan to the president.

During his speech Friday, Vance urged the crowd to sign up to call and knock on doors for his campaign, blasting Ryan as a “weak, fake congressman.” His comments signaled that there is still a battle ahead to win over voters disenchanted with Democrats, “whether they’re conservative, whether they vote Republican every time — the people who just want a good life in the country that their grandparents and great-grandparents built.”

A campaign spokesman said Vance was unavailable for an interview Friday while at CPAC Texas.

Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Levorchick said he met Vance for the first time last month when Vance traveled the state and visited individually with law enforcement leaders. Levorchick took office in 2011 as a Democrat, but changed his voter registration last year to Republican. Ottawa, an Obama-Trump county, broke from its longtime bellwether mode in 2020 to support Trump for a second term.

Levorchick said as of now, he plans to cast his vote this fall for Vance, suggesting there is mistrust of Ryan in some law enforcement circles.

“Is he more right than some people might want? He could be,” Levorchick said of Vance. “But when you only have two candidates to choose from, you have to weigh who is actually the best fit to represent you.”

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Javed Iqbal

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