Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, a candidate for U.S. Senate, arrives to meet with Teamsters local 413 members during a shift change outside of a UPS facility in Columbus, Ohio, Friday, Nov 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

There are several species of Democrats. There’s the genus that would see a car with a blowout on the shoulder of the road and make a mental note to form a blue-ribbon commission to study the lack of roadside assistance. The second would pull over, extract a lug wrench from the trunk, and put on a spare.  

The second is named Tim Ryan, a congressman who looks like he could be making tires in Akron. He spent a year campaigning his heart out for the seat left open by the retiring, mildly moderate Senator Rob Portman. Ryan ran against a candidate not at all like Portman—the celebrity author J. D. Vance, who is such a fraud that even Donald Trump was repelled by him. Ryan was a star quarterback in high school and wears Ohio State gear on non-game days. He preaches that there’s dignity without a college degree, and pushes for more and better vocational ed. His identification with those who pack a lunch and catch the early bus comes from growing up during the steel crisis. He misidentifies with elites and will never be woke. 

Ryan famously captured what’s un-Ohio about Vance with one left hook at their second debate. After reminding the audience of Trump’s disgust with Vance for “kissing my ass,” Ryan told them that “Ohio needs an ass-kicker, not an ass-kisser.” After recounting that Vance was smiling and taking pictures with Trump after being so humiliated, Ryan concluded, “I don’t know anybody I grew up with … that would allow somebody to take their dignity like that and then get back up onstage.”

Contrary to what the pols and pundits are saying after the election, Ohio is not dead to Democrats. It’s no Missouri. Yes, it voted for Trump in 2016 and then again in 2020 when the state should have known better. But no one should base the future on Trump’s past. He may have won, but he’s the first incumbent president to carry Ohio while losing the White House, the House, and the Senate. That neither Joe Biden nor Hillary Clinton could pry Ohio voters away from the preening populist promising a time when men were men before lefty globalists went and shipped their jobs overseas is not a sign that they can’t be wooed. Before the state was doused with snake oil, Barack Obama won there twice. 

Ohio is a place where 70-year-old Democrat Sherrod Brown, the senator from whom Ryan’s leisure wear is cut, has been winning elections since 1983 by seeing to the needs of the 90 percent. With the same focus, Ryan has been elected to his congressional seat 10 times. Yet when the congressman, who was gaining support by the day, ahead in one poll by four points, asked the party for a piece of their pie, the party hung a Do Not Resuscitate order on the door of his campaign headquarters, preferring to finance sexier races. 

By contrast, Vance, even though he was missing in action on the campaign trail after a bruising primary, had something Ryan didn’t: the laser-like attention of his party. In the fall, while Dems were spending their treasure in places Biden won in 2020, or perennial sinkholes like Texas, Ryan was all but ignored. In the stretch, Vance got $28 million for TV ads from Mitch McConnell. Vance didn’t take off despite the infusion. Polls showed Ryan’s favorables high and his appeal to independents growing. Democrats could have saved Ryan or turned the page. They did the latter. 

So why would Washington take Beto O’Rourke’s calls from El Paso but ignore Ryan’s from Youngstown? For one, O’Rourke is cool, and Ryan isn’t, although uncool wins swing states. Being uncool is what Ohio appreciates about Ryan, but it’s O’Rourke’s appeal to the young, the female, and the donor class that kept O’Rourke high in the Democratic firmament. At 50, he was seen as the future, while Ryan, at 49, came across to donor elites as yesterday. 

Ohio reveals how troubled American political parties are, and the two most troubled aren’t the spoilers like the libertarians and the greens, but the two majors, Democrats and Republicans. The GOP is hampered by clinging to its unlikely 2016 victory with a guy who ran casinos (into the gutter), closed real estate deals (by cheating), and bleated “You’re fired” (on cue) on a game show. Yet he’s the success story the GOP can’t get over, offering more of the same in addition to Vance: the Arizona newscaster Kari Lake (who came within a hair of the governor’s house), running back Herschel Walker of Texas running in Georgia, and Dr. Mehmet Oz of New Jersey running in Pennsylvania.

For their part, Democrats are superficial too. They’ve liked a movie star sheen (see O’Rourke above), ever since Broadway’s Helen Gahagan Douglas lost a 1950 Senate race to the dour Richard Nixon. The sleek Governor Gavin Newsom is on the 2024 presidential list for his proximity to the beautiful people in California, as well being one himself. 

Democrats win when it goes with its working-class roots, with the normal, the real, the charisma-free haberdasher, a rumpled Tip O’Neill, and, more recently, Ohio’s neighbor to the east, the senator-elect from Pennsylvania, John Fetterman, with the kind of authenticity consultants dream of faking. The former mayor and lieutenant governor in the hoodie won the Democratic primary over the smooth, telegenic Representative Conor Lamb, who some in Washington wanted to step in for Fetterman after his stroke. It was difficult for a hardened pro to   see that their nominee was genuine enough to neutralize, if not turn to his advantage, a setback with the observation that by January, thanks to the stellar health care he wants everyone in the state to have, he would be healed. In January, and likely forever, Oz would still be a fraud. 

Democrats could begin to heal themselves if they jettisoned those in Washington who left Ryan in the lurch, not one of them noticing that his favorables continued to remain higher than Vance’s, one of the contenders McConnell was complaining about when he cited the lack of “candidate quality.” What a difference it would have made if a mere $500,000 of the millions being sent to those who didn’t have a  chance had gone to Ryan. God love them, but O’Rourke’s challenge to Greg Abbott was never a good bet, especially when the former congressman was on a losing streak, defeated by Senator Ted Cruz in 2018 and having blown the 2020 presidential shot after telling Vanity Fair that when it came to a run for the White House, “I just was born to be in it.” And Stacey Abrams didn’t have much of a chance in her second go at the popular Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, who had put both COVID and Trump in his rearview mirror. She lost by eight points. 

To know what the country missed, watch Ryan’s concession speech, reminiscent of Al Gore’s in 2000 after the Supreme Court stopped counting votes in Florida that might have shown he won.  

“I had the privilege to concede this race to J. D. Vance. Because the way this country operates is that you lose an election, you concede. You respect the will of the people. We can’t have a system where if you win, it’s a legitimate election, and if you lose, someone stole it. That is not how we can move forward in the United States.” Kari Lake, are you listening?

Ryan lost for want of money, but he won one for democracy. 

Margaret Carlson

Follow Margaret on Twitter @carlsonmargaret. Margaret Carlson is a columnist at The Daily Beast.