The weekend before South Carolina’s special election, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan had been thrown into the lion’s den — “literally,” he joked.
As a surrogate for an under-the-radar Democratic candidate in the 5th District race, the congressman from Youngstown, Ohio, was addressing a Lions Club candidate forum in a gated community south of Charlotte, North Carolina, where the room was mostly white, elderly and Republican.
But that was the point.
Ryan thinks his party’s brand is dead, and in the days since Democratic losses in South Carolina and Georgia, he’s once again been calling for new leadership to help his party reach out to voters, like these South Carolina Republicans, who are turned off by Democrats.
The South Carolina audience soon found out — from the Republican candidate Ralph Norman — that this was the guy who had challenged House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
And in part, that’s why Ryan was there. “To provide another view — that there are Democrats from Ohio that are part of our team,” he said later that day.
Ryan’s message is clear. What’s less clear is where this eight-term veteran of the House is going.
Since his bid for leader last fall, Ryan has ruled out running for governor of Ohio in 2018. His decision to pass on the open-seat race dispelled some of the speculation that the leadership bid was just a publicity or fundraising stunt.
So what does Ryan want, and what’s he doing?
The Ohio Democrat is hitting the road. The weekend after his one-day jaunt to South Carolina, he went to Iowa on behalf of Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack, whom Republicans are targeting in 2018.
He says he doesn’t have any New Hampshire trips planned.
Instead, Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana are on his itinerary for later this summer and fall.
“I know as well as anybody how we reconnect with these voters we lost,” says Ryan, who spoke frequently with former President Bill Clinton during last year’s campaign.
Ryan’s swagger might be a turn-off for some in D.C. (although he insists he hasn’t experienced any retaliation for challenging Pelosi). On the trail, he easily connects.
“He’s at home here,” one African-American activist said after meeting Ryan for the first time at a fish fry in Rock Hill, South Carolina. “He knows to adjust to whomever.”
When someone mentioned getting him a fork, Ryan declined. He reached into a tinfoil tray, happy to sample a piece of fried fish with his fingers.
Ryan was just as at home at the Lions Club, where most of the well-heeled crowd were already supporting Norman. “The best social program is a job,” he told the audience. He considered it a morning well spent when some Republicans had nice things to say about him and Parnell afterwards.
“I don’t know why I like doing that,” Ryan said later that day. “But I believe that if you talk to them, and you listen to them and you get their concerns, they can vote Democrat.”
Ryan speaks with the nonchalance of the next generation in Congress (his off-the-cuff remarks are peppered with “likes”) and before challenging Pelosi, he was best known for his pursuit of mindfulness and his evolution in favor of abortion rights.
He touched on neither of those topics in South Carolina.
Getting out the vote was Ryan’s primary concern. But he was also on his own fact-finding mission to see what kind of Democratic resources were on the ground.
Despite being an outspoken critic of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and its staff after the party picked up a net of only six House seats last fall, Ryan wasn’t an active participant in the DCCC’s 2016 efforts.
Is he more involved in the DCCC this year?
“Well, I’m here,” Ryan said in Rock Hill, while Parnell knocked on doors.
This year’s trips have usually been at the invitation of members and candidates, though, not through the DCCC. Earlier this year, Ryan attended an Ohio candidate recruitment meeting at the DCCC, according to his staff. This week, he attended a messaging meeting.
But he’s not so sure the DCCC has all the answers to the Democratic Party’s problems.
“To think that one organization is going to be able to adequately handle winning elections now, I just don’t think is the model,” Ryan said in South Carolina. He wants the party to go into places where a Democratic congressional candidate might not even win, just to start building a bench — and a base.
That’s where he sees his role right now.
Ryan found transplants from Ohio in every South Carolina crowd. “We’ve got to get an Ohio picture!” he shouted at a Parnell field office in Rock Hill.
“He has ambitions to go up,” Betras said. “He’s not running for governor, so the only ‘up’ would be either Senator or take a shot at the White House.”
But the political world has heard that before — many times. Ryan’s name has been in the mix for higher elected office in Ohio for several cycles (and vice president for Hillary Clinton in 2016).
“You never stop hearing about Tim Ryan as a potential candidate for something, but then he never pulls the trigger,” said one Ohio Democratic operative.
He has time. Ryan’s only 43, having first won his congressional seat when he was 29. In a competitive 2002 primary, he defeated a sitting congressman who was drawn into the district and outspent Ryan 10-1.
He’s never been a prodigious fundraiser for himself or other members of the caucus — to which his allies, taking a shot at Pelosi, respond — “How did all her money help?”
A commitment to fundraising, though, would seem an obvious prerequisite for seeking higher office.
Ryan raised $163,000 during the first quarter of this year, which ended on March 31, and didn’t donate to any federal candidates. (His campaign says he’s since given to Georgia’s Jon Ossoff, Montana’s Rob Quist, Indiana Sen. Joe Donnelly, Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, New Mexico Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham and Virginia’s Tom Perriello.)
Ryan’s leadership PAC, named after the Youngstown State Penguins, doled out $13,000 to federal candidates in 2016. Its new name is loftier, with more national appeal: America 2.0.
Republicans are targeting Ryan in 2018 (President Donald Trump took 45 percent of the vote in his district last fall), prompting his campaign to send out a fundraising email this week with the subject line, “Tim’s seat isn’t safe anymore.”
But if he’s feeling endangered at home, he’s not acting like it.
“What I’m really trying to do is reshape the national party,” Ryan said in South Carolina. “The race against [Pelosi] has put me in a position to help do that.”