ANALYSIS — Ohio is rivaling Georgia and Pennsylvania in national headlines, but is it really in the core of races that will decide control of the Senate?
The focus on the battle in the Buckeye State is understandable. The race embodies multiple attractive storylines. Best-selling author J.D. Vance surged to the Republican nomination with help from former President Donald Trump’s late endorsement and tech billionaire Peter Thiel’s super PAC. Vance became one of a handful of GOP Senate nominees who struggled to raise money and has run an underwhelming campaign after a competitive primary.
Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan is running one of the best campaigns in the country, and his staying power shows the impact of being able to define yourself through early advertising. Ryan was on television from the May primary through the middle of August before Republicans started painting their own picture of him in TV ads.
The result is a competitive race with three weeks to go before Election Day in a state Trump won by 8 points in 2020. That’s almost unthinkable considering no Democrat other than Sherrod Brown has won a Senate race in Ohio since Sen. John Glenn’s reelection in 1992.
Republicans have projected confidence in Ohio throughout the cycle, but strategists couldn’t have imagined it would be this close this close to November. Ohio’s is the only Senate race in the country that has shifted more than one Inside Elections rating category. It spent most of the cycle in Solid Republican, then shifted to Likely Republican, and is now rated Lean Republican.
So why aren’t national Democrats pouring money into the race? It’s not exactly a secret. The parties and partisan outside groups look for the most efficient and strategic places to invest finite resources in their effort to retain or recapture majorities.
Even though the North Carolina and Ohio Senate races are in roughly the same position with the two nominees locked in a tight race, the Tar Heel State is structurally easier for Democrats. According to Inside Elections’ Baseline metric, which takes into account all statewide and congressional races over the previous four election cycles, Republicans have a 2.3-point advantage (50.6 percent to 48.3 percent) in North Carolina compared to the GOP’s considerable 11.5-point advantage in Ohio (54.7 percent to 43.2 percent).
Democrats are also playing offense in Wisconsin, where GOP Sen. Ron Johnson’s approval rating is soft and Republicans' edge rounds to 0.4 points (49 percent to 48.5 percent), according to Baseline, and Pennsylvania, where Democrats have a 3.7-point advantage (50.5 percent to 46.8 percent).
If resources were infinite, there would be Democratic money spent in Ohio, but that’s not the situation, considering Democrats are also playing defense in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire. Those four seats, combined with Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina, comprise the core of the Senate battleground, and all have ratings of Toss-up or Tilt to one of the parties. Whichever party wins two out of Georgia, Nevada and Pennsylvania will likely be in control of the Senate next year.
Overall, Democrats have a very narrow edge in the fight for the Senate. Inside Elections’ current projection ranges from a Republican gain of a seat to a Democratic gain of a seat. Republicans need a net gain of one seat for a majority.
The lack of outside help doesn’t mean Ohio isn’t competitive or that Ryan can’t or won’t win. But it will be difficult for Ohio to crack the inner ring of Senate races for attention with so little time left in the cycle, unless outside Democratic groups see an influx of cash or the party’s prospects shift in other races.
Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst with CQ Roll Call.