COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the race for Ohio’s open U.S. Senate seat, Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat, has sidelined the debate by talking about his love of natural gas.

“In the Inflation Reduction Act, we have a strong preference for natural gas,” Ryan said in his remarks Debate on October 11 in Cleveland. “I’ve been a supporter of natural gas since I’ve been in Congress, and we have to get it right. We need to increase natural gas production.”

He fights with J. D. Vance, an investor and author who also wants to see increased production of natural gas, the fossil fuel that contributes to climate change.

It’s not hard to see why some environmentalists are dismissive of some of Ryan’s views. But Ryan’s polling results show him firmly in the mainstream of his party, despite his emphasis on positions that appeal to the political center.

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At the same time, Vance considers himself an outsider in the tradition of former President Donald Trump and has adopted much of Trump’s approach to energy and the environment, downplaying the risks of climate change and criticizing the shift to renewable energy and electric cars.

The race shows how energy is being debated in a state that ranks sixth in the nation for natural gas production and where Democrats, with the exception of Sen. Sherrod Brown and Ohio Supreme Court justices, continue to lose statewide races.

Polls show a deadlock, a surprisingly close race considering Trump easily won Ohio’s electoral votes in 2016 and 2020. If Ryan were to win, it would be an upset that would help tilt the Senate, which is now split 50-50 between the parties, in favor of Democrats.

“I don’t think Democratic enthusiasm is going to be a functional issue for Ryan,” said Ohio native Kyle Kondik, editor-in-chief of Sabato’s Crystal Ball magazine at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Inside Climate News contacted the campaign offices of both candidates, but no one responded.

In the debate in Cleveland, Vance sought to connect Ryan with President Joe Biden and national Democrats. Part of that attack was to blame Democrats for rising inflation, including rising energy costs.

“Tim Ryan just told a big hoax,” Vance said. “He said he supports the Ohio gas industry and always has. And yet Tim Ryan, when he ran for president two years ago, (he) supported a ban on fracking both on public lands and in general. This is destroying Ohio’s energy sector. And this is one of the reasons why manufacturers go to China.”

Ryan’s support for natural gas helps him appeal to independent and moderate Republican voters, but it doesn’t endear him to voters who want a quick transition to renewable energy.

And yet those concerns pale in comparison to the disdain that Democrats and many others feel for Trump and, by extension, Vance.

Despite playing in the middle, Ryan retains the support of progressive supporters

At my local farmers market in the Clintonville area of ​​Columbus on Saturday, some customers picked up yard signs for Ryan along with fresh fruits, vegetables and honey.

“This area is pretty blue-collar,” said Elise Porter, a retired attorney who was holding a Ryan sign.

If there were cracks in the Democratic Party’s support for Ryan, they would appear in a place like this.

“He’s campaigning in support of workers,” she said. “If you want to run as a Democrat in Ohio, this is what you have to do.”

Chris Heldman hands out signs in support of Tim Ryan for Senate at a farmer’s market in the Clintonville area of ​​Columbus, Ohio. Posted by: Dan Girina

But what about Ryan’s support for expanding natural gas drilling?

“There is a small factor,” said Chris Heldman, who works for the health administration. He volunteered at the Clintonville Area Progressives table, handing out signs to Ryan and other Democratic candidates.

But any reservations Heldman has are few and far between, especially compared to how much he dislikes Vance.

Bruce McComb, a retired nonprofit and business consultant who also worked on the tables, summed up the sentiment:

“If you’re looking at the alternative, J.D. Vance, there’s just no question,” he said.

He describes the dynamic that allowed Ryan to join the political center without worrying about losing support on the left.

Instead, Vance is trying to reconstruct the Trump coalition’s winning formula, talking about an “America First” foreign policy, immigration restrictions and a 15-week abortion ban.

Vance, once ambivalent about Trump, now resonates with him

Vance became a public figure with his best-selling 2016 memoir, Mountain elegy.

He spent most of his youth in Middletown, Ohio, an industrial town in the southwestern part of the state. He wrote in his book about the hardships of his family and society, and how he overcame many challenges to attend Yale Law School and pursue a career in venture capital.

The book has a strong condemnation of the people of Middletown and a message about the need to believe in yourself. The book’s message resonated with many readers, but Vance also faced criticism from writers and scientists familiar with the area, who said he engaged in an unfair stereotype of the working class.

After Trump’s election in 2016, a lot of people said Mountain elegy helped explain why some white working-class voters turned away from the Democrats and supported Trump. Meanwhile, Vance shied away from endorsing Trump and cast himself as a political moderate who would use his newfound fame to help Ohio. He returned stateside and started a nonprofit organization to help find solutions to opioid addiction. (The nonprofit didn’t do much that was a problem in the company.)

Around the same time, some Republicans began eyeing Vance as a potential candidate for statewide office.

He announced his candidacy for the Senate last year, seeking to fill the seat vacated by the retirement of Republican Sen. Rob Portman. Vance has joined a crowded primary race in which he and several of his rivals have established themselves as front-runners in the Trump format.

Instead of trying to appeal to Ohio’s Republican establishment like Portman or Gov. Mike DeWine, Vance crafted a message that would appeal to Trump and his supporters. He also had the benefit of free exposure with frequent appearances on Fox News and a big infusion of cash from his former boss, PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel.

Trump endorsed Vance about two weeks before the primary, giving Vance the momentum he needed to narrowly win his party’s nomination.

Vance’s views on energy align with Trump’s.

“Even if there was a climate crisis, I don’t know how buying more Chinese-made electric cars would solve it,” Vance said in an interview with conservative radio host Buck Sexton criticizing the Inflation Reduction Act’s incentives for electric cars. “This whole electric car thing is a scam, right?”

While such talk is attractive to many Republican voters, Vance is seen by others in the party as an opportunist willing to change his position on whatever is needed for short-term gain.

“If you don’t know who JD Vance is, you’re not alone. And so did J.D. Vance,” said Joanne Lawrence, a Republican who served in the Ohio House of Representatives from 1983 to 1999. opinion column Art Dispatch of Columbus.

She noted that Vance has gone from criticizing Trump’s rhetoric in 2016 to emulating it.

“He is a chameleon who will do anything to get elected,” she wrote. “That’s why we shouldn’t elect him.”

Run like a moderate, vote like a regular Democrat

In contrast to Vance’s sudden rise, Ryan has been a public figure for decades, first elected to the US House of Representatives in 2002. His political base is in Youngstown, a largely defunct industrial town known for rough-and-tumble politics.

He has a history of challenging the liberal wing of his party, including an unsuccessful 2016 run for House Minority Leader against Nancy Pelosi. He had a short presidential campaign in 2019.

But his voting record, especially in recent years, is the same as that of a mainstream Democrat. His lifetime score is from the League of Conservation Voters 91 percentmeaning he almost always voted in line with the environmental group’s position.

He talks about the need to take action on climate change and Ohio’s economic opportunities to build equipment used in renewable energy and electric vehicles. Ohio is already a clean energy powerhouse and is becoming more so with the announcements as in Honda this month that he would spend $3.5 billion to build a battery plant in the state that would employ about 2,200 workers.

“Ryan is not that different from the national Democrats,” said Kondik of the University of Virginia.

“He’s not Joe Manchin. He’s not Kirsten Sinema,” Kondik said, naming the two Senate Democrats most often at odds with their leadership.

The best model for what kind of senator Ryan can be is Sherrod Brown, Kondik said. Brown won the Ohio election by appealing to working-class voters and union members, but rarely went against his party’s leadership on important issues. Brown’s lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters is 94 percent.

The bottom line is that Vance’s criticism — that Ryan is running as a moderate but will vote like a typical Democrat — is probably valid, and that’s comforting to environmental advocates.