Guns, abortion, China: The evolution of Tim Ryan

By: - April 18, 2022 4:00 am

Mon., Mar. 28, 2022; Wilberforce, Ohio, USA; U.S. Senate Democratic candidate Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) delivers his closing statement during Ohio’s U.S. Senate Democratic Primary Debate at Central State University. Mandatory Credit: Joshua A. Bickel/Ohio Debate Commission

Friday morning, Tim Ryan’s campaign released a new TV ad in the Ohio congressman’s bid for the U.S. Senate. The Youngstown area Democrat stands on the hardwood of a basketball gym addressing people lining the bleachers. He talks inflation, supply chain, middle class tax cuts.

It’s a notable departure from his previous ad, which focused relentlessly on “China.” Speaking outside a Starbucks in downtown Columbus — he showed up in solidarity with employees working to unionize — Ryan stood by that earlier tv spot.

“Look, we are sensitive to their concern, and would never support any violence, of course,” Ryan said. “But we’re not taking the ad down. I mean, this is an ad about communist China.”

The newer, gentler ad came out the next day. Whether the campaign acknowledges a shift in his positioning, it’s clear that on two other hot button issues Ryan has evolved.

Guns and Abortion

In February, Ryan’s Democratic primary opponent Morgan Harper sent out an email detailing his record as a “pro-life” congressman.

The timeline, beginning with his initial run in 2002, shows him casting multiple votes opposing greater access to abortion or imposing new restrictions meant to discourage the procedure. He also cast votes against therapeutic cloning, which abortion opponents liken to murder because days-old embryos are destroyed in the process. In 2009, it recalls, Ryan wrote an op-ed in U.S. News and a letter to the editor in the Youngstown Vindicator explaining his stance.

Ryan changed that stance in 2015. His current Senate bid has gotten the endorsement of NARAL, and he earned a 100% rating on Planned Parenthood’s most recent congressional scorecard.

Harper though, isn’t impressed with his change of heart, calling him an “opportunist.”

“Ohio’s women deserve better,” she wrote. “I will never waver when it comes to protecting abortion rights, and I will always be a champion for our reproductive health and freedom.”

A similar critique has been leveled against Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Cranley, who has come by his pro-choice bona fides relatively recently as well. Like Cranley, Ryan offers a justification rooted in his upbringing.

“I grew up Catholic, I went to Catholic school, and I just assumed as I was moving into my political life, I was a pro-life Democrat,” he explained. “And then I listened, and talked to a lot of women here in Ohio who had very complicated circumstances. I listened to a lot of pro-choice members of Congress and other leaders, and I saw the other side of this.”

Ryan describes it now as an “issue of freedom,” and frames it as a decision for women to make about their own bodies. He can’t point to a specific event or argument that changed his mind, pointing instead to a slow accumulation over time.

When it comes to guns, however, Ryan zeroes in on the Sandy Hook shooting.

“You know, when Sandy Hook happened, I think everybody started to look really differently at a lot of this,” he described. “And the NRA was never showing up to even talk about background checks or talking about some basic issues around safety.”

Ryan had earned an A- from the group in the election only about a month prior to the shooting. After the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, Ryan decided to donate all the money he’d previously received from the NRA to gun safety organizations.

Ryan’s point of departure though is a bit ironic. While Sandy Hook marked Ryan’s break with the gun lobby, the families of Sandy Hook victims spent nearly a decade trying to circumvent legislation Ryan supported in their effort to hold the gun manufacturer Remington accountable.

That legislation, known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, shields gun manufacturers from liability when people commit crimes with their products. In February, the families reached a $73 million settlement in the case based on state unfair trade practices legislation — one of the few exceptions in the federal law.

Ryan largely sidestepped a question about his support for the Lawful Commerce in Arms Act which passed in 2005. Instead, he described how he grew up hunting and still loves it, but the current debate about gun rights “isn’t about hunting.” While Sandy Hook crystallized his view on guns, he says, the shift again came through a series of experiences.

“And what I say to people is like, don’t you want your legislators to listen? And then learn from those conversations and experiences?” Ryan asked. “So I think a lot of people appreciate the transparency of the whole evolution.”

AAPI Pushback

Ryan’s campaign rhetoric when it comes to China aligns fairly closely with his Republican competitors. It’s rare for any of the GOP candidates to reference with country without the prefix “communist.” Blaming the country for domestic job losses and drugs like fentanyl is a regular feature in many of their stump speeches. J.D. Vance, who recently picked up Donald Trump’s endorsement, shares ominously that most U.S. antibiotics are produced in China.

The symmetry, though, shouldn’t be a surprise.

When he announced his presidential bid in 2019, Ryan described his cousin’s last day at the Delphi automotive plant, unbolting a machine from the factory floor and shipping it to China, and the then-recent shuttering of GM’s operations in Lordstown. He has long predicated his pitch on appealing to blue-collar voters who have largely abandoned the Democratic party as jobs have made their way overseas. Speaking last week, he argued his message is resonating across the aisle.

“We’re talking and getting the support of a lot of Republicans, a lot of people who voted for Trump twice, and that are coming on board,” he said, before continuing, “They’re exhausted and I don’t think they want whoever the Senator is to wake up the next day and want to punish half of the state for not wanting to start culture wars,” Ryan said.

Ryan’s positioning — Democratic, but conservative enough to peel off Republican votes — has served him well in Congress, and it helps explain how his stance on abortion and guns hewed close to the center until those positions became untenable.

But when it comes to Ryan’s case against China, he’s facing some pushback from within the party.

Ryan’s first ad repetitively hammers away at “China,” and members of the AAPI community were quick to note that similar rhetoric tied to COVID-19 led to a rash of anti-Asian violence.

“The decision to stoke fear and anger against an inflated China threat is dangerous and unacceptable — and a losing strategy for Democrats campaigning for Ohio’s U.S. Senate seat,” Sharon Kim of Asian American Midwest Progressives wrote in a letter last week.

Nearly 200 other community leaders and organizations signed on to the letter.

While Ryan defended his previous ad, it will cease airing. His campaign explains the changeover was pre-scheduled, rather than a response to pushback. The campaign also noted Ryan and staffers have been in contact with leaders in the AAPI community in recent weeks.

In a statement, Asian American Midwest Progressives said they were “heartened” by the shift in tone but argued the campaign hasn’t gone far enough.

“This second ad continues to blame “China” for inflation,” they write, “rather than including all the actors at play, and again not distinguishing between the actions of the Chinese government versus Chinese people or people of Chinese descent.”



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Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.