Younger members of the House Democratic caucus wanted to delay leadership elections to see if a strong challenger to Nancy Pelosi would emerge, and lo and behold, one has — Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan.
Ryan is a 43-year-old white man from Youngstown who represents a somewhat squiggly-looking congressional district that includes large numbers of African Americans and working-class white voters. His political profile leans toward populism on economic issues — especially trade — but he is more on the moderate side of things in terms of environmental and social issues.
He first entered the House in 2003 and has been pro-life for most of his political career. But in January 2015 he announced a conversion to the pro-choice viewpoint in what most people saw as an effort to position himself as a possible vice presidential candidate.
Ryan definitely represents most Washington Democrats’ idea of what it would mean to position the party more favorably to succeed in Rust Belt states.
It’s an idea that certainly has similarities with what Bernie Sanders’s internet fan base thinks Democrats should do. But Ryan — like Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown — is much less consistently liberal than Sanders, while maintaining a Sanders-ish skepticism of trade and Wall Street.
Democrats very much wanted Ryan to be their nominee for the 2016 Senate race. But he declined to get in, so the party instead ran former Gov. Ted Strickland, who got crushed. Given how strong Donald Trump proved to be in the state, Ryan almost certainly would have been crushed too, so his decision to opt out seems savvy.
The run could be good for Ryan even if he loses
There is a strong sentiment among a number of House backbenchers that the party would do well to replace Pelosi, simply for the sake of presenting a fresh face to voters in 2018. And on paper, a middle-aged white male Midwesterner with a history of moderation on social issues sounds like a better face to put forward in Republican-leaning districts in the midterms than an older woman from San Francisco who’s very much identified with environmentalism and social liberals.
On the other hand, the energy in the Democratic Party is all on the left right now. And though there is a populist side to Ryan, it’s far from clear that he would really pass muster with the party’s left wing.
But during the 2016 campaign, Ryan did offer the kind of muscular, economics-based critique of Donald Trump that many Democrats in retrospect wish Clinton had offered. Speaking at a rally in Youngstown in October, Ryan dwelled on Trump’s habit of not paying his subcontractors and said, “I don’t mean to be graphic, but this guy to our friends in the trades — to our steelworkers who he’s been treating unfairly, very unfairly — he will, he will gut you and he will walk over your cold dead body and he won’t even flinch.”
Even if Ryan loses, however, a leadership run could help his career. Both Pelosi and her deputy in the Democratic leadership hierarchy, Steny Hoyer, are on the older side and won’t be around for long one way or the other. Right now relatively few House members are well-known enough to be strong future leadership candidates. A run at Pelosi could help Ryan build up his profile and position himself for later.