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Ohio Senate race neck and neck, with nationwide implications

With a chance to flip a red seat blue, Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan has drawn on decades of experience to narrow the gap with GOP favorite J.D. Vance.

(CN) — Despite a lack of funding from Democrats outside the Buckeye State, recent polls show 10-term Congressman Tim Ryan in a dead heat with Trump-backed Republican J.D. Vance in Ohio's U.S. Senate race as Ryan tries to appeal to moderates and independents to flip the state blue on Election Day.

Victories for former President Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections forced a shift in the conventional wisdom that saw Ohio as a purple battleground state, but Ryan has gone on the offensive in two debates with Vance and effectively eliminated the "Hillbilly Elegy" author's lead in the polls over the past month.

Vance, a Yale Law School graduate and former venture capitalist backed by billionaire Peter Thiel and endorsed by Trump, has been widely considered the favorite since he secured the Republican nomination in May.

Regardless, recent rounds of polling indicate Vance is now neck and neck with Ryan, who was actually ahead by 2 percentage points in a poll by Ohio Northern University released on Oct. 19.

Vance was up by 2 percentage points in a Suffolk University and USA Today poll conducted between Oct. 11-15, but the candidates' leads both fall within the polls' margins of error.

David Niven, an associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati, credited Ryan for his efforts but also cautioned against making too many assumptions about polls.

"I think that Tim Ryan has run a good race for who Tim Ryan is and where Ohio is, and I think J.D. Vance has run a fairly lackluster race," Niven said in an interview. "The fact that this is competitive in a state where Republicans have been winning left and right is a testament to the quality of the two campaigns being run."

"Polls in Ohio have been a little bit thwarted by the tendency for Republicans to hang up on pollsters," he added. "We've had a difficult time getting a solid set of numbers out of Ohio in recent years."

Ryan's emergence as a viable winner in Ohio comes as even more of a surprise given the lack of funding and support from the national Democratic Party, which has focused its fundraising efforts elsewhere in the fight to keep control of the Senate.

"There's two ways to look at it," Niven said. "It's a 50-50 Senate, so every Senate race is critical and represents something important to the national party. On the other hand, the big pick-up opportunities for Democrats are probably viewed as being in Pennsylvania, rather than Ohio."

Niven also pointed out there is only so much money for the national party to spend on races across the country, and in a "cold-hearted, return-on-investment analysis," Ryan may not be viewed as the most cost-effective.

Ryan himself has lamented the lack of support from his own party and told NBC News that "trying to talk them into a working-class candidate, it's like pulling teeth sometimes."

While Ryan views himself as a quintessential representative of blue-collar, middle-class Ohioans, Vance attacked that characterization during the pair's last debate on Oct. 17 and said the congressman is "desperate to not have a real job."

The Middletown native has based his campaign largely on Ryan's voting record, border security and the stagnant economy, which he claims is a direct result of Democratic policies.

"[Ryan] says he only agrees with his own wife 70% of the time," Vance said during the debate, "yet he votes and agrees with Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time."

In a trend that has become all too typical in modern politics, the vast majority of ads from both candidates have attacked each other's ideas rather than promoted their own solutions to the country's problems.

Niven said Vance did a poor job of establishing his platform at the outset of his campaign and has been playing "catch up" over the past several months, but does have the advantage of Ohio being more or less a Republican state.

While Vance has drawn criticism and generated headlines for "outlandish" comments in the past, according to Niven, his ability to keep his more divisive views in check has helped his campaign.

"The race hasn't been defined by outlandishness," Niven said, "but it's still out there lurking. We've seen races turn and be defined by a candidate saying something outrageous. Yes, this is a campaign about who represents better ideas for the economy, but it's also a campaign that could, even in its final weeks, turn on whether the candidates can stay on message and not do themselves any harm."

One spot for such a defining moment came in the first of two debates between Ryan and Vance, which were notable as much for the fact they even happened as for anything said by either of the candidates.

"It's interesting that we're having debates," Niven said, "after we've seen [Ohio Governor] Mike DeWine and so many other Republican candidates run away from ever stepping on stage with their opponent. But what the debates represent are potentially defining moments."

In the first debate, Ryan pounced on Donald Trump's claim at a Vance rally that he "is kissing my ass" for the former president's support and remarked that "Ohio needs an ass-kicker, not an ass-kisser."

Vance pushed back on Ryan's claim he has the courage to stand up to his own party's leadership and, in what has become a recurring theme in his campaign, noted that Ryan has voted with House Speaker Pelosi 100% of the time he has served in Congress since 2003.

Early voting is already underway in Ohio, and while polls show Ryan with more than a fighter's chance in the Nov. 8 election, Niven remained convinced the race is Vance's to lose.

"Let's be clear, Ryan's job in this campaign was to be as thoroughly acceptable to as many Ohioans as he could be, and I think he's done that very well," Niven said. "The question comes down to, will that be enough? And whether he wins or loses, he's run a good campaign."

News of a third debate between the candidates broke on Monday, with the event scheduled to air on Fox News on Nov. 1 in Columbus.

Ryan and Vance are vying to fill a seat vacated by Republican Rob Portman, who announced last year he would not seek a third term.

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