Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan has been telling political consultants and operatives that he intends to run for president of the United States in 2020, and is beginning to put together a team, according to multiple sources who’ve spoken to Ryan.
Ryan, who has served in Congress since 2002 as a representative from the 13th District in Ohio, which covers Youngstown and the surrounding area, has cast himself as an opportunity for the party to try and win back the Midwestern votes it has gradually shed over the last decade. A spokesperson for Ryan declined to comment.
The 13th Congressional District is emblematic of the challenges that Democrats face in the Rust Belt. As a profile in the New Republic noted, between 2001 and 2013, two of the largest counties in Ryan’s district, Trumbull and Mahoning, shed nearly 19,000 manufacturing jobs. Perhaps relatedly, the district gradually shifted from strongly Democratic to one where Republicans have gained ground. In 2016, Trumbull went to Donald Trump — the first time the county went Republican since before 1972.
Ryan’s district is one of the few poor, majority-white districts that is represented by a Democrat. But he won’t be running on a stereotypical working-class persona; instead, he believes his path to the White House runs through the “yoga vote.”
Ryan has long been a champion of mindfulness, meditation, and similar pursuits, and has even created a “Quiet Time Caucus” in the House of Representatives. James Gimian, the publisher of Mindful magazine who knows Ryan, said he isn’t sure whether Ryan will run for president, but that the yoga vote has gone mainstream in recent years. “The so-called yoga voters are the kind of folks who realize that while they grew up with their mom saying, ‘Pay attention,’ nobody trained them in how to pay attention and use their mind to focus on what’s important,” he said. “That’s a growing population — it’s no longer just Lululemon yoga women.” He said that anybody who is negotiating the “emotional land mine of modern day living” could be someone Ryan’s message would resonate with.
Ryan, who was elected to Congress at age 29, is the author of the 2012 book “A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit.”
“It gets marginalized by calling it the yoga vote. I think it’s much bigger than that,” Gimian said. “His aspiration is to bring this kind of conversation to a wider office.”
The group Yoga Votes (“One body united for change”) puts the total number of people who do yoga in the U.S. at 20 million, and Ryan has done work with the group.
Operatives who have spoken to Ryan about his run say that he genuinely believes he has a chance to win. “I’m gonna win,” he told one flatly.
Ryan challenged Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for her Democratic leadership position in 2016 after the November election, losing by a 2-1 margin. There has been speculation that he may make another bid after the 2018 elections, but his eyes appear set on the higher prize. He also took a pass on a 2018 run for Ohio governor, people who’ve spoken to him say, so that he could concentrate on running for president. Quixotic bids for president aren’t always as futile as they may seem, as they can sometimes lead to a place on the ticket as running mate or a spot in a future cabinet.
Much as Ronald Reagan inspired the “Reagan Democrats” of the 1980s, Trump activated a swath of voters in the Midwest who jumped ship from the Democratic Party — some of whom backed Obama twice. Some 206 so-called pivot counties voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012 before shifting into the Republican column in 2016. Ohio is home to nine of these counties, including the aforementioned Trumbull.
Aside from his fixation on the yoga vote, Ryan’s bid will likely revolve around him being able to prove the the theory of his case: that states like Ohio and Iowa can once again return to the Democratic column with the right candidate who can win back Trump voters. “Our failure as a caucus has been not to focus on economic issues,” he told Fox News’s Chris Wallace while challenging Pelosi in 2016. “If we don’t get the middle of the country, we’re never going to be back in the majority,” he said, arguing that Democrats have become a coastal rather than national party.
But Ryan will have a hard time laying out that argument with rivals who would likely have a similar path — such as Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Both have made economic populism their political brand, and both are politicians that Democrats have heard of, unlike the obscure Ryan, who could probably walk into and out of any Indivisible meeting — or yoga class — across the country without being recognized. Sanders and Warren, meanwhile, can deliver that message unencumbered by influences such as the Clintonian think tank Third Way, which wants economic messages to be shorn of any threat to the donor class.
Moreover, it isn’t clear that Ryan would necessarily pivot to populism during a presidential bid. When the Democratic Party’s professional anti-progressive wing, represented by Third Way, met recently in Ohio and conferred on how to stop the influence of Sanders-style populism, Ryan, who has a close relationship with Silicon Valley, was one of the speakers. ““You’re not going to make me hate somebody just because they’re rich. I want to be rich!” he reportedly told attendees, contrasting himself with more populist candidates.
Ryan could argue that he literally fits the stereotypical profile of a Midwestern candidate — but if being a middle-aged white guy was the only thing required to win the region, Romney could have swept it in 2012 instead of Obama.
That means his bid may have to lean harder on policy to sway voters. Ryan isn’t a member of the Progressive Caucus, and his evolving stance on some issues may turn off Democratic voters who pay attention to his bid. For instance, he spent most of his life opposing abortion rights, switching sides in 2015. “I have come a long way since being a single, 26-year-old state senator, and I am not afraid to say that my position has evolved as my experiences have broadened, deepened and become more personal,” he wrote at the time. “And while I have deep respect for people on both sides of this conversation, I would be abandoning my own conscience and judgment if I held a position that I no longer believed appropriate.”