Mr. Ryan, a Democrat, has been pounding home the idea that he is more conservative than the record he amassed in Congress. He voted for President Biden’s agenda all of the time and against President Trump’s most of the time.
“The point, I think for voters, is: Tim Ryan has agreed with Donald Trump on trade on China, on the military, on the Space Force, and I’ve disagreed with Democrats on trade and on other issues,” Mr. Ryan said at a recent campaign stop.
The Vance campaign says Mr. Ryan is selling voters a bill of goods and says voters who put a premium on authenticity will realize he is a “dishonest fraud,” a “phony” and has “absolutely no principles.”
The Washington Times pressed Mr. Ryan on that point. “I don’t really think I’m a phony,” said the candidate, who often campaigns in an untucked blue collared shirt with the top two buttons undone.
“There’s a through-line to my career, and the through-line is fighting for working people, and sometimes that means running against Nancy Pelosi, getting in fights with Bernie Sanders or agreeing with Donald Trump if I think he’s right,” he said. “That’s my record.”
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Mr. Ryan is pairing that defense with the warning that Mr. Vance is a bootlicking extremist. He noted that Mr. Trump refuted reports that Republican candidates were running away from him by telling rallygoers in Youngstown: “J.D. is kissing my ass. He wants my support.”
“People don’t want ass kissers from Ohio,” Mr. Ryan said. “They just don’t want it. … Ohioans don’t suck up to rich people to try to get ahead, right? We go out there and scrap and fight, and we try to do it on our own, the best we can.”
He said voters see how heavily Mr. Vance has relied on billionaires such as Mr. Trump and businessman Peter Thiel, as well as deep-pocketed political action committees linked to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
“Like, stand on your own, bro,” Mr. Ryan said. “Like, come on, what are you doing?”
The line of attack has paid dividends for his campaign.
Three weeks out from the start of early voting, Mr. Ryan is within striking distance of flipping a seat once considered reliably Republican. It’s even sparking debate over whether Democrats could lean on style over substance in other battlegrounds.
Mr. Vance and national Republicans, meanwhile, have sharpened their post-Labor Day attacks.
“There is a ‘D.C. Tim’ that votes 100% of the time with Joe Biden, and there is ‘Campaign Tim’ who pretends he is a moderate,” Mr. Vance said at the Trump rally. “There is ‘D.C. Tim’ who tries to destroy our energy sector, and there is ‘Campaign Tim’ who pretends he stands with Ohio workers.”
“There is ‘D.C. Tim’ who attacks our police officers and stands for violent criminals, and there is ‘Campaign Tim’ that pretends he doesn’t do those things,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, we need to kick ‘D.C. Tim’ to the curb.”
Mr. Trump put a finer point on it by telling supporters: “Tim Ryan is a militant left-winger who is lying to your faces, acting as though he is my friend on policy, pretending to be a moderate so he can get elected and betray everything that you believe in.”
A running tally from the political statistics website FiveThirtyEight shows Mr. Ryan has voted with Mr. Biden 100% of the time and backed Mr. Trump 16% of the time.
Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican whose upcoming retirement opened up the seat, supported Mr. Biden 62% of the time. Mr. Ryan is modeling his campaign after the state’s other senator, Sherrod Brown, who backed Mr. Biden 98% of the time.
Mr. Ryan received an F in the latest rankings from the National Rifle Association and the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List.
He has bucked the party from time to time, including in 2016 when he ran against Mrs. Pelosi for the post of minority leader.
He said it was time for a leadership shake-up and called on the party to reconnect with working-class voters in Rust Belt states and the Midwest.
As for bipartisan accomplishments, Mr. Ryan, much like other Democrats running in competitive battles across the country, touts his support for the $1 trillion infrastructure package, $280 billion in spending on American semiconductor chip manufacturing to combat China’s rising influence, and the expansion of benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits.
Polls show the Ryan-Vance race is within the margin of error.
Mr. Vance, a political newcomer, venture capitalist and author of the award-winning memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” rode a $15 million investment from his friend Mr. Thiel and the Trump endorsement to victory in a brutal Republican primary.
In the ensuing months, he failed to raise much money. He was criticized for not having a bigger presence across the state and not developing better relationships with other candidates on the ballot, local party leaders and grassroots activists.
Mr. Ryan, meanwhile, lacked serious rivals in the primary, opening the door for him to focus on a general election message that resonated not only with Democrats but also with independents and disaffected Republicans.
Mr. Ryan padded his campaign coffers and funneled a lot of that money into blanketing the television airwaves with campaign ads that focused on jobs and the economy and defined him as a conservative-friendly Democrat and blue-collar warrior for the working class.
One ad showed him throwing darts at a bar. He tells viewers that “defunding the police is way off the mark. We need more cops, not less,” and “my party also got it wrong on the trade deals that sent your jobs overseas.”
“He’s not afraid to stay on message and utterly unwilling to fall into the traps of, you know, cultural distractions,” said David Niven, associate professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati. “And then he’s taking advantage of sort of the politics 101 of this, which is, make yourself acceptable while your opponent struggles, you know, to connect.”
While Mr. Vance struggled to distance himself from Mr. Ryan, Gov. Mike DeWine, a staple of Ohio politics, opened a big lead with voters over his Democratic challenger, including among independents.
The situation stirred Republican fears that Mr. Vance was jeopardizing the party’s chances of taking control of the Senate and putting the brakes on the Biden to-do list.
Republicans hoped for a different situation when the election cycle kicked off, particularly in Republican-leaning Ohio. Mr. Trump carried the state by 8 percentage points in the 2016 and 2020 presidential races.
Looking to right the ship, the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Mr. McConnell, announced in August that it was shifting $28 million it planned to spend elsewhere into Ohio.
Mr. McConnell, meanwhile, downplayed expectations about a Republican takeover of the Senate takeover. He said “candidate quality” was a problem.
For the Vance campaign, the investment was both a blessing and an indictment.
“The reason money is flowing to Ohio is because J.D. does have a clear path to victory and because the campaign does appear to be on track now,” said Chris Maloney, a Republican Party strategist.
Mr. Maloney, who worked on behalf of one of Mr. Vance’s primary opponents, Matt Dolan, said it signaled that the honeymoon for Mr. Ryan is over.
“Tim Ryan’s policy approach is well outside the mainstream of Ohio voters, and he is the most inauthentic Senate candidate in the nation,” he said. “He is a flip-flopping fraud on spending, on trade, on supporting police in Ohio, and I think up until this point voters have only heard one side of the message.
“As they learn more about these two candidates, I think it will be clear that Ryan’s schtick being an independent voice for Ohio is going to wear thin,” he said. “Voters are going to see through it.”
The airwaves that Mr. Ryan once had to himself are now the stage for a tug of war.
The Senate Leadership Fund is up with a television ad attacking the Democrat for supporting tax increases that hurt Ohio workers.
“Taxing Tim Ryan just helped Pelosi and Biden pass hundreds of billions in new taxes, including $20 billion in higher taxes on low- and middle-income Ohioans,” the narrator says in the commercial. “Taxes that hit working families hard. Taxes that will devastate Ohio manufacturing and small businesses. Ohio can’t afford taxing Tim Ryan.”
Mr. Vance started running an ad this month attacking Mr. Ryan for being soft on crime.
The campaign spot features video footage of Mr. Ryan saying the “criminal justice system is racist” and “I believe in my heart that it’s the new Jim Crow.”
“Tim, fight the criminals, not the cops,” Mr. Vance says into the camera.
Mr. Ryan continues to play up his independence and polish his common-man image.
In his latest ad, Mr. Ryan, a former high school quarterback, tells viewers he anticipated the attacks and throws footballs at television screens showing attacks his critics have leveled against him on China, taxes and police funding.
“They say you can know a person by their enemies. Well, here come their bulls—- ads,” Mr. Ryan says into the camera.