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U.S. Senate Democratic candidates lay out two paths for the party's future in Ohio

 U.S. Senate Democratic candidates Tim Ryan and Morgan Harper
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U.S. Senate Democratic candidates Tim Ryan and Morgan Harper.

There are three candidates running for the Democratic nomination in Ohio's U.S. Senate race, and the two leading challengers are setting two different tones on pressing issues like foreign policy and government spending.

The Democratic candidates running for U.S. Senate include Morgan Harper, community activist and attorney, Traci "TJ" Johnson, community activist and businesswoman, and Tim Ryan, U.S. congressman.

Ryan has raised more than $13 million for his campaign and only recently started pouring more money into ads. His campaign and messaging has been compared to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who has endorsed Ryan in the race.

Harper has raised $1.2 million and put out one ad, accompanied with several press conferences and events with activists and students. She also participated in two forums at churches with Republican U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel. The Democratic candidates took part in one debate in March on Central State University's campus.

Varying stances on immigration

The issue of immigration has been a focal point in both the Democratic and Republican primaries. While neither Democratic candidate talks about building a wall on the U.S. southern border with Mexico, Ryan, who is the great-grandson of immigrants, takes a harder line than some in his party.

"We've got to keep fentanyl and heroin and these other drugs out of the country. We need more border patrol agents on the ground and at the points of entry. So you got to have a strong border. But at the same time, it doesn't mean you can't accept people who are going to get slaughtered in their own country or your kids are going to be put in the sex trade," Ryan said.

 Democratic candidate for Ohio Senate Tim Ryan fills out his paperwork at the Ohio Secretary of State's office.
Karen Kasler
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Statehouse News Bureau
Democratic candidate for Ohio Senate Tim Ryan fills out his paperwork at the Ohio Secretary of State's office.

He has also disagreed with the Biden administration on ending the public health order issued at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic known as Title 42. This is a rule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that has allowed immigrants at U.S. borders to be expelled quickly.

The rule is set to end May 23, but a federal judge granted a request from three Republican-run states to keep it in place for now.

Harper supports the decision to end the rule and to allow possible passage for more immigrants and refugees from around the world. She noted she’s the adopted daughter of a school teacher who immigrated from Trinidad.

"That’s what our country is about. And so we definitely need comprehensive immigration reform in order to continue to create those opportunities for people. And we need to make sure that we have a humane policy about how we're managing the border," Harper said.

Plans to help Ukraine

On the key foreign policy of the moment, Ukraine, the candidates oppose sending troops, but support sanctions and providing weapons and humanitarian aid.

Ryan said he's frustrated the US hasn't been more aggressive in getting the Ukrainians the fighter jets they say they need to protect their airspace.

"It sounds like there's a lot of people that are concerned that it would be an escalation, but it's not our planes. And I don't know what the difference is of us giving them anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down aircraft or to give them planes to protect their airspace. I can't seem to find a difference in those two," Ryan said.

Harper strikes a more cautious tone, saying she’d want to take things day-by-day and pursue a diplomatic solution, which she said people on the ground want.

"Why I really am taking or recommending this more judicious approach is we have seen how quickly things can escalate. And once you've escalated, there's really no turning back. But more than anything, we need to do what is necessary to stand up against Putin and his inhumane killing of Ukrainians and support our allies in having a coordinated response on immigration," Harper said.

Candidates on rhetoric and messaging

A main talking point in Ryan's campaign is his stance on being tougher on China. He has a history of criticizing the country's communist leadership for currency manipulation, horrific working conditions, child labor, and other tactics.

In March, Ryan released an ad in which he repeatedly said the word "China." The ad focuses on the need to take on China over manufacturing and labor issues.

But Asian American advocacy groups and some Democrats have blasted that ad by calling it extremist and xenophobic. The critics said it exposes Asian Americans to attacks, and some compared it to the approach by former president Donald Trump and his supporters.

Being tough on China has been a winning strategy in Ohio, as seen with Trump's victories in the state in 2016 and 2020.

Harper said that ad showed new leadership is needed in Ohio.

"We're not going to win by trying to be Republicans. We really have to stand up for our values as a party and as a state," Harper said.

Federal spending and student debt

Ryan and Harper agree on several issues, such as creating a $15 minimum wage. However, they differ on the federal government canceling student loan debt.

During the March debate, Harper said student loan debt is causing what she called it a "multigenerational crisis" that’s leading people to put off buying homes and creating families for years.

"We need to make sure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past 20 [years] with all of this student debt by ensuring we have debt-free training and educational opportunities for people to pursue four-year college degrees, vocational training and other training that they might need to be part of this workforce," Harper said.

Democratic candidate for US Senate Morgan Harper, center, talks with supporters shortly before filing her candidacy with the Ohio Secretary Of State's office.
Daniel Konik
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Statehouse News Bureau
Democratic candidate for US Senate Morgan Harper, center, talks with supporters shortly before filing her candidacy with the Ohio Secretary of State's office.

Ryan wants people to be able to renegotiate their loan rates. But at that debate he said he doesn’t support canceling student debt and said, "if you took out a loan, you should pay it." And he noted the issue doesn’t apply to most Ohioans.

"Seventy-four percent of the people in Ohio don’t go to college. So we’ve got to make sure that we’re also focusing on how do we build that workforce up, too," Ryan said. "We need to get shop class back in our schools. One of the dumbest things we’ve ever done is tell everybody they’ve got to go to college."

Medicare for all or Medicare for all who want it

Ryan and Harper also diverge on the stance on Medicare for all. Harper called it one of her top priorities and said it would save money in the long run, which studies on both the right and left have confirmed.

"We need to do what every other developing country on this planet has done and provide health care for everyone. And it is the right thing to do and also the economically efficient thing to do," Harper said.

Ryan said he wanted affordable health care but isn’t supportive of Medicare for all because it could force people out of private health insurance they like.

"My position is we need a public option that people can buy into. So some kind of Medicare buy in," Ryan said.

Increased investments through increased revenue

Harper and Ryan agree on federal investments in workforce development, education, health care, and clean energy jobs.

Ryan has said that money can come from increased taxes on the wealthiest Americans, noting a stat from the Economic Policy Institute showing the average CEO pay has gone up more than 1,300% in the past 40 years.

"We need to ask them to pay more—not because we hate them, not because we’re anti-business —but because we only have 330 million people in this country. If we’re going to out-compete China, that’s 1.4 billion, we need to invest into all of our communities, and we have to ask the wealthiest to pay more," Ryan said.

Harper agreed tax increases are definitely on the table.

"We need to look at abilities to continue to increase revenue. And that's where I would prioritize closing tax loopholes that prevent a level playing field with regards to taxation for both the ultra-wealthy and very large multi-national corporations that are able to end up paying a lower effective tax rate than a lot of us just everyday people," Harper said.

Harper also noted the U.S. defense budget is very large compared to other nations, and she added that Ryan has taken $400,000 from the defense contracting sector in his years in office.

Ryan responded saying there are tens of thousands of Ohio jobs directly connected to the defense industry.

"These are businesses that, of course I’m going to work with them. They’re putting jobs into Ohio and employing Ohioans," Ryan said.

Ryan said he's taken on wasteful spending in the defense sector, even when an Ohio company is involved. But Harper called those donations "bribes" to business leaders who don’t even live in Ohio.

"Wow. A real misunderstanding of what leadership should be and what it takes to have good economic development for the state of Ohio," Harper said.

Ryan has raised $13 million and Harper $1.2 million. There is no record of fundraising by Johnson with the Federal Elections Commission.

The race will be decided by the May 3 primary.
Copyright 2022 The Statehouse News Bureau. To see more, visit The Statehouse News Bureau.

Karen is a lifelong Ohioan who has served as news director at WCBE-FM, assignment editor/overnight anchor at WBNS-TV, and afternoon drive anchor/assignment editor in WTAM-AM in Cleveland. In addition to her daily reporting for Ohio’s public radio stations, she’s reported for NPR, the BBC, ABC Radio News and other news outlets. She hosts and produces the Statehouse News Bureau’s weekly TV show “The State of Ohio”, which airs on PBS stations statewide. She’s also a frequent guest on WOSU TV’s “Columbus on the Record”, a regular panelist on “The Sound of Ideas” on ideastream in Cleveland, appeared on the inaugural edition of “Face the State” on WBNS-TV and occasionally reports for “PBS Newshour”. She’s often called to moderate debates, including the Columbus Metropolitan Club’s Issue 3/legal marijuana debate and its pre-primary mayoral debate, and the City Club of Cleveland’s US Senate debate in 2012.