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Five takeaways from the second Ohio Senate debate

By Dan Merica, CNN

The second Ohio Senate debate between Democrat Tim Ryan and Republican J.D. Vance was a personal and combative affair, with each candidate repeatedly questioning the other’s character.

The heated nature highlighted just how crucial this race has become as Republicans look to defend the seat and win control of the evenly divided Senate in November. The Democratic Party has struggled for years in the Buckeye State, which former President Donald Trump twice carried, and even the most buoyant members of the party thought flipping retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman’s seat in 2022 was a longshot. But a strong campaign from Ryan and Vance’s struggles have made the race more competitive than expected.

Some of the most notable flashpoints in the debate were about whether either candidate would stand up to Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, which abortions laws each candidate would back and a personal and heated argument about “replacement theory,” the idea that White people are being slowly and intentionally replaced by minorities and immigrants.

What became clear throughout the night is that Ryan and Vance visibly don’t like each other, as each tried to tie the other to a long slate of other people: From Trump to Pelosi to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones to progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent.

Here are five takeaways from the second Ohio Senate debate:

‘Donald Trump told a joke’

Some of the clearest — and most personal — exchanges were over the candidates’ willingness to stand up to their own parties, most notably Vance’s ties to Trump after the former President said at a recent campaign rally that Vance was “kissing my ass” to get him to campaign for him.

“Donald Trump told a joke,” Vance said after the moderator asked about the former President’s comment, “and Tim Ryan has decided to run his entire campaign on it.”

Vance added: “I know the President very well and he was joking about a New York Times story. That’s all he was doing. I didn’t take offense to it — I talked to the President before it. I talked to the President after it. Everybody there took it as a joke.”

That response gave Ryan, who visibly chuckled while Vance was answering, an opening. After being asked about voting with Pelosi — a frequent talking point for Vance — Ryan noted he ran against the California Democrat for speaker.

But then pivoted to Vance.

“You have to have the courage to take on your leaders. These leaders in DC will eat you up like a chew toy,” Ryan said. “You were calling Trump America’s Hitler, then you kiss his ass, and then you kissed his ass, and he endorsed you and you said he is the greatest president of all time.”

The congressman added: “It is nothing personal. I am just telling you, like, I have been in this business, it is tough business. If you think you are going to help Ohio, you are not. If you can’t even stand up for yourself, how are you going to stand up for the people of this state?”

Pelosi, Pelosi, Pelosi

Ryan was not alone in seeking to tie his opponent to a leader of his party.

It took mere minutes for Vance to mention Ryan’s ties to Pelosi — and the Republican kept coming back to the hit.

“I really wish Tim Ryan would have stood up to his party on this vote because it might have made the inflation crisis we have been seeing over the last few months a lot better if he hadn’t done what he always does, which is vote with Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden 100% of the time,” Vance said in his first answer, alluding to the congressman’s vote for Democrats’ health care, climate and tax package.

Ryan looked prepared to take on the attack, using it to tie Vance to the San Francisco area, where the Republican used to live and which Pelosi represents.

“J.D., you keep talking about Nancy Pelosi. If you want to run against Nancy Pelosi, move back to San Francisco and run against Nancy Pelosi. You are running against me,” Ryan said.

But the response didn’t dissuade Vance, who took the attack a step further by comparing Ryan voting with Pelosi “100% of the time” with an ad the Democrat is running where he and his wife joke about only agreeing 70% of the time.

“Must make things a little awkward in the Ryan household, I suppose,” Vance said. “But look, you vote with her 100% of the time, so you can’t run from the policies that she has supported, that she has shoved down the throat of people in Ohio.”

Questions of character

Each candidate spent much of the night questioning the other’s character, often implying — our outright saying — that their opponent is not who they say they are.

During an exchange on immigration, Ryan said he is “not going to take any guff” from Vance on the issue because “he invested in dozens of companies that use foreign workers.”

“This is why, J.D. Vance, with all due respect, is a fraud,” Ryan said. “My little Italian grandmother had a saying for when she met somebody like J.D. Vance — due facce — you have two faces, one for the camera and one for your business dealings.”

Vance, in turn, questioned the moderate persona Ryan touts on the campaign trail.

“Tim Ryan says he believes in reasonable solutions. Well Tim, what were you doing on those reasonable solutions in your 20 years in Washington, DC?” Vance asked.

Abortion remains a point of divergence

There are vast differences in the candidates’ positions on abortion, an issue Democrats have seized on since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June.

Ryan, asked about the prospect of Republicans controlling Congress, said that would lead him to “spend all my time trying to fight a national abortion ban.”

Vance responded with one of his most scathing lines from their first debate by seemingly blaming Ryan for the rape of the 10-year-old Ohio girl who sought an abortion in neighboring Indiana by noting she was allegedly raped by an undocumented immigrant.

“That little girl was raped by an illegal immigrant,” Vance said, adding that people “need to be honest about the fact that she would have never been raped in the first place if Tim Ryan had done his job on border security.”

Vance took issue with a question on exceptions to strict abortion laws. An exception in the case of incest “looks different at 3 weeks of pregnancy versus 39 weeks of pregnancy, so I actually don’t think you can say on a debate stage every single thing that you are going to vote for when it comes to an abortion piece of legislation.”

The Republican did, however, indicate he was likely to support a bill proposed by South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham that would ban the procedure after 15-weeks and does provide exceptions for abortions required to protect the life of the mother, and if the woman becomes pregnant through rape or incest.

“I think it is totally reasonable to say you cannot abort a baby, especially for elective reasons, after 15 weeks of gestation,” Vance said.

‘It’s disgraceful’

Some of the most personal sniping came during a back-and-forth on “replacement theory,” which has been embraced in some quarters of the right.

Asked about the theory by the moderator, Ryan said it was “nonsense” and “grounded in some of those most racially divisive writings in the history of the world.” He also accused Vance of “running around” with people who believe in it.

“There is no big grand conspiracy — this is a country who has been enriched by immigrants,” said Ryan, which sparked a fierce response from the Republican because, as he noted, his wife Usha is the “daughter of South Asian immigrants.”

“Shameful for you to accuse me of that,” Vance said.

Vance criticized Ryan, arguing that that kind of hit leads “my biracial children” to “get attacked by scumbags online and in person because you are so desperate for political power, that you will accuse me, the father of three beautiful biracial babies, of engaging in racism. We are sick of it.”

He added: “This just shows how desperate this guy is for political power. I know you have been in office for 20 years, Tim. And I know it is a sweet gig. But you are so desperate to not have a real job that you will slander me and slander my family. It’s disgraceful.”

Ryan, who did not invoke Vance’s family, ended by noting that he seemed to have “struck a nerve” but “would never talk about your family.”

Ryan and Vance went right into closing statements after the raw exchange, putting a cap on an already dramatic night.

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