Abortion, immigration and democracy: How do U.S. Senate candidates J.D. Vance and Tim Ryan compare on the issues?

Gun Rights

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Both Tim Ryan and J.D. Vance have changed their minds on some major political issues since entering public life.

When he entered Congress in the early 2000s, Ryan fit the mold of a particular type of Ohio Democrat that existed back then. He was a pro-gun, anti-abortion Democrat who supported expanding the social net while opposing the war in Iraq.

But like some other Democrats, Ryan has drifted to the left on social issues over the years. He announced support for abortion rights in 2015, and after years of getting strong grades from the National Rifle Association, he gradually came to support gun-control measures, too.

Vance, meanwhile, rose to prominence in 2016 following the publication of his best-selling memoir, “Hillbilly Elegy,” leveraging the fame into work as a political commentator. Vance publicly described himself as a “Never Trump guy” in 2016, excoriating the then-presidential candidate for making appeals to “racism and xenophobia” and referred to Trump privately to a friend in a text message that became public earlier this year as having the potential to be “America’s Hitler.”

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But as a U.S. Senate candidate, Vance now is a full-throated supporter of ex-President Donald Trump, calling him the best president of his lifetime. He’s also become more hardline and populist in his political views, settling on an emerging fusion of nationalism and social conservatism that’s become fashionable among some on the political right. Vance found himself defending accusations from Ryan at the Senate candidate debate on Monday that he supported “The Great Replacement” theory, which supposes that Democrats are encouraging non-white immigrants to strengthen their political power.

Cleveland.com / The Plain Dealer interviewed both candidates, asking them about their shifting views and other issues as part of our coverage comparing the two men’s stances. This is the second and final part of our series, which also culls from public statements each have made.

Both are running to replace Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who is retiring at the end of the year. The election will be held on Nov. 8, and early voting began last week.

If you missed our first story, it compared Vance and Ryan on economic issues, energy and the environment, health care, and public safety and gun restrictions.

Consistency

In past election campaigns, Ryan has explained his evolution on social issues, saying his conversations with women caused him to announce he was “pro-choice” in 2015, and that the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 pushed him toward supporting some new gun restrictions.

More recently, Ryan also has defended himself against criticism from Vance that he tacked to the left during a short-lived run for president in 2019 only to calibrate toward the center as a candidate running statewide in Ohio.

Vance’s critique involves Ryan describing himself as “all-in” on natural gas now after suggesting he might ban fracking on federal lands several years ago; criticizing Biden’s August executive order forgiving a portion of federally held student debt after Ryan voted for similar measures in 2020; and saying he would support “getting rid of” gas-powered vehicles from the roads sometime before 2040.

Ryan has disputed being a natural-gas opponent, questioned the timing and other aspects of Biden’s student-loan plan and said he is an enthusiastic supporter of the electric-vehicle transition but doesn’t want to ban existing cars.

Asked about the general criticism, Ryan pointed out that he argued with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaign over “Medicare for All.” Ryan said imposing it immediately would harm union workers who had bargained away pay increases in favor of better health benefits.

“The throughline of my entire career has been what’s in the best interest of working-class people,” Ryan said. “He hasn’t been on the forefront of trying to fight for anything other than himself. And I’ve been taking the lumps from Bernie Sanders and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi. I’ve been in the mix trying to do what’s right.”

Vance, meanwhile, has said he was skeptical of Trump, but he was won over by Trump’s policies. This was part of the journey that eventually led to him getting Trump’s endorsement, which helped him win a crowded Republican primary in May.

Beyond Trump, Vance also has changed his tune on individual issues, like matter-of-factly describing the “climate problem” in 2020 while downplaying the severity of the issue more recently. In 2018, Vance expressed support for some form of “red flag” laws that make it easier for police to seize guns from people deemed to be a safety threat, but more recently called gun restrictions a “giant distraction.”

In addition, Vance dramatically has changed his general tone as a public figure, shifting from penning an op-ed in 2017 warmly praising ex-President Barack Obama as an admirable man with whom he disagreed, to more recently describing the “childless cat ladies” he said run the Democratic Party and accusing Biden of intentionally allowing Trump voters to die of drug overdoses.

Explaining some of his hardening viewpoints previously, Vance has said Democrats and progressive social forces have moved sharply to the left in recent years. And in an interview, he said his personal experiences running in elite circles caused him to sour on the people running the country.

“If there’s been a change in my thinking, I think that it’s where I used to see a lot of American leadership as well-intentioned, but wrong about some pretty core issues and right about some core issues, I now think that American leadership oscillates between willfully blind and actively corrupt,” Vance said.

Abortion / Social issues

Ryan has an across-the-board, generally progressive outlook on social issues, including favoring same-sex marriage and opposing restrictions on abortion. But he has tried to de-emphasize hot-button cultural issues he says are politically divisive and distracting from more core issues.

Asked about participation by transgender athletes in school sports, which Republicans have proposed limiting through a series of bills in Ohio and elsewhere, Ryan explained his general viewpoint.

“Most of this stuff needs to be handled by local school districts and local communities and local athletic associations and that kind of thing, but from a federal law standpoint, to me, we need to make sure everyone’s protected,” Ryan said. “And we really shouldn’t be bullying the most vulnerable people in our society. Like, these are still kids, and they’re vulnerable.”

Vance is a social conservative, opposing abortion except in instances to save the life of the mother and praising the U.S. Supreme Court decision voerturning Roe v. Wade. He’s also sharply criticized progressive views on gender.

Pressed on abortion during Monday’s debate, Vance declined to spell out other abortion exemptions he might support, calling himself pro-life in principle.

“I know people who have been pro-life since before I was born. And one of the things they will tell you is they support an exception in the case of incest… but an incest exception looks different at three weeks of pregnancy versus 39 weeks of pregnancy,” Vance said. “So I actually don’t think that you can say on a debate stage, every single thing that you’re going to vote for when it comes to an abortion piece of legislation.”

Asked about same-sex marriage, Vance has pointed to the position of the Catholic church, which officially opposes it. During the Oct. 10 candidate debate, Vance said he opposes a bill meant to codify same-sex marriage rights while also saying: “Gay marriage is the law of the land in this country. And I’m not trying to do anything to change that.”

Foreign policy / immigration

There is a major contrast between Ryan and Vance when it comes to foreign policy. Vance is more of an isolationist, critical of American involvement in Ukraine, while Ryan has been a vocal proponent for funding the Ukrainian military.

“We have to be very judicious in our in our engagements, but we have to also support freedom-loving countries like Ukraine,” Ryan said.

Vance, meanwhile, said the United States has a role to play in the world, whether it be moral or otherwise, and said he admires the resolve of the Ukrainian people.

But Vance fears continued escalation could have “catastrophic” consequences for the world.

“We have to be incredibly cautious about the risks of escalating war, and I think too many of our leaders just don’t think about it that way,” Vance said.

Both Vance and Ryan call for a tougher stance on China, including the potential to have to defend Taiwan, the politically independent island that China claims is part of the mainland country. Ryan has framed his campaign generally around the need for the U.S. to compete geopolitically with China, leading to some pushback from some Asian-American and progressive circles for veering into xenophobia.

“It’s not black and white, but if our companies and our business and our military don’t have our presence felt in some way, shape or form around the world, China will fill that void,” Ryan said.

Vance said he views Taiwan differently than Ukraine, in part since Taiwan is where a huge amount of the computer chips the U.S. relies on are manufactured.

“The thing we need to do is get ourselves in a position where we don’t have to rely on the Chinese and Taiwanese in the first place,” Vance said.

When it comes to immigration, Ryan said he supports comprehensive immigration reform, including tougher border security and a “path to citizenship” for the roughly 10 million undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. He says he wants to promote legal immigration, including for refugees, by streamlining the process.

Vance has positioned himself as an immigration hardliner, tying the security situation at the southern border to rising drug addiction levels.

He’s also described undocumented immigrants as a source for cheap labor that keep overall wages down, while also expressing support for promoting immigration for skilled workers – his wife is Indian-American whose parents immigrated to the U.S. legally – while seeking to lower immigration levels overall.

During his Senate campaign, Vance has described the “invasion” at the southern border, and in his political ads from the Republican primary campaign, accused Democratic leaders of supporting leniency on the border to help secure their political power by attracting new voters.

Vance has described what he says are efforts from Democratic leaders to “replace” American voters by granting legal status to undocumented immigrants. This has led to criticism that his views are similar to the explicitly racist “Great Replacement Theory.”

During a fiery exchange in Monday’s debate, Vance said the criticism offends him, especially given that his three young children are biracial.

“It’s disgusting and I’ve never endorsed it. It’s such an unbelievable accusation, Tim. To believe in a border, Tim Ryan thinks I’ve endorsed the Great Replacement Theory,” Vance said on Monday.

Vance also blasted Ryan for supporting “amnesty” for people in the country illegally and blamed him for the widely covered rape of a 10-year-old girl that led her to get an abortion in Indiana, since the alleged rapist is an undocumented immigrant.

Voting / democracy

In Congress, Ryan voted for the Voting Rights Act, a sweeping bill that would expand early voting and voting by mail nationally; require states to automatically register people to vote and to offer online voter-registration options; as well as strengthen federal rules for disclosure and enforcement in political spending.

The bill is backed by voting-rights groups, although Republican critics have called it an overreach into how states run elections.

Using the filibuster rule, Republicans have blocked the bill in the Senate, where Democrats hold a light majority, but where at least 60 votes are needed to pass most legislation. Ryan said he supports ending the filibuster, saying it contributes to “gridlock,” even if it means it will make it easier for Republicans to pass legislation in the future.

Vance, meanwhile, has called for an end to early voting and opposes ending the filibuster. He’s also among the Republicans who called the 2020 presidential election into question.

Republican criticism of the election ranges on a spectrum from false and conspiratorial – such as Trump’s contention that widespread fraud, possibly aided by hacked voting machines, caused him to lose – to more specific, such as criticizing Facebook and other social media companies for suppressing a negative New York Post story about Hunter Biden close to the election, or raising concerns after Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg granted $300 million for elections administration in 2020 to battleground states across the country, including in Ohio.

Vance has run the gamut, telling the Youngstown Vindicator in October 2021 that he thinks there “probably” was significant voter fraud in Ohio, even though Ohio elections officials, including Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose, whom Vance has endorsed, have said for years that fraudulent votes are almost non-existent.

More recently, Vance has fallen more into the latter camp.

“There are many arguments we can make, but here’s the thing that I think made the election fundamentally a problem in 2020,” Vance recently told the USA Today Ohio Bureau. “It’s not foreign people hacking into the voting machines and changing Biden votes into Trump votes or Trump votes into Biden votes. It’s the influence of the technology industry on the election.”

Ryan also has harshly condemned Trump and his supporters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and tried to prevent the presidential election from being certified. He has praised the work of the House Committee investigating the attack as a necessary fact-finding mission.

“We should figure out what’s going on. And I do think that the insurrection was a group of people who are trying to overthrow the United States of America. And I think they were trying to stop the peaceful transition of power from President Trump to President Biden and disenfranchise over 80 million of our fellow citizens,” Ryan saids during Monday’s debate.

Vance, meanwhile, has downplayed the events. In a social media video he posted the week of Jan. 6, 2022, he mocked the significance of the riot, criticized the Jan. 6 committee as conducting a “show trial,” raised money for criminal defendants charged for their role in the riot and said Republicans instead should form a committee to aggressively investigate the national social unrest in 2020 after the death of George Floyd instead.

“It goes back to four years ago,” Vance said during Monday’s debate. “The obsession with the idea that Donald Trump somehow had the election stolen by the Russians. There’s been a nonstop political effort to not honor the election of 2016. And I think that’s just as much of a threat to democracy as the violence on January the Sixth.”

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