Tim Ryan, not onstage, is early focus of Ohio Senate event

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Morgan Harper, right, a progressive Democrat running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, speaks during a debate against Josh Mandel, a Republican former Ohio treasurer, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Jay LaPrete)

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Democrat Tim Ryan wasn’t onstage when two of his competitors in Ohio’s U.S. Senate contest came together Thursday night for an unconventional debate, but his stature in the race featured prominently.

During the fiery hour-and-a-half event between Republican Josh Mandel and Democrat Morgan Harper, Mandel repeatedly attacked Ryan for failing to debate Harper so far and portrayed it as fundamental disrespect among state Democrats for their Black voter base.

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“If Morgan was a white male, Tim Ryan would have already debated her,” said Mandel, 44, a white Marine veteran and former state treasurer. “But the reality is that she’s a Black female and the establishment of the Democratic Party, which Tim Ryan represents, they have trampled on Black people and left the Black community behind.”

Harper, 38, a former consumer protection lawyer and community organizer, declined to take the bait.

“So what we don’t need to have happen is Josh Mandel speaking in any way for the Black community,” she said. “And I think what the Black community of Ohio knows very clearly is that the radical Republican Party that’s trying to strip away our voting rights does not have our best interests in mind.”

Harper left mention of Ryan to her closing remarks and declined to criticize her party. It was a sign of how, despite their policy differences, Democrats are trying to avoid deep divides ahead of what is expected to be a grueling midterm election season. And that is particularly the case in Ohio, where a dozen or so candidates are jockeying to stand out in a race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman, a contest that could help determine party control of the U.S. Senate.

Harper had previously said she had been unsuccessful in getting Democratic U.S. Rep. Ryan to debate her, but Ryan on Thursday rejected any assertion that he had refused to do so. Ryan, a 10-term congressman from Ohio’s blue-collar Mahoning Valley, has been endorsed by Ohio's other U.S. senator, Democrat Sherrod Brown.

“It doesn’t matter whether Josh Mandel is standing in a cornfield calling for armed insurrection or showcasing his out-of-touch anti-worker agenda on the debate stage," Ryan spokesperson Izzi Levy. "He’s wrong for Ohio and doesn’t belong anywhere near the U.S. Senate.”

The timing of Thursday's event was unusual, coming months ahead of the state's scheduled primaries. The candidates said they wanted their unconventional debate to be about ideas and informing voters.

The small crowd at North Columbus Baptist Church was subtly animated amid strict warnings against disruptions; some snickered, laughed and commented under their breaths. After the debate, which was streamed online, Mandel sparred with an audience member over his characterizations of members of Black Lives Matter as “thugs.”

For the most part, the candidates were respectful, sticking mostly to the debate rules and to policy issues. They disagreed diametrically on just about everything, including immigration, gun control, abortion and transgender rights.

Harper repeatedly accused Mandel of angling for the endorsement of former President Donald Trump with extreme policy positions and statements in favor of Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him.

Mandel, meanwhile, called Harper out for opposing corporate welfare while supporting government funding for such things as affordable housing and renewable energy. He said her positions “sound like a loony Nancy Pelosi in California.”

“Morgan, I am having trouble keeping up with all your hypocrisy, because on one side of your mouth, you say that you’re against corporate welfare, but out of the other side of your mouth, you say you’re for renewable energy," he said. "The reality is the only way renewable energy can stand up in our economy is through corporate welfare.”

Harper saved her one reference to Ryan for her ending remarks.

“I am scared as a woman, as a Black person, as a daughter of a mother who lives off of a monthly pension, of getting this guy anywhere near a seat of power in the United States Senate,” she said. “And if I thought that Tim Ryan could beat him, I would not be standing here tonight.”

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