WASHINGTON — On the night news broke that U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan was planning to run for president, former state Sen. Joe Schiavoni was asked if he’d talked to the nine-term lawmaker from his corner of Ohio.
Not recently, Schiavoni replied. He had, however, talked to two other presidential contenders in recent weeks: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas.
The next day, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, also considered a force in Democratic politics in the state, was asked if she’d talked to Ryan about his decision. No, she replied. "He doesn’t even call me when he comes to town."
As Ryan embarks on what many say is a quixotic bid for the White House, he is truly going his own way — with many in his state party out of the loop about his organization and his plans.
"I kind of don’t get it," said former U.S. Rep. Dennis Eckart, a Cleveland Democrat. "It’s funny — the folks who have called me … are mostly calling with, ‘what’s this about?’"
Ryan, 45, starts off as a long shot. He’s well-known in his district, but has never had to ask a statewide audience to vote for him, so his name recognition is low. Because his district is considered safe, he has never had to raise a lot of money. And the last — and only — time a sitting member of the U.S. House of Representatives was elected president was in 1880, when Ohioan James A. Garfield won.
If Ryan has garnered a name for himself recently, it was for running against then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in 2016 and then emerging as a critic to her House speaker bid when Democrats won the House majority in 2018.
Ryan ultimately voted for Pelosi but has argued that Democrats have hurt themselves by favoring coastal liberals like Pelosi at the expense of the working-class labor Democrats who are key to their success.
Paul Beck, a political science professor emeritus from The Ohio State University, said while Ryan is not known for major legislation, "what he is notable for is for opposing Pelosi, which is not going to endear him with his Democratic colleagues or with people who are donors to Democratic campaigns."
Still, his supporters say Ryan has a compelling story to tell.
General Motors’ decision to close its Lordstown plant earlier this year "really affected him," said David Betras, chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party.
Ryan is also increasingly frustrated that President Donald Trump has managed to win over working class voters with promises that he’d save their jobs. Trump, Betras said, has not delivered on those promises but retains their trust because "he has go-to things that rile the base up."
Former Democratic secretary of state candidate and now Portage County Commision Kathleen Clyde, who was one of the few high-profile Ohio Democrats to appear at Ryan’s kickoff event in early April, said Ryan "has been a champion for Ohio workers throughout his career."
Still, she has not endorsed him. "It’s so early in the race," the former state representative said, "but I am glad to see his voice and the message that he brings as a part of the national discussion."
Others wonder if the closely guarded decision to announce is actually a sign that Ryan isn’t that organized.
After his 2018 re-election, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, kept a cadre of staffers on in while he explored the possibility of running. By comparison, Ryan has a far more skeletal operation.
Eckart said it takes about $5 million just to "fuel even an exploratory effort." During his last campaign Ryan raised $1.6 million total and had $118,195 on hand as of Dec. 31.
Ohio nonpartisan political consultant Mary Anne Sharkey said because Ryan has dipped his toe in the waters of running for higher office before, only to bow out, there’s a level of skepticism about his running.
"I think a lot of people are not yet convinced he’s actually running or will stay in the race," she said.
Still, she and others describe Ryan as a candidate with a lot of raw political talent. He represents an area that was a key to Trump’s success in 2016.
"He’s a good speaker, has a good appearance. But I’d be hard-pressed to come up with any real accomplishments he’s had," she said.
Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics said Ryan’s decision to run may be strategic.
Because of slow population growth, Ohio likely will lose a congressional seat in 2022. Because he lives in a region of the state that has been losing population, it’s possible that that surrendered district will be Ryan’s.
And Ryan’s district, drawn to be safe for Democrats, is nonetheless becoming more Republican. While he won 68 percent of the vote in 2016, he received 61 percent of the vote in 2018, garnering about 55,000 fewer votes.
"Maybe running for president is partly a way to set him up for something in the future if he performs well but doesn’t get the nomination or the vice-presidency," Kondik said. "Maybe if a Democrat wins he can be a part of the administration in some way. Who knows? Only he knows his motivation."
Others say Ryan has little to lose.
There’s no clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination. There’s no Hillary Clinton this year taking all the energy and donors. In a field of nearly 20, it’s always possible to rocket to the front.
"I think the era we’re living in is susceptible to people taking unconventional paths to the Oval Office," said University of Akron political science professor David Cohen.
"Anything can happen," said Betras. "I know one thing — if you don’t run, you can’t win."