JD Vance, Tim Ryan meet for first Ohio Senate debate as polls show tight race

(CLEVELAND) — After weeks of back and forth negotiating on the time, the hosts and the venue, Ohio Senate nominees Rep. Tim Ryan and J.D. Vance faced off on Monday for their first debate. A second showdown is scheduled a week later.

Ryan and Vance, the Democratic and Republican candidates vying for retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s seat, argued their case on stage hosted by Fox 8 News in Cleveland.

FiveThirtyEight’s polling average shows Ryan and Vance in a close race. The winner could determine the balance of power in the Senate, which is currently split 50-50.

The candidates clashed over the issue of abortion, with Ryan claiming that Vance called those getting pregnant from rape an “inconvenience,” which Vance pushed back on, saying he has never uttered those words.

“I am pro-life. I’ve always been pro-life, and I grew up in a poor family and a poor community. I saw a lot of young women have abortions when I was growing up,” Vance said, adding that, in regard to Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposed national abortion ban, “some minimum national standard is totally fine with me.”

Ryan added that he would support codifying Roe v. Wade.

Regarding the issue of the 10-year-old Ohio girl who got pregnant and traveled to Indiana for an abortion, Vance said he has always believed in “reasonable exceptions” and that anybody saying otherwise is “misrepresenting” his view.

“I’ve said repeatedly on the record that the [10-year-old Ohio] girl should be able to get an abortion, if she and her family so choose to do,” he said.

Ryan brought up multiple times throughout the debate how he has supported former President Donald Trump’s stances and initiatives, including the former president’s Space Force service branch. Ryan rattled off a list of Democratic lawmakers he has “taken on,” including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Bernie Sanders and President Joe Biden, again stressing that he agreed with Trump on a number of issues including “trade, renegotiating NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement], being firmer on China.”

When asked by a moderator whether Ryan wanted Biden to run in 2024, Ryan said “no” and that he has been “very clear.”

“I like to see a generational change. With Mitch McConnell. Donald Trump. The president. Everybody,” he said.

On the issue of fixing the opioid crisis in the state, Vance slammed Ryan for doing “nothing to stop the flow of fentanyl,” adding that his family members have been impacted by the “terrible addiction crisis.”

When asked by the moderator about his take on Vice President Kamala Harris’ comments that the “southern border is secure,” Ryan said, “Kamala Harris is absolutely wrong on that. It’s not secure. We have a lot of work to do. I’m not here to just get in a fight or just tiptoe the Democratic Party in line.” He also took the opportunity to bring up Vance’s now-shuttered nonprofit, which has been criticized for not helping fix the opioid crisis but rather jump-starting the Trump-backed nominee’s political career.

Vance denounced claims that his nonprofit is a sham, saying, “None of this is true.”

“I put $80,000 of my own money into that nonprofit, and it absolutely did help people,” Vance said, adding that it is “shameful” for Ryan to attack him given that his family has been impacted by the opioid crisis.

Heading into Election Day, Vance has campaigned heavily on the issue of crime in Ohio. ABC News spoke with the “Hillbilly Elegy” author and former investor at a recent event in Perrysburg, Ohio, where he was joined by former President Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

“Let’s declare war on the violent crime on our streets. Let’s let the police go and do their jobs and let’s support them as we do it,” Vance said to supporters at a banquet hall.

He told ABC News afterward, while speaking with reporters, that if elected he would prioritize increasing funding for police.

“We need to probably hire 100,000 additional cops in this country,” he said.

Referring to special legal protections for law enforcement that some Democrats argue are too broad, Vance disagreed and said: “We really have to protect local police officers with qualified immunity.”

ABC News also spoke with Rep. Ryan, most recently at a kick-off event for his statewide bus tour in Warren, Ohio. When asked how he’s prepping before Monday’s debate, Ryan said that he wished the face-off was held sooner.

“We want to get this thing kicked off. But, you know, we’re doing good work,” he said.

He also told ABC News that he can’t “overstate” how important the two debates between him and Vance are going to be because it will show voters what he said is a “contrast” between the two.

“JD has given up on Ohio and I’ve been here fighting like hell for this state, and we’re starting to see some real results. And so that contrast of his extremism versus my pragmatism is going to be very apparent in the next two debates,” Ryan said.

While the party in power often suffers setbacks in midterm races, swing-state Democrats like Ryan have campaigned by seeking to separate themselves from Washington.

He told ABC News that he’s an “independent-minded person,” while Vance has labeled him a “fake moderate.”

In an emailed statement to ABC News, Vance campaign spokesperson Luke Schroeder wrote that “JD is well prepared for the upcoming debates and has found time to prepare between rallies and events. He will have no problem wiping the floor with Tim Ryan.”

Paulina Tam is one of seven ABC News campaign reporters embedded in battleground states across the country. Watch all the twists and turns of covering the midterm elections every Sunday on Hulu’s “Power Trip” with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.

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