Russia is no stranger to being at the center of American elections. The Kremlin infamously meddled in the 2016 presidential race to tip the scales in favor of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and since then, a growing portion of the MAGA right has grown both sympathetic to and supportive of Moscow.
But now, in Ohio, where roughly 45,000 Ukrainian-Americans call home, the escalating Russia-Ukraine war could prove to be a pivotal issue in one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the country.
Republican J.D. Vance has called for cutting off U.S. support for Ukraine, whereas Rep. Tim Ryan, the Democrat, says that America has a fundamental imperative to defend Ukraine from an unprovoked invasion. It’s a distinction that Ohio political analysts say could have an impact in such an intensely close race.
A new Marist poll released Wednesday showed Vance with a slim one-percentage-point lead over Ryan. And while Ohio’s Ukrainian-American population—one of the largest in the country—is just a small fraction of its overall voting population, they represent a voting bloc with the ability to alter the trajectory of the election if it’s close enough.
“It is a really tight race, and that could make a difference,” Nancy Martorano Miller, a political science professor at the University of Dayton, tells TIME. “It just depends at the end of the day on how close that race is going to be, and what other voting groups end up coming out.”
Both Vance and Ryan have devoted much of their time on the campaign trail talking about issues animating the midterms nationwide—the economy, inflation, public safety. But their polar opposite stances on Ukraine have also been an issue in the race, and could weigh more heavily on some voters in the coming weeks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced this week that he was ordering a partial mobilization of Russia’s military reservists, after a string of setbacks in his war in Ukraine. He also threatened to use nuclear weapons if Kyiv continues its efforts to reclaim parts of southern and eastern Ukraine that Russia has annexed.
Read more: ‘This Is Not a Bluff.’ Putin Raises Specter of Nuclear Weapons Following Battlefield Losses
Meanwhile, Congress is scrambling to pass a measure this month to keep the government funded and approve billions in additional Ukraine aid. President Volodmyr Zelensky of Ukraine has said that continued U.S. support is essential for the beleaguered country to defend itself from the Russian invasion.
Vance, the venture capitalist turned politician, has said bluntly that the U.S. shouldn’t devote anymore tax-payer dollars to help the Ukrainians. “I think we’re at the point where we’ve given enough money in Ukraine,” Vance said this month. “I really do.” The remarks didn’t necessarily reflect a change in the Trump-endorsed Hillbilly Elegy author’s posture. “I gotta be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another,” he told the conservative firebrand Steve Bannon during a podcast interview in February. But with the war entering a new phase of escalation, members of Ohio’s Ukrainian community say it’s a reminder of what’s at stake in the contest that will help to determine the balance of power in Washington for the next two years.
“It definitely is a variable in the way you’re going to vote,” says Marta Liscynesky-Kelleher, president of the United Ukrainian Organizations of Ohio, an umbrella association that represents the state’s Ukrainian-American groups. “It definitely can make a difference,” she adds, “because our Ukrainian Americans in Ohio are also diverse. They are Democrats, they are Republicans, they are independents.”
The Ryan campaign has worked hard to emphasize the candidates’ opposing viewpoints on the war. Earlier this year, it ran ads in northeast Ohio, home to most of Ohio’s Ukrainian descendants, emphasizing Vance’s comments on the conflict.
“Silicon Valley fraud J.D. Vance is only interested in helping himself, so it’s not surprising that he continues to shrug off the brutal and unprovoked assault on Ukraine and the impact it has on Ohio’s large Ukrainian-American community,” Jordan Fuja, a spokesperson for the Ryan campaign, tells TIME. Along with Vance’s opposition to the U.S. continuing to support Ukraine against Russia, Fuja also cites Vance’s investments in Rumble, a social media platform that has spread Russian disinformation.
“Tim has consistently shown up for Ohio’s Ukrainian community and is doing everything he can to help the Ukrainian community fight for their freedom,” Fuja adds.
The Vance campaign declined to comment. But a source close to the campaign, who would not go on the record, rejected the notion that Vance’s posture on the Russian invasion of Ukraine would hurt his chances politically, noting that Vance won Parma, home to the state’s largest Ukrainian population, in the Republican primary. (The primary was in May, after Vance told Bannon he was apathetic about Ukraine’s fate.)
The Russia-Ukraine war has been ongoing since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. But the conflict entered a new and more intense phase this year, when Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of the neighboring country. Despite being outmanned and outgunned, Kyiv has been able to thwart a Russian takeover, largely because of U.S. military aid. The United States has committed more than $13.5 billion in security assistance since President Joe Biden was sworn into office, with Congress approving $40 million in additional aid in May.
Read more: How Ukraine Turned the Tide Against Russia
Ohio politicians have long shown support for Ukraine and the state’s Ukrainian community. Vance and Ryan are vying to replace Republican Sen. Rob Portman, who is a co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus. And Republican Gov. Mike DeWine has highlighted the state’s efforts to to welcome an influx of Ukrainian refugees.
Ohio’s Ukrainian community leaders have not been shy about expressing their dissatisfaction with Vance’s position on the war.
“What Russia is doing is a genocide against the Ukrainian people,” Natalia Lebedin, president of the Ukrainian Cultural Association of Ohio, tells TIME. All Western nations should be doing what they can to support Ukraine, she says, because the country’s fight against Russia embodies “the very ideals that the West and America stand for—democracy, freedom of speech, civil liberties, and basic human rights.”
When asked whether she thought Vance’s comments would motivate more Ukrainians to vote for Ryan, Lebedin said, “I sure hope so.”
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