Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, stood on the Capitol steps talking to a reporter when he heard the call.
“Mr. President!” said Rep. Gregory Meeks as he charged out onto the top steps of the Capitol’s east front, feet away from the House floor. He grabbed Ryan by the shoulder and grinned.
“Oh, keep that a secret,” the New York Democrat said to the reporter. “Don’t tell nobody, don’t tell nobody.”
But the presidential speculation surrounding him is no longer a secret. It was the second time in a matter of days that Ryan’s name had been voluntarily mentioned in the same sentence as “president” by a House Democrat. It’s one thing for a politician to see a president staring back at them in the mirror, it’s another for your fellow lawmakers to see it too.
Ryan artfully dodges questions about his political aspirations, but he’s nonetheless kept the door ajar to a 2020 run. After watching President Trump win his state and the presidency, Ryan challenged Nancy Pelosi for Democratic leader, a post she’s held since 2007. The California congresswoman beat him 134-63, but Ryan went from being a relatively obscure backbencher to a high-profile get for cable networks and a potent surrogate for Democratic candidates.
House Democrats now speak of Ryan in the context of what he can offer in 2020 that more recognizable faces can’t.
“Tim speaks to a segment of Democrats in our party that we need to bring back into the fold,” Rep. Matt Doyle, D-Pa. told the Washington Examiner. “I think he has a great message. He’s bright, he’s articulate, he’d be a great candidate.”
If Ryan runs he’ll be one of many. Democrats are expecting a crowded presidential primary with speculation already swirling around Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Kamala Harris of California, and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
“[Tim’s] someone that really speaks to the states we lost — Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin — I mean, those would be areas where he would be really effective,” Doyle said.
From Youngstown, Ohio, Ryan is seen by many as someone who can reach the people Democrats lost to President Trump in 2016: the white working class. Whether or not Democrats need those votes to win in 2020 is something the party is currently debating. Progressives argue Democrats should focus on getting out the base and reject past strategies that centered around moderate candidates.
Doyle said a Democratic ticket needs both someone who can flash credibility at the states lost by Hillary Clinton and a running mate who speaks to a base fuming at Trump.
And if Ryan doesn’t run, Doyle mused, he would be a “great vice presidential pick too.”
Ryan might remain coy about 2020, telling MSNBC in September he doesn’t know if he’ll run, but the buzz surrounding him in the Democratic caucus is building.
Among the New Democrat Coalition and the Blue Dogs, said one House Democrat, “we call him the white male whisperer.”
“That’s a cool way of putting it,” Ryan said when asked about the characterization. But he quickly pivoted, “To me it’s about figuring out how to craft an agenda for us as Democrats that appeals to the working class people and there are a lot of people working class in African-American communities that aren’t hearing the Democrats emotionally connect with them.”
In a previous interview, Ryan stressed the need for Democrats to play everywhere. Using buzzwords, Ryan said Democrats need a “progressive economic agenda” that will drive up wages, “secure pensions,” and “bring investment outside of the coasts.”
“The working class people are still our people and we need to talk to them, we need to go get them,” he said.
One House Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, brushed away some of the more popular names like Warren and Sanders on progressives' presidential wish list. They won’t “impress” most minorities, the member said, especially not those in the “big voting blocs of baby boomers and greatest generation, silent generation, African Americans, Latinos.”
The 44-year-old Ryan on the other hand, the Democrat said, is “intriguing” in his ability to connect with multiple demographics. “That’s the thing that’s really brilliant about Tim,” the member said. “He knows how to talk to [Trump voters] without alienating the progressive core of the Democratic party.”
And Ryan’s travel schedule doesn’t quiet presidential speculation. He’s traveled to the early presidential contest states of Iowa and New Hampshire. He’s been to Florida, Kentucky, and West Virginia. He campaigned in Alabama for Sen.-elect Doug Jones ahead of the special Senate election there. Ryan’s also paying attention to key political clubs, signaling to his House colleagues that he’s somewhat serious. Politico reported spotting Ryan at lunch last week with Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz.
“Tim is working hard,” Meeks said when the Examiner asked later about his comment on the Capitol steps. “He’s from the Rust Belt. He brings good ideas, new ideas, and that’s not a bad thing.”
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo. said Ryan’s “name has come up” as a contender. But Cleaver admitted his top choice — before sexual harassment allegations surfaced — was outgoing Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.
“I like [Ryan] a lot and he’s bright and articulate and he votes in a way that I think would be helpful to us and he doesn’t come across as some crazy liberal,” said Cleaver.
Another House Democrat said that if Ryan can capture millennials, the Rust Belt, and connect with Virginians then “that’s the kind of person we want.”
On a walk from the Capitol steps to the National Democratic Club Tuesday, Ryan avoided responding to his colleagues’ comments, but he did talk about Alabama, the GOP tax bill, and what message Democrats need to take to the voters in 2018.
“We’re going to continue to fall further behind. You know, one, two, three: Jobs, economy, why are we borrowing money from China to give $40 billion to Apple,” Ryan said of the tax bill, with a book on the history of China’s communist rulers in hand.
To be a viable candidate, however, Ryan must overcome his name recognition deficit. If he runs he’ll be facing politicians with larger national personalities and formidable campaign arms, including Sanders. A sitting House member has made the jump to the White House only once — in 1880. It’s impossible to see around the corners between now and Election Day 2020, but there are lawmakers who want Ryan to take the walk.
Asked about the increasing excitement around Ryan, Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Keith Ellison said he can’t endorse anyone. “He hasn’t talked to me about this, but I certainly welcome his voice,” Ellison said.
“Apart from the who of it all, we’ve got to have somebody talking about how trade is wrecking the Midwest,” Ellison said. “We got to have somebody who talks about how wages have just stagnated for American people.”
“We have to have voices like that in the presidential race,” Ellison said. “Whether Tim runs or not, whether Tim wins or not.”