sThe United States is no stranger to being at the center of US elections. The Kremlin meddled badly in the 2016 presidential race to tip the scales in favor of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and since then, a growing part of the right in MAGA has grown sympathetic to and supportive of Moscow.
But now, in Ohio, where nearly 45,000 Ukrainian Americans consider their home, the escalating Russian-Ukrainian war could prove to be a pivotal issue in one of the country’s most contentious Senate races.
Republican J.D. Vance has called for a cut in US support for Ukraine, while Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat, said America has a primary duty to defend Ukraine from an unprovoked invasion. It’s a distinction that Ohio political analysts say could have an impact in such a closely-closed race.
A new poll, conducted by Marist, on Wednesday, showed that Vance has a lead of one percentage point over Ryan. And although Ohio’s Ukrainian-American population – one of the largest in the country – represents just a small portion of the total electorate, they are a voting bloc that has the power to alter the course of an election if it is close enough.
“It’s a really tight race, and it can make a difference,” Nancy Marturano Miller, a professor of political science at the University of Dayton, told supportessays com magazine. “It just depends at the end of the day on how close this race is, and what other voting groups will eventually come out.”
Both Vance and Ryan devoted much of their time during the campaign to talking about the issues that drive the national midterm elections — the economy, inflation, and public safety. But their polar opposite positions on Ukraine have also been a problem in the race, and could further affect some voters in the coming weeks.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced this week that he has ordered a partial mobilization of Russia’s military reservists, after a series of setbacks in his war in Ukraine. He also threatened to use nuclear weapons if Kyiv continued its efforts to retake parts of southern and eastern Ukraine that had been annexed by Russia.
Read more: “This is not a hoax. Putin raises specter of nuclear weapons after battlefield losses
Meanwhile, Congress is seeking to pass a measure this month to preserve government funding and approve billions of additional Ukrainian aid. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said continued US support was necessary for the beleaguered country to defend itself from Russian invasion.
Vance, the venture capitalist turned politician, said frankly that the United States should no longer allocate taxpayer dollars to help Ukrainians. “I think we have reached the point where we have made enough money in Ukraine,” Vance said this month. “I really.” The comments did not necessarily reflect a change in approval of Trump hillbilly epitaph author’s position. “I have to be honest with you, I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or the other,” he told conservative teaser Steve Bannon during an podcast interview in February. But as the war enters a new phase of escalation, members of Ohio’s Ukrainian community say it is a reminder of what is at stake in the contest that will help define the balance of power in Washington for the next two years.
“It’s definitely a variable in how you’re going to vote,” says Marta Lysinski-Kelleher, president of Ohio’s United Ukrainian Organizations, an umbrella association representing Ukrainian-American groups in the state. She adds, “It can definitely make a difference, because Ukrainian Americans in Ohio are also diverse. They are Democrats, Republicans, and independents.”
Ryan’s campaign worked hard to emphasize the candidates’ opposing views on the war. Earlier this year, ads ran in northeastern Ohio, home to most of Ohio’s Ukrainian grandchildren, confirming Vance’s comments on the conflict.
“JD Vance is only interested in Silicon Valley fraud with his own help, so it is no surprise that he continues to shrug off the brutal and unprovoked attack on Ukraine and its impact on the large Ukrainian-American community in Ohio,” Jordan Fogga, a Ryan campaign spokesperson, said, according to supportessays com. Besides Vance’s opposition to the United States’ continued support of Ukraine against Russia, Fogga also points to Vance’s investment in Rumble, a social media platform that has spread Russian disinformation.
“Tim has been consistently featured in the Ukrainian community in Ohio doing his best to help the Ukrainian community in the fight for their freedom,” Fogga adds.
Vance’s campaign declined to comment. But a source close to the campaign, not recorded in the records, rejected the idea that Vance’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine would harm his chances politically, noting that Vance won in Parma, home to the state’s largest number of Ukrainians, in the Republican primary. (The primaries were in May, after Vance told Bannon he didn’t care about Ukraine’s fate.)
The Russo-Ukrainian war has been going on since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. But the conflict entered a new and more intense phase this year, when Putin ordered an all-out invasion of the neighboring country. Despite its small numbers and armament, Kyiv was able to thwart a Russian takeover, in large part due to US military aid. The United States has pledged more than $13.5 billion in security assistance since President Joe Biden was sworn in, with Congress approving an additional $40 million in aid in May.
Read more: How Ukraine turned the tide against Russia
Politicians in Ohio have long shown support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian community in the state. Vance and Ryan are vying to replace Republican Senator Rob Portman, who is the co-chair of the Senate for Ukraine. Republican Governor Mike DeWine highlighted the state’s efforts to welcome the influx of Ukrainian refugees.
Ukrainian community leaders in Ohio were not shy about expressing their dissatisfaction with Vance’s stance on the war.
“What Russia is doing is genocide against the Ukrainian people,” Natalia Lebedin, president of the Ukrainian Cultural Association in Ohio, tells TIME magazine. She says all Western countries should do what they can to support Ukraine, because the country’s fight against Russia embodies “the ideals that the West and America defend – democracy, freedom of speech, civil liberties, basic human rights.”
When asked if she thinks Vance’s comments will motivate more Ukrainians to vote for Ryan, Lebedin said, “I’m sure I hope so.”
More must-read stories from TIME