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Who is Tim Ryan? Meet the man challenging Nancy Pelosi

Story highlights
  • Ryan is in his 7th term, but hasn't been a national leader for Democrats
  • Younger Democrats are unhappy with the lack of opportunities to advance in party leadership
  • Pelosi is expected to fend off Ryan's challenge

Washington (CNN) Ohio Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan is calling his bid to oust Nancy Pelosi a "David versus Goliath" type clash -- a back bencher competing against the top House Democrat who made history in 2007 when she was sworn in as the first female speaker of the House.

"If you're a quarterback and you keep throwing interceptions, you change quarterbacks," the 43-year-old Ryan, a former high school football player, said in a recent interview criticizing the record of Pelosi, 76, and arguing it's time for a younger generation to take the reins.

Ryan's gambit is unusual because most leadership challenges come from members using another party position or a top slot on a key committee as a launching pad.

While he holds seats on two important panels dealing with government spending -- Appropriations and Budget -- he ‎isn't the most senior member and hasn't been the point person for the party on any leading issue.

His highest-profile activity was serving as a regular surrogate for Hillary Clinton in the key battleground state of Ohio. Cameras captured him next to the Democratic nominee on St. Patrick's Day as she sipped a Guinness in a Youngstown bar. Ryan also tag teamed at events in the state with former President Bill Clinton.

But Donald Trump won the Ohio by 8 points, part of his Rust Belt sweep. The Democrats' economic message hasn't resonated, Ryan said.

"We need a brand as a party that says we're the party that are going to help working-class people, white people, black people, brown people, gay people, straight people, improve opportunity for them to grow their wages, to have security, economic security. And we got off that message. And when we don't talk about economics, we lose elections," Ryan told CNN's Jake Tapper on "State of the Union" Sunday.

His run is also a warning to Pelosi and other members of the Democrats' House leadership team that younger lawmakers feel they little chance of advancement. Yet while Ryan's words could resonate with Democratic voters, convincing his fellow lawmakers to throw out Pelosi in next week's election and gamble on an untested messenger when facing a Trump presidency and GOP-controlled Congress could be a tougher sell.

That's because leadership elections often hinge on personal relationships. Members cast secret ballots and much of campaigning is done behind the scenes -- in phone calls and personal meetings. Candidates and their supporters tout their ability to devise the broad strategy for the party, but there are also conversations about parochial issues -- request for seats on top committees, boost home with fundraisers, and pledges to make particular issues priorities for the caucus.

All those factors favor Pelosi. She has unparalleled experience driving the party's message, negotiating with Republicans and raising hundreds of millions of dollars for Democratic House candidates -- advantages many Democrats see as critical right now.

After Ryan announced he would compete for the post Pelosi's office declined to respond, in a signal they didn't view his candidacy as a serious threat.

President Barack Obama, asked about the contest during a news conference in Peru over the weekend, said he shouldn't "meddle" in internal party contests, but sent the clear message he backs Pelosi.

"I cannot speak highly enough of Nancy Pelosi. She combines strong, progressive values with just extraordinary political skill. And she does stuff that's tough, not just stuff that's easy. She's done stuff that's unpopular in her own base because it's the right thing to do for the American people. I think she's a remarkable leader," Obama said.

Ryan is also playing the inside game, spending the weekend in his office the Longworth House Office making calls and holding some one-on-one meetings. But so far only two House Democrats -- Rep. Ed Perlmutter of Colorado and Rep. Kathleen Rice of New York -- have publicly backed his bid for minority leader.

And he has kept up the public campaign, appearing on multiple cable news programs a day, in an effort to keep the race in the media spotlight.

Moving from a pro-life, pro-NRA record

The seventh-term Democrat got his start in politics as a junior aide to his colorful hometown congressman, Jim Traficant, in 1997.

After his first job on the Hill, Ryan left to get a law degree and moved back home to serve in the Ohio legislature. When Traficant was convicted of corruption charges and expelled from Congress in 2002, Ryan, then 27, decided to challenge a sitting Democrat in the primary. Redistricting changed the contours of the southeast area seat and Ryan defeated Rep. Tom Sawyer and others for the Democratic nomination. His former boss, Traficant, ran from federal prison as an independent, but Ryan won.

When he arrived on Capitol Hill in 2003 as the youngest member of the caucus Pelosi created the "thirty something group" to showcase fresher faces and asked Ryan to help lead the group. He made speeches on the House floor and campaigned for other Democrats with the other leaders of the group, including the former Democratic National Committee Chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.

In his early congressional career Ryan had a more moderate political profile. Raised Catholic, he had a pro-life voting record, but in 2015 penned an editorial in a Ohio newspaper explaining that over the course of his time in Congress and since becoming a father his views had evolved.

"I have come to believe that we must trust women and families -- not politicians -- to make the best decision for their lives," Ryan wrote in the Akron Beacon Journal.

He also earned an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association when he was elected in 2003.

But the moderate wing of the Democratic caucus has largely disappeared in recent election cycles and now Ryan stresses his support for expanding background checks, barring those on the government's "no fly list" from buying guns and other measures opposed by the gun lobby.

Prelude for state-wide run

Critics of Ryan's note that he has mulled over opportunities in the past to compete for statewide office -- both for governor and for Senate -- in Ohio but ended up taking a pass.

Some senior Democratic aides were surprised he decided to take on Pelosi, and believe it may be a way to get his name in the mix to mount a statewide run for in 2018.

Michael Zetts, Ryan's spokesman, pushes back on that notion, telling CNN, "you don't challenge this kind of power just to raise your profile. This election is about standing up for working class people, whether they are black, brown or white -- gay or straight -- young or old who feel left out of the process. This is about changing the direction of our party and the country."

During his 14 years in office Ryan has developed close ties to labor unions, and co-founded the manufacturing caucus in the House. He opposed fast track authority for trade deals and in his first race highlighted his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement.

His supporters stress that he's not just a messenger that can help the party reach out to the white working class. He has spent time cultivating relationships in the African-American and Latino communities in the Youngstown area -- as the city's demographics changed with the departure of the manufacturing base there.

Younger congressmen looking for chances to advance

Ryan doesn't have much time to pull off what would be a huge political upset. Pelosi enjoys broad support in the Democratic caucus and claimed in her letter officially launching her bid that she already had support from two-thirds of the members.

But one frustration whoever emerges as the minority leader will have to address is the lack of opportunity for advancement for newer members and need for greater geographical diversity in the leadership ranks. Many are frustrated they are stuck in a status quo cycle because the same slate of people continues to make the decisions.

Ryan and other Democrats who pressed for more time before the vote point out that there is basically no bench for House Democrats. Over the weekend, he released his own plan for adding more seats at the leadership table for new voices, and limiting how many terms members can remain in some positions.

Wasserman Schultz, who called Ryan one of her "closest friends" on CNN recently, has also pressed for opportunities for younger members, but also said the priority now is dealing with the fight in front of them.

"The reality that we're facing here is that we are going to be dealing with a -- a legislative train wreck coming at us at warp speed," she said. "And there is nobody in my mind that is more battle tested and prepared or frankly, savvy enough to be able to go toe to toe with Paul Ryan, the Republican leadership and this really troubling and disturbing administration than Nancy Pelosi."

CNN's Ted Barrett contributed to this report.
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