The Democrats desperately need Sherrod Brown. Whether the Ohio senator is quite so keen on being identified with the party as he fights for re-election in a state that swung firmly to Donald Trump is another matter.
Brown’s seat is one of three tight races for the Democrats next year that are likely to decide control of the US Senate. The prevailing winds are not good. Republicans now control every statewide office in Ohio except for Brown’s place in the Senate. Trump took the state from the Democrats to win it twice by a margin of more than 8% each time.
Yet the polls show Brown has a fighting chance precisely because he is not what many midwestern voters now think of as a Democrat. He has built a reputation for defending blue-collar Americans in the face of his party’s embrace of neoliberalism, particularly in his opposition to free trade agreements that exported jobs from Ohio, while managing not to alienate more conservative working-class voters by also supporting progressive legislation and marginalized communities.
David Niven, a speechwriter for the last Democratic governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, and now a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati, said Brown had established himself as his own brand in taking on his party over issues such as Bill Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), which badly damaged the Democrats in Ohio and other rust belt states after it led to the car industry shipping large numbers of well-paid jobs to Mexico.
“The good news for Brown is he’s established himself in a way that no other Democrat has, as a singular voice of blue-collar Ohio families. The bad news for Sherrod Brown is Ohio has been a place where Democratic dreams have come to die in recent elections,” he said.
Brown is the sole Democrat to win a state-wide election since 2012. He was re-elected six years ago even with Trump in the White House but was up against a particularly weak Republican candidate and won by less than 7% of the vote. Since then, Republicans have tightened their grip on Ohio.
A Suffolk University poll in July had Brown in a statistical tie with the leading contenders for the Republican nomination. More than half of voters said they approved of the senator’s job performance but, even among them, one in six said they were likely to vote for the leading Republican candidate.
Brown’s supporters say he unifies disparate Democrats and other voters in a way others in his party do not.
David Cox, an ironworker and director of the Dayton Building and Construction Trades Council, and Mohamed Al-Hamdani, chair of the Democratic party in Dayton, were at odds last year over the party’s candidate for Ohio’s other seat in the US Senate, Tim Ryan.
Cox liked Ryan’s emphasis on working-class issues, including his opposition to Nafta, but Al-Hamdani said Ryan took the party’s wider base for granted, including people of colour. Al-Hamdani reckons that cost Ryan the election to the Republican JD Vance, the bestselling author of Hillbilly Elegy, a controversial account of growing up amid poverty and drug addiction.
But the two agree on Brown. Cox called him “the worker man’s Democrat”. Al-Hamdani said Brown shows an unusual ability to connect with a wide range of interests.
“He’s got the messaging right. He shores up the working class but also never forgets about the rest of our base. Our working-class folks and Black folks and people of colour are our base. We have to make sure we are talking to them regularly. He does that,” he said.
On paper, Brown should be able to tout Joe Biden’s record as an asset. The president’s infrastructure law and the Chips and Science Act, which helps fund domestic production of semiconductors, created thousands of construction and other jobs.
But Niven said the old rules no longer apply.
“Biden has never really been able to break through in Ohio even though it’s the kind of place he should do better in. It tells you a lot about how American politics have evolved. Biden, who speaks the union language, who’s lived that life and service, did as badly in Ohio as Hillary Clinton. I think that says a lot more about Ohio than it says about President Biden,” he said.
“What’s come undone is the relationship between economics and voting. In the most blue-collar places, Democrats won every year going back to the McGovern era. They can no longer win in large part simply because cultural issues have overwhelmed economic issues for those voters.”
Still, Brown and Ohio Democrats are drawing strength from a win last month over one of the sharpest cultural issues of the day after voters overwhelmingly rejected a Republican attempt to make it more difficult to amend the state constitution.
The move, known as Issue 1, was aimed at blocking an attempt to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution on another ballot in November. But Issue 1 was defeated by 57% to 43% in an exceptionally high turnout for a ballot vote in August, reflecting what Democrats see as a major electoral issue in their favour after the US supreme court struck down constitutional protections last year.
“Constitutional amendment Issue 1 was the first proof of life for Democratic interests in Ohio since Brown himself won re-election in 2018. It is the first sign that they could win anything, that they could accomplish anything,” said Niven.
“It helps position Brown for the national party, for donors to say this is still a top-tier race. Don’t write off Ohio simply because it voted for Trump twice. Don’t write off Ohio simply because every single statewide office holder elected to a partisan office is a Republican, except for Sherrod Brown himself.”
Brown may have another advantage in the quality of his Republican opponent.
Of the three candidates to enter the Republican primary to date, Frank LaRose has the highest profile as Ohio’s secretary of state. But he has a number of strikes against him including being on the wrong side of Issue 1.
LaRose is up against Bernie Moreno, the millionaire owner of a car dealership, and Matt Dolan, a state senator whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team. Both did badly when they ran for the Republican nomination won by Vance last year.
For all the weaknesses of potential Republican candidates, Cox is fearful that Brown’s record will not be enough to overcome Ohio’s swing to the right.
“Man, I’m worried about it. He’s got a pretty good track record. But losing with Tim Ryan, it broke my heart. I’m a little spooked over the whole thing, to be honest with you,” he said.
Niven said Brown was in many ways an ideal candidate, except for one thing.
“I think his vulnerability is the fact that it’s going to say Democrat next to his name on the ballot. That’s almost the entirety of the Sherrod Brown vulnerability and that vulnerability alone has been enough to knock an awful lot of Democrats out in Ohio in the last several election cycles,” he said.