Is Sherrod Brown's Ohio Senate Win a Playbook for Democrats? He Seems to Think So

Brown may end up seeking the Democratic Party's nod for president. Or maybe not. Either way, is his popularity in reddening Ohio replicable on the national stage?

Nov 12, 2018 at 2:07 pm
click to enlarge U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown

Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown has been a surprisingly durable presence in Ohio's congressional delegation even as the state seems to trend further to the right. Despite vocal support for unabashedly progressive policies from healthcare to immigration to LGBTQ issues, voters in Ohio on Nov. 6 sent Brown back to the Senate for a third term even as they elected a Republican governor and filled statewide offices with candidates from the GOP.

But is Brown's winning streak in Ohio transferable — either to other Democrats across the country or to a potential presidential run for the gruff-voiced Senator? It's more complicated than it seems.

Brown said today he's thinking seriously about whether he'll throw his hat in the ring to be the Democratic Party's 2020 presidential nominee after hearing "sort of a crescendo" of calls for him to do so. He and his family aren't close to making a decision about it yet, Brown says, but it marks the first time he's expressed serious interest in the prospect.

Beyond his unclear presidential ambitions, though, the long-time fixture in Ohio politics says other Democrats should pay attention to his campaign.

Brown beat Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, who had the backing of President Donald Trump, by almost six-and-a-half points. That's a similar margin to his 2012 victory over then-Republican Senate candidate Josh Mandel.

Brown was first elected in 2006, when he beat now-Governor Elect Mike DeWine by a bruising 12-point margin. Prior to that election, Brown had served in the U.S. House, as Ohio Secretary of State and in the Ohio House of Representatives.

According to Brown, the winning streak comes from focusing on working people in the state. That's been borne out by many of his policy moves, from efforts to restrict the amount payday lending companies can charge borrowers to his opposition to trade deals like NAFTA.

"As a progressive Democrat, you can fight for workers and respect the dignity of work as I do," Brown told MSNBC's Morning Joe today shortly after being mistakenly introduced as Ohio's governor. "I think that's what Washington forgets about. Voters will vote for a strong progressive — I don't compromise on civil rights, I don't compromise on LGBTQ rights. I don't compromise for worker rights. You can do that and stand up for what you believe. I think Ohio showed that on Tuesday."

Brown touted focus on health care issues, including efforts to lower drug prices, as well as support for middle-class tax cuts and more focus on education and infrastructure, as lessons the Democratic Party should take to heart, whether or not he's running in 2020.

"I'd go back to the winning campaigns around the country that helped us take back the House, and I'd look at my campaign in many ways as a blueprint not just to govern but to prepare for 2020, a blueprint where the focus is on workers, putting workers first and looking at what we do as a nation to support workers," he said on Morning Joe.

But Brown's win comes with some specific caveats. First, both Renacci and Mandel before him were uniquely weak candidates. Renacci jumped into the Senate race late from his original campaign in the Republican gubernatorial primary. His nearly-non-existent Senate bid mostly consisted of hitting Brown on domestic violence accusations based on court filings from his divorce in the 1980s. Brown's ex-wife came out in support of Brown, calling Renacci's claims false. Polling prior to the election had Brown up by double digits in some cases, and it's surprising the race was as close as it was.

Mandel, too, seemed ill-prepared to take on the popular liberal Senator in 2012. The Republican challenger, just 35 at the time, had difficulty fixing on an effective line of critique against Brown and was dinged repeatedly by fact checkers for outlandishly exaggerated or false claims on the campaign trail. Mandel initially geared up for a rematch against Brown this time around, but dropped out due to health concerns in his family.

A look at the election map also offers some tempering to the enthusiasm around Brown's popularity in deep-red Ohio. In rural counties like Coshocton, Meigs, Morrow, Pickaway and Union — places where Trump did especially well — Renacci grabbed 60 percent or more of the vote. That dynamic played out across the state, with Renacci winning 72 of Ohio's 88 counties. Brown did especially well in the state's much more populous urban counties and got close enough in some rural areas to rack up plenty of votes. He also won nine counties that voted for Trump in 2016. But the map shows that Brown isn't necessarily the absolute Trump-vote whisperer his victory may suggest.

On the other hand, the sheer math of his re-election — he won100,000 more votes than Republican gubernatorial winner DeWine, for example, and grabbed 18,000 more votes than Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rich Cordray in Hamilton County — shows that Brown is doing something other candidates aren't. Look for national Democrats to try to figure out what that is and bottle it — either in the form of Brown as a presidential primary contender or via another populist candidate — in the coming months.