Don’t Count Sherrod Brown Out
Ohio gets redder every election, but that doesn’t mean the state’s voters are going to turn on their senior senator this fall.
IN MID-DECEMBER, WITH STRAINED NEGOTIATIONS over foreign aid and sham impeachment debates souring the holiday mood in Congress, Senator Sherrod Brown took time out of his schedule to do something not urgent but important: help honor Larry Doby, the legendary baseballer who broke the color barrier in the American League three months after Jackie Robinson did in the National League, with a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal.
During the ceremony at the Capitol, the senior senator from Ohio focused his remarks on Doby’s perseverance: “For Robinson and Doby, and the many who followed, the hard part wasn’t just getting to the majors. It was proving every day that they deserved to wear the same jersey and be on the same field as did their white teammates and their opponents.” Even though Doby’s legacy is often overshadowed by Robinson’s, Brown said, “His presence on the field changed baseball.”
Brown’s comments were apt and heartfelt. I suspect the theme of perseverance is one he finds personally relevant, as well. Facing re-election this fall as a well-known progressive incumbent in a state that Donald Trump won by a wide margin in both 2016 and 2020, Brown will spend much of the coming year on the treadmill of a “keep me” campaign, reaching out to voters who have nothing new to learn about him or his priorities. But for all that familiarity, they somehow haven’t gotten tired of him. The latest polls and news items say that this Senate election will be tough for the Republicans to win—partly because the well-practiced Brown can beat them at their own populist game.
He knows that perseverance can pay off. Perhaps he learned some of that from Larry Doby. Brown and his dad would travel over a hundred miles to watch Doby play for Cleveland in the late 1950s. Politics is a sport, too, after all.
WHILE SHERROD BROWN HAS BEEN a steady political presence for decades, the state of Ohio has recently undergone drastic changes. Brown was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992, and he won his Senate seat in 2006. During that period, Ohio was a bellwether state with a Democratic lean. That had a lot to do with the union-heavy manufacturing base in the Cleveland area, where Brown is from.
In recent years, though, Ohio has gone full MAGA. The clearest sign of this is not even that Trump won the state so easily two times. It’s that in the 2022 midterm election for Ohio’s other Senate seat, the populist Republican newcomer and venture capitalist J.D. Vance was able to dispatch Tim Ryan, a Democrat with a two-decade tenure in the House, by six points. What did Vance have to campaign on? Chiefly just one thing: a Trump endorsement.
Some think Sherrod Brown is riding a rail to a similar destination.
“Brown does have a built-in advantage compared to Ryan. He is the incumbent, and he has won several challenging races in the past,” Kyle Kondik, the author of a book about the history of presidential voting in Ohio, told the Washington Times last year. Still, “Brown is almost certainly going to need at least several points worth of crossover support to win.” All told, Kondik said, “2024 presents a significant test for Brown.”
That’s the mood. But what about the numbers? Fortunately for Brown, the polls show him leading every Republican primary contender with a shot at facing him in the general. And this, I think, is where we see some of the effects of Brown’s perseverance.
Here’s something it’s important for people who aren’t from around here to understand: After all the years Brown has spent in politics, voters seem to find him to be more “knowable” than most elected officials. Not necessarily likable—but knowable in the sense that he reminds you of someone else you know. This knowability helps Brown in a very specific way: Most Ohioans or other Midwesterners, who trust their impressions of him, wouldn’t think of him as a typical Democrat. He seems more grounded than that. He has built a reputation for advocating for the interests of blue-collar Americans, while his Democratic colleagues (read: “East Coast elites”) have alienated many of them by appearing to care more about climate change, racial injustice, and other issues that are coded as the bespoke concerns of the well-educated upper middle class.
Maintaining this reputation has always required some fence-straddling on Brown’s part. He has needed to avoid putting off more conservative working-class suburban voters by focusing too much on progressive legislation and marginalized communities, but at the same time, he’s had to make sure Ohio’s marginalized communities know he sees them as an important part of his base.
There’s a fair bit of political gamesmanship in this. But Brown has always put the interests of the working class before just about everything else, and unlike many of the more technocratically inclined in his party, he has always expressed that commitment in grounded, human, personable terms.
Here’s a bit of vintage Brown from a 2017 interview with historian Michael Kazin for the progressive magazine Dissent. It shows how a worker in Ohio who voted for Trump and Vance could come around to voting for Brown, too:
I think we’re not full-throated enough in our defense of economic policy and demonstrating the value of work. . . . If white working-class people think we look down on them and we use terms like the “Rust Belt,” which demeans their work and diminishes them in some ways, that’s a problem. You counteract that, in part, by empathizing, [by] saying that we value work.
It’s a simple, resonant message tied closely to the average person’s day-to-day concerns. And notwithstanding the red trend in the state, recent political initiatives supported by Democrats have found success when they’ve stayed at that level of immediate, concrete relevance.
One such initiative concerns pain: the sort that often be effectively treated with medical cannabis, and the other kinds caused by the criminalization of marijuana. Last fall, Ohioans voted to legalize pot over strenuous Republican objections; the vote was carried by 14 points.
Another concerns abortion. Republican messaging apparently did little to alter the outcome of last November’s vote to establish a right to abortion in the state’s constitution. The margin was similar to the marijuana initiative: 56.5 percent in favor versus 43.4 opposed.
COMPARE THESE ISSUES with the line of attack being developed against Brown by Bernie Moreno, the Republican primary candidate in the Ohio Senate race whose endorsement by Trump (along with Rep. Jim Jordan and Sen. J.D. Vance) makes him Brown’s likeliest opponent this fall. The issue Moreno thinks could sink Brown’s chances with Ohio voters is—wait for it—cryptocurrency regulation.
“A career politician like Sherrod Brown has absolutely no idea how digital currencies work and is the least qualified person possible to regulate the industry,” Moreno has said. A crypto booster, Moreno is branding himself as a tech-friendly, future-oriented leader; Politico reports that he has even paid some of his business taxes using bitcoin. Brown is the chair of the Senate Banking Committee and a vehement critic of cryptocurrencies, whose instability and high risk make them attractive investment vehicles to people who have a taste for gambling—or whose financial situation is dire enough to push them to play the numbers. On Wednesday evening, the SEC finally approved a number of “spot bitcoin exchange-traded funds” (ETFs), which Reuters reports will allow individuals and institutions to invest in the currency “without directly holding it.” The decision provides the legitimization that crypto advocates have been seeking for the niche products; it also takes the issue out of Congress’s purview, and, therefore, Brown’s.
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Given Moreno’s background and interests, it will likely remain a talking point during his 2024 campaign for Brown’s seat. But the fact that, of all things, this is the first projectile he decided to lob in his political bombardment against the incumbent suggests that the state GOP is short on real ammunition to use on Brown. (It makes sense: What could they know about the man that the rest of Ohio’s voters don’t?) While there’s a lot of enthusiasm for crypto among the young, single, very-online men, it’s hard to imagine the issue meaning much to the older Ohioans whose support determines the outcomes of elections—unless, of course, they’ve been taken in by scammers, in which case they’d like be very sympathetic to the senator’s critical position.
BROWN’S MOST RECENT PUBLIC ADVOCACY draws a sharp contrast with Moreno; he is, as ever, keyed in to the more immediate concerns of his state’s working-class voters. The issue is the prospective acquisition of U.S. Steel by Nippon Steel, based in Japan. He opposes the deal. As he wrote President Joe Biden in a letter quoted in the New York Times:
Tens of thousands of Americans, including many Ohioans, rely on this industry for good-paying, middle-class jobs. These workers deserve to work for a company that invests in its employees and not only honors their right to join a union, but respects and collaborates with its work force.
In general, opposing international trade agreements for the sake of protecting American workers has been one of Brown’s signature contra-party moves for decades. He knows how well the issue resonates with Ohioans, especially those who require extra political finesse to be brought alongside—that is, those right-leaning residents of the state’s thirty-two “Appalachian Counties,” which sit along the Ohio River and slightly inland from it. These counties are red as cherries: Trump beat Hillary in the region by 30 points, then beat Biden there by 33. J.D. Vance rode high on Trump’s endorsement, but he probably got a further lift from the popularity of his memoir of childhood poverty in Appalachian Ohio, Hillbilly Elegy, while floating to his own 30-point margin over Ryan there.
But Brown, despite being a northern, big-city guy, is surprisingly competitive in those counties. In proto-MAGA 2012, Brown beat his opponent in Ohio’s Appalachian region 51 to 49 percent, and he lost there by only eight points in fully MAGA 2018. Again, the voters there feel they know him. He strikes people as authentic: His rumpled suits and gravelly voice and forever-disheveled hair are altogether more Columbo than Clinton. He also seems to have a knack for always being around instead of absent during a crisis, with the East Palestine train derailment being an important example.
“Workers aren’t on the agenda. They are the agenda,” he said a few years ago. It’s easy to miss the emphasis on the working aspect of his focus on work. Brown isn’t a utopian social engineer, whether of the crypto-fueled libertarian or the fully automated luxury Communist varieties. Work, for him—its dignity and value; its centrality; its permanence as part of human life—is a leitmotif that has pushed him away from welfare-related policies conservatives would classify as “handouts,” which is another reason people in the more conservative-leaning middle have voted for him more than they haven’t.
Of course, bigger issues might overwhelm Brown this year. While his career in the state has proven durable even after the advent of MAGA, the 2024 Senate election might simply become a part of the broader story of Ohio becoming even redder. Brown does enjoy a favorable issue set this year—his pro-union credentials, backing of Biden’s infrastructure spending plan, moderate position on electric vehicles, and support for abortion rights give him a tough flank. “I believe Sherrod Brown will be able to cut through all the campaign ads and the noise again, because Ohioans really do know who he is,” Tim Burga, president of Ohio AFL-CIO, said recently. “When he talks about the dignity of work, it’s not just a slogan, he actually practices that.”
Ultimately, it may be abortion access that breaks the Republican campaign effort again. “This issue’s not going away,” Sen. Brown told the New York Times last fall. “Women don’t trust Republicans on abortion, and they won’t for the foreseeable future—and they’re not going to trust these guys running against me.” Look at what happened in last November’s abortion vote just in the Youngstown area, which is often cited as an example of a place that has seen a decline in manufacturing and has switched from having middle-class stalwart Democrat support to a big Trump/MAGA base. Trump won the two counties in the Youngstown area—Mahoning and Trumbull—with respectively 50 and 55 percent of the vote in the 2020 presidential election. But those two counties voted for last November’s abortion rights referendum by 56 and 57 percent. That’s a big flip that favors Brown.
And this weekend, there’s one last issue that, while it will probably be forgotten by November, demonstrates how Brown is in touch with the things voters really care about. As of Thursday evening, a carriage dispute between the local NBC affiliate and television access companies means many households in the Cleveland area will not be able to get this Saturday’s NFL playoff game between the Browns and the Houston Texans on their home TVs or phones. Sen. Brown has sent a letter to the FCC Chair and the TV execs to resolve the dispute before game time, and is letting the public know he is on their side in this.
“During this season and at this time, it is unacceptable that Browns fans would be unable to watch their team play in the playoffs—their first playoff game in three years—due to a business dispute,” the senator wrote angrily.
Talk all you want about the importance of cryptocurrency. Sherrod Brown wants you to know that he wants to make sure Clevelanders can watch Joe Flacco in the playoffs. That’s the kind of touch it takes to win in a state pulling away from your party.
Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Twitter: @danmcgraw1.