COLUMBUS, Ohio—Drive your Accord or Camry to Ohio Democratic Party headquarters, and you’re likely to see it towed straightaway. A sign posted on the fence outside a converted Salvation Army building in German Village reads, “Only vehicles assembled by union workers in North America are welcome in this parking lot.”
They’re not kidding.
“We really do tow foreign cars here,” says Justin Barasky, the campaign manager for Sherrod Brown, the Democratic senator from Ohio who is locked in a brutal reelection fight. “It’s really, really important to Sherrod to buy an American car.”
American cars—and steel, and glass, and even shoelaces—lie at the heart of Brown’s effort to hold onto his job, and they also explain why, improbably, he appears to be winning. Foreign trade, and the good and the bad that flows from it, has emerged as a red-letter issue in a way it wasn’t even six years ago, when Brown first secured his Senate seat.
The gravel-voiced, sneaker-wearing senator fashions himself the workingman’s champion, a blue-collar hero in a swing state that hasn’t been inclined in recent years to embrace his sort of unabashed liberalism. In a campaign season in which Republicans have successfully gone on the attack against unions, Brown has redoubled his populist commitment to what he calls his “brothers and sisters” in labor. He is a full-throated backer of gay marriage and abortion rights, and he has been ranked one of the five most liberal members of the Senate. Brown has voted with President Obama 95 percent of the time—and when he doesn’t, it’s usually because he’s to the left of the president. As evidenced by the towing policy at Democratic headquarters, Brown’s party is following his lead.
“My focus for my whole career has been, how do you give working-class people a chance, how do you fight for workers and small business, whether it’s rural or in small towns or in cities like Toledo?” Brown asks.
The senator’s politics have earned him enemies. With the exception of Obama, no candidate running for reelection this year has faced greater political opposition than he has. Third-party conservative groups and super PACs have spent $20 million and counting to defeat Brown—a sum that already outstrips any other Senate or House race in history.
Republicans were certain that once voters across Ohio got a taste of just how liberal Brown really is, they would realize he didn’t represent their interests. They had reason to be optimistic: By 2010, every other statewide office in Ohio was held by a Republican—and Rob Portman had been elected to succeed George Voinovich in the Senate, keeping that seat in GOP hands. Brown should have been easy pickings.
But instead, less than a month before the election, the senator appears to be on a roll, even as Obama has faltered. Campaigning on a pro-labor, pro-government platform that includes the auto-industry bailout, aggressive trade protectionism that often veers into straight-up China-bashing, and the virtues of the economic stimulus, “Obamacare,” and clean energy, Brown is crushing his Republican opponent, 34-year-old state Treasurer Josh Mandel.
According to an Oct. 11 NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist College poll of Ohio’s likely voters, Brown leads Mandel by 11 points, 52 percent to 41 percent. He’s outpacing Obama, who will almost certainly have to take Ohio to win reelection, and who in the same poll was beating Mitt Romney by 6 points, 51 percent to 45 percent in the Buckeye state, amid signs the presidential race in the state was again tightening.
Dig deeper, and an even more surprising story emerges. Across the country, the president and other Democratic candidates have had trouble connecting with blue-collar whites, the voters who were hit hardest by the Great Recession. In Ohio, the picture is different. An Oct. 8 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that, nationally, likely blue-collar white voters overwhelmingly prefer Romney, who is polling at a whopping 28 points ahead of Obama, 61 percent to 33 percent. But in Ohio, Obama has narrowed that vast canyon down to a respectable ravine. In the Oct. 11 NBC poll, Romney led Obama by 6 points among the state’s blue-collar whites, 51 percent to 45 percent. And Brown has closed the gap entirely with blue-collar whites, tying Mandel at 46 percent apiece.
It’s those blue-collar whites who may be the key to Brown’s surprising success. He is a tireless campaigner, most at home in the union halls and VFW clubs of Ohio’s 88 counties (82 of which, he’ll tell you, have jobs related to the domestic auto industry). The auto bailout, while unpopular nationally, was viewed as a godsend here, and Brown has been its beneficiary.
He’s also gotten flat-out lucky. Mandel has proved to be unready for prime time, and his campaign has flailed accordingly. Ohio’s economy has brightened markedly—not only because of auto jobs but because of an energy boom in the eastern part of the state. And a thwarted GOP effort to alter collective-bargaining laws for state workers helped to energize Brown’s base.
His success has even raised the prospect that Brown could win in Ohio even if Obama loses to Mitt Romney—a scenario unthinkable just weeks ago, let alone two years ago.
A similar drama is playing out in Missouri, where Democrat Claire McCaskill, written off as dead months ago, could hold onto her Senate seat even amid a Romney victory in that state. As a result, GOP prospects of gaining control of the Senate are shakier than ever.
THE LOYALTY TEST
Eighteen months ago, National Journal decided to follow two Democratic senators who were running for reelection this year with distinctly different strategies, both born of political necessity—one who embraced Obama and his record, and one who tacked far away from him. In 2010, Republicans saw Brown and McCaskill as two of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country. Back then, the president seemed almost sure to lose—probably nationally, and surely in these Midwestern states. The unemployment rate was mired above 8 percent, the president’s approval ratings were below 50 percent, and fewer than half of Americans supported his signature achievement, the Affordable Care Act. Any candidate shackled to Obama and his record seemed sure to go down with him.
For a Democrat running for reelection in a purple state, the only sensible strategy, it seemed, was to keep a safe distance from the president. And that’s what McCaskill did, a naked survival strategy in a state that hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton. Although she’s famously close friends with Obama, McCaskill told Missouri voters she often disagrees with him on policy. She never once campaigned with the president in Missouri. (And he gave up on the state long ago.) Even so, the prevailing view was that McCaskill was in deep trouble.
But then in August, McCaskill’s Republican challenger, Rep. Todd Akin, a committed social conservative who won a bitter three-way primary, told a local television interviewer that women’s bodies can prevent pregnancy in the case of “legitimate rape.” The incendiary remark upended the race, and now, although the polls remains tight, strategists from both parties project that McCaskill will hang on to her seat in November, positioned comfortably to the left of Akin and the right of Obama.
Brown’s gambit seemed more surprising and, at the outset, even more likely to doom him. He has campaigned with Obama—literally. The senator appeared with the president several times on the stump, most recently last week in Columbus. Brown invited his opponents to link him to the president. “Let ’em,” he said in an interview. His campaign, in fact, regularly coordinates with Obama’s. “We talk often,” Brown said. They’re planning a homestretch push of another four or five joint appearances in the weeks before Election Day.
“I don’t think Brown ever attempted to distance himself from Obama. He stuck with Obama, even when he was not the cool kid in class. And a number of other senators in swing states can’t say the same thing,” says David Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron.
Brown had every reason to stay away from the president—and vice versa. In January 2010, Ohio was in terrible shape, with a devastating 10.6 percent unemployment rate. From 2008 to 2010, the state hemorrhaged more than 400,000 jobs, mostly in manufacturing. That fall, Ohioans made clear whom they thought was at fault, and whom they believed could bring the jobs back: Across the state, they kicked Democrats out and voted Republicans in, including a new GOP governor, former Rep. John Kasich. For the Senate, they chose Portman, a free-trading Republican who had opposed the auto bailout, over the Democratic candidate, Lee Fisher.
In the meantime, Brown’s anti-China, pro-bailout stance seemed increasingly tired, out of step with voters, a relic of the old, pre-NAFTA days. To capture Brown’s seat in 2012, the state GOP tapped Mandel, a hotshot conservative rising star, an Iraq war veteran who proved to be a prodigious fundraiser. By September 2011, a Quinnipiac poll found that, by 51 percent to 43 percent, Ohioans believed that the president did not deserve to be reelected. Republicans had every reason to think that the following year, they’d feel the same way about their liberal senator, who has consistently voted for Obama’s policies. Outside groups—from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to Crossroads GPS (the Karl Rove-founded super PAC) to Americans for Prosperity (the tea party group linked with Koch Industries), a major oil company—flooded the airwaves with ads pairing Brown with Obama.
In a game-show-themed ad run this summer by Crossroads GPS, for example, an announcer says, “It’s time to play, ‘Who’s the biggest supporter of the Obama agenda in Ohio?’ It’s Sherrod Brown! Brown backed Obama’s agenda a whopping 95 percent of the time. He voted for budget-busting Obamacare that adds $700 billion to the deficit. For Obama’s $453 billion tax increase. And even supported cap-and-trade, which could have cost Ohio over 100,000 jobs.”
The ads worked—maybe too well. “Six months ago, there clearly was a Republican strategy to link Brown and Obama, because Ohio’s economy was sagging. And it worked,” Cohen says. “But be careful what you wish for.”
That’s because Ohio’s economy has started to come back. By this summer, the Buckeye State had regained about 179,000 of the jobs lost in the depth of the recession. The state’s unemployment receded to 7.2 percent—not great, but lower than the national average of 7.8 percent.
It’s too soon to say exactly how much of that recovery is due to the $80 billion federal bailout of the auto industry. (Taxpayers remain on the hook for about $25 billion.) But of all the swing states on the 2012 electoral map, Ohio is the most dependent on manufacturing, and since the bailout, many of the steel and auto-part factories that were laying off workers in 2008 are on the rebound. In a Sept. 26 Quinnipiac poll, 62 percent of Ohio voters judged the auto bailout mostly a success, and 61 percent of blue-collar whites said it had worked.
Brown’s favorite symbol of Ohio’s manufacturing revival is the Chevrolet Cruze, the snappy passenger car that General Motors began manufacturing in 2010 after the bailout, with parts made in Ohio factories and steel mills. The car has become a staple of his stump speech. He’s even cut a campaign ad about the Cruze, called “Both From Ohio.”
“The engine is from Defiance, Ohio! The transmission is from Toledo, the wheels from Cleveland, the brackets from Brunswick, the seats come from Lorain, the sound system is from Springboro, Ohio—and all of this is assembled in Lordstown, Ohio, on three shifts by 4,500 workers!” Brown chants on the trail.
Auto jobs are not the only propellant behind the economic surge, however. Natural gas is literally fueling an aggressive economic recovery in once-moribund corners of Ohio, bringing in mega-energy company Halliburton and other giants, and generating thousands of jobs on fracking rigs and in the supply chain all around the energy boom. The eastern part of the state sits over the Utica shale formation, which holds a rich deposit of natural gas that had been impenetrable until recent breakthroughs in hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” unlocked the valuable energy source and, with it, a slew of new jobs.
Much as they’d like to, Ohio politicians can’t really take credit for the fracking bonanza, which is based on a technology developed by private industry, and is taking place mostly on private land lying over a geological formation that just happens to fall within the state’s boundaries. But the boom appears to be benefiting incumbents in both parties: Kasich spoke at the ribbon-cutting in Zanesville when Halliburton broke ground on its fracking-services facility, and Brown has held job fairs in eastern Ohio aimed at helping people find work in the natural-gas industry.
Beyond fracking, however, Brown regularly touts the economic benefits of clean-energy programs aided by Obama’s stimulus law that funneled $40 billion nationwide for wind, solar, and energy efficiency. In other states, super PACs such as Americans for Prosperity excoriated Obama for the failure of Solyndra, the solar company that went bankrupt after receiving $535 million in stimulus funds. But in Ohio, which received $17 billion in stimulus money, the mood is upbeat. Shuttered factories in Toledo that once made glass for car windows have been retooled to make solar panels, and as the city has grown into one of the nation’s major solar-manufacturing hubs, adding 6,000 jobs in two years.
So when his opponents bash Obama on the “green economy,” Brown proudly celebrates it. “Auto rescue, trade enforcement, clean-energy technology—all of those make Ohio a richer state,” he says.
MADE IN THE U.S.A.
But manufacturing and trade remain at the core of Brown’s message. On a rainy late-September afternoon, the senator’s Chevy Cruze pulled up at the AK Steel plant in the southwest Ohio city of Middletown, the kind of rock-ribbed Republican territory where you’d be unlikely to find Obama campaigning. This is House Speaker John Boehner’s district. On Verity Parkway, which cuts through the commercial stretch of mostly empty strip malls, the red-and-white-bannered Romney campaign office is the brightest-looking building on the road.
But the crowd waiting for the progressive candidate was cheering, their enthusiasm undampened by a long wait in the drizzle. Brown, in shirtsleeves, pinstriped pants, and sneakers, stood amidst the picnic tables and took up the microphone. “We’re bringing back manufacturing jobs because of the auto rescue, because we’re enforcing trade rules!” he barked. “Youngstown has a new steel plant because we’re enforcing trade rules. In Sidney, Ohio, more aluminum is being made because we’re enforcing trade rules. In Findlay, Ohio, steelworkers are making tires, 100 more people are working because we’re standing up to China, we’re fighting for American business and American manufacturers!”
The crowd erupted in whistles and cheers. It was vintage Brown—populist, protectionist, and followed by plenty of retail, one-on-one conversations. Brown ate hotdogs, shook hands, and greeted union officials with a warm familiarity. After serving in Ohio politics since 1975, Brown knows a lot of people statewide.
“Sherrod is our guy,” says Lance Myers, a steelworker in his 20s with a blond flattop and an armful of tattoos. “He walked on the picket line with us in 2005 and 2006. He will get reelected.”
Brown, 59, isn’t from a working-class background; his father was a doctor. On social issues, he stands to the left of many of his working-class constituents. He supports abortion rights and opposed a state ballot initiative banning same-sex marriage. Once upon a time, those were the kinds of positions that doomed a Democrat in Ohio. In 2004, an unexpectedly large turnout of Ohio evangelical voters who opposed presidential candidate John Kerry’s position on same-sex marriage and other social issues ended up costing him the state—and the White House.
But even Brown’s opponents concede that, at this point, his far-left positions are so well-known to voters that attacking them doesn’t yield much. “He’s an unabashed liberal. He’s the first to tell you that,” said Nate Hodson, director of state and regional media relations for Crossroads GPS. “So Ohio voters say, ‘We know Brown’s a liberal. What else?’ It’s kind of baked in.”
In Ohio in 2012, China seems to matter a lot more to voters than whether gays and lesbians can get married. Over the past six months, China-bashing has emerged as a major theme in the presidential race, as Romney and Obama each try to convince voters, especially Ohio voters, who lost thousands of jobs to China in the recession, that they’ll crack down on China as an unfair trading partner and currency manipulator.
Brown has been criticizing the Asian superpower for years, and he is consistently to the left of Obama on the issue. Brown’s 2006 book, Myths of Free Trade, argues, “An unregulated global economy is a threat to all of us.” This year, he proposed the Currency Exchange Rate Oversight Reform Act, aimed at cracking down on Beijing’s currency policies. The bill passed the Senate with bipartisan support, but in the Republican-majority House, Boehner hasn’t brought it up for a vote. For his part, Mandel opposes the currency bill, as he did the auto bailout.
Brown says, “If Romney were genuine about this, he’d pick up the phone and call John Boehner and tell him to schedule a vote on our bipartisan currency bill, so Ohioans and Ohio companies can go to work and compete with China on a level playing field.”
Brown’s protectionist fervor extends, literally, to his shoes. To the dismay of his staff, the senator has always worn sneakers with his suits; in fact, he was the founding member of the Senate’s “sneaker caucus.” In recent years, he had upgraded to a pair of hip Puma slip-ons, until it was pointed out that they were manufactured in China. So he switched back to a pair of lumpy, dowdy New Balance sneakers—the only major American-made brand. (The shoes are made in a factory in Massachusetts. Brown even goes so far as to buy shoelaces made in Portsmouth, Ohio.)
His message is resonating with its target audience: disaffected blue-collar workers. Dan Ellis, a 57-year-old unemployed veteran from Cincinnati, said that the senator’s China polices are one reason the Democrat appeals to men like himself. “That’s a big issue,” Ellis says. “A friend of mine and I went up to Middletown, and I saw the biggest train I saw in years, and everything had Chinese writing on it. Something’s got to be addressed. Apple, everything’s made over there. Can’t they let us make the stuff we’re buying? Maybe it’s time that we use a little protectionism, because China still does.”
Critics say that Brown is offering a dumbed-down view of the global marketplace. “People like Sherrod Brown are living in a time warp. They’re still thinking of China as it was five years ago,” says Nicholas Lardy, an expert on trade and the Chinese economy with the Peter G. Peterson Institute for International Economics.
“Here’s the reality check: China had a huge global surplus in 2005, 2006, and 2007—and in 2007, we had full employment. But now China’s currency has appreciated and their trade surplus has come down,” Lardy says. “China-bashing appeals to people, and candidates believe this is a good issue to bring to voters, but there’s no one-to-one connection between China’s trade and currency policies and America’s manufacturing.”
To illustrate how complicated the issue is: Just 40 miles up the road from Columbus sits a nonunion Honda plant that, in the 1980s, was eagerly welcomed by politicians and the public alike as a means to boost the state’s economy. It employs more than 4,000 people.
Brown’s relative strength among blue-collar whites has raised the possibility that it is Obama who now needs Brown’s help. “He has a lot of credibility among working-class voters. He says, ‘I’m going to fight for you,’ and they believe it…. And those are voters who might typically vote for a Republican,” says Thomas Sutton, a political science professor at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio.
Voters in Ohio’s coal country, for example, have turned against Obama in part because of a slew of new environmental regulations. “But on coal, Brown doesn’t get that same kind of treatment, because he’s seen as the one who works for the interest of Ohio jobs. And those voters might vote a split ticket; we’ll see a lot of that across the state: Ohioans voting for Romney and Brown,” Sutton says. “I’d put a lot more money on Brown winning than Obama winning. If anything, the coattail effect is going to be the reverse; if Obama wins Ohio, it’s going to be in part because of Brown.”
If that happens, Mandel would be credited with an assist. As in Missouri, where McCaskill seems to have drawn the best possible opponent to win reelection, Brown got lucky with Mandel. The Republican candidate has done little to attract swing voters, and he has faced a steady stream of criticism for missteps, misstatements, and worse. Opponents have slammed the state treasurer for skipping dozens of official meetings. He came under fire for hiring college friends and campaign aides without relevant experience. This spring, Mandel returned $105,000 in campaign contributions in response to an FBI probe. PolitiFact has panned him for having a “casual relationship with the truth” and given a slew of his statements its worst rating. (Brown doesn’t escape the watchdog’s criticism; his statements have earned two ratings of “false” and two of “mostly false.”)
If Brown—and Obama, for that matter—prevail, it will be because of voters such as Charles Eller, a lifelong registered Republican from Wooster, Ohio. “I sure as hell ain’t voting for Mitt Romney after what he said about the 47 percent, and I sure as hell ain’t voting for Josh Mandel; he’s been caught in too many lies,” Eller says. “I didn’t vote for Obama in ’08, and I wasn’t happy with him when he passed Obamacare, and I’m still not happy with some parts of it. But now I’m on disability for chronic pulmonary disease, so it’s helping me. Obama, he saved the auto industry, and Mitt Romney said, ‘Let ’em go bankrupt.’ ”
As for Brown, Eller says, “He hasn’t screwed up enough to make me mad, and he’s a whole lot more honest than Josh Mandel—even if I don’t always like what he says.”
This article originally appeared in print as "Trading Spaces."
This article appears in the Oct. 20, 2012, edition of National Journal.