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.”