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!”