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.
This article appears in the October 20, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.