Sen. Sherrod Brown enters the 2024 election cycle in Ohio with a unique distinction: He is the last liberal in Trump land.
As a result, Mr. Brown is in for one of the toughest reelection races of his 28 years in politics. Ohio’s increasingly conservative voters will put his liberal voting record to the test.
Still, Mr. Brown remains bullish about the race and says he would put his record of fighting for Ohio workers “up against anybody.”
“Those people know me,” Mr. Brown recently told The Washington Times on Capitol Hill. “I won in 2018 when [President] Trump was campaigning against me. I talk to workers. I will get Trump voters, I will get people that voted against Trump.”
Mr. Brown beat back a Trump-inspired challenger in 2018, notching a 7-point win in what turned out to be a wave election for Democrats.
The big difference this election cycle is Mr. Brown will be most likely running alongside President Biden, who is unpopular in the state, and could very well be lining up against Mr. Trump, the current front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.
Even Democrats admit Mr. Brown’s path to victory will narrow if Mr. Trump leads the GOP ticket.
Mr. Trump is credited with transforming the Ohio GOP. He connected with blue-collar voters that for years pulled the lever for Democrats. He did it by railing against trade deals and tapping into the frustration of voters who felt politically alienated.
That included in 2012 when President Obama, bolstered in part by the auto industry bailout that saved jobs in the state, bested Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by roughly 2 points in Ohio.
Mr. Trump four years later notched an 8-point win over Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and repeated the feat against Mr. Biden in the 2020 election.
Mr. Trump was not on the ballot in the 2022 midterms, but he played a significant role in fueling Sen. J.D. Vance’s 8-point win over Rep. Tim Ryan.
Seeking to shift attention away from the liberal parts of his record, Mr. Ryan sprinted to the middle and emphasized the times he broke with his Democratic Party leaders.
Mr. Brown has a similar choice to make in his reelection push: dash to the middle and away from his political DNA — or stick where he is and run on the liberal record that worked for him in elections in 2006, 2012 and 2018.
“Brown does have a built-in advantage compared to Ryan. He is the incumbent, and he has won several challenging races in the past,” said the University of Virginia Center for Politics’ Kyle Kondik who authored “The Bellwether,” a book about Ohio’s presidential voting history. “That said, we have also seen that presidential and Senate results are becoming increasingly correlated.”
“Ohio has definitely moved more to the right in the last couple of presidential elections, so Brown is almost certainly going to need at least several points worth of crossover support to win,” he said. “Brown has also run in fairly favorable electoral environments – 2006 and 2018 were Democratic midterm years, and Barack Obama carried Ohio in 2012. So 2024 presents a significant test for Brown.”
Republicans have plenty of ammunition to cast Mr. Brown as a partisan hack who has gone gaga over “woke” ideas. He has voted with Mr. Biden over 98% of the time, according to a tally by the political statistics website FiveThirtyEight.
Mr. Brown has inoculated himself from some of the GOP‘s attacks by opposing nearly every trade deal to come before him, most notably the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, which was blamed for hollowing out working-class communities across the country.
The senator did, however, throw his support behind the United States-Mexico-Canada trade deal that rewrote NAFTA and proved to be one of the marquee achievements of Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Mr. Brown recently locked arms with Mr. Vance on legislation to enhance rail safety following the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
In recent testimony before a Senate panel, Mr. Brown pummeled Norfolk Southern with criticism and likened East Palestine to communities that have suffered from jobs moving overseas and “are so often forgotten or exploited by corporate America.”
“The company followed the Wall Street business model: Boost profits by cutting costs at all costs,” Mr. Brown said. “The consequence for places like East Palestine be damned.”
Alex Triantafilou, chair of the Ohio GOP, said Mr. Brown has never faced the sort of political headwinds that he will face in 2024.
“Ohio was a swing state, but not when Donald Trump is on the ballot,” Mr. Triantafilou said. “You just watch if President Trump is the nominee, Sen. Brown will try to do what Tim Ryan did in 2022 and that is to court Trump voters, and he does not have the record or background in courting Trump voters.”
Mr. Brown’s votes against the Keystone XL pipeline, support for abolishing the legislative filibuster, and his dodginess over whether he supports packing the Supreme Court expose a liberal streak that will not sit well with voters, he said.
Shannon Burns, head of the Strongsville Ohio GOP, said he expects Mr. Brown will conclude his race is likely unwinnable and pull the plug on his reelection campaign to save himself from an embarrassing loss.
“He was seen as a big government liberal who was a fighter for the working man. That is who he has been seen as,” Mr. Burns said. “His actual reality has come through to the voters of Ohio and that is he is a woke leftist and not an old-school Democrat.”
Mr. Brown’s allies disagree.
David Brock, chair of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party, said Mr. Brown for decades has been “the preeminent defender of work in this entire country.”
“By that, I mean not just a champion of workers, which he is, but also a champion of those who want to work, who want a better life and a good job,” Mr. Brock said. “You see him and realize he has had the same message for 30 years. It is who he is. It is not make-believe.”
Mr. Brock said it would be exceedingly difficult to paint the senator as inauthentic.
Mr. Brown so far has drawn a single GOP challenger in state Sen. Matt Dolan. Mr. Dolan, who owns a partial stake in the Cleveland Guardians baseball team, lost his bid for the Senate last year after refusing to go all-in as a Trump supporter in the Republican primary.
Others thought to be considering runs include Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Bernie Moreno, a luxury car dealer and businessman, and Pete Kirsanow, an attorney and a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at email@example.com.
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