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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio—The honorific came without an ounce of irony Tuesday afternoon from the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor: “The Vote Whisperer, Sherrod Brown.”
The crowd at a dive bar not far from Youngstown State roared with approval as Ohio’s Democratic senator waited his turn to speak. Brown is the only Democrat to be elected to statewide office in Ohio since 2011. That makes him more than just an anomaly in this once-mighty swing state, which for a long, long time effectively picked the presidency. Brown is the Democrats’ unicorn, and his political DNA rivals anything theorized in Jurassic Park.
Over almost half a century, Brown, an unapologetic populist progressive, has built up a striking level of credibility and affection in a state where grievances are as strong as the Great Lakes ales and pleasing a majority of voters is close to impossible. He managed to survive the revenge of white, working-class voters that tipped the state from twice backing Barack Obama to doing the same for Donald Trump.
As such, Brown might be the region’s most-requested co-headliner this week before a crucial election—certainly more so than Obama or President Joe Biden. On Tuesday alone, Brown spent his morning in Steubenville with the Democratic nominee for Senate, Rep. Tim Ryan, and the afternoon here in Youngstown with his party’s nominee for governor, former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. By the end of the week, Brown is scheduled to appear with Whaley at least two more times when he’s not even on the ballot.
Brown’s imprint on the campaign trail goes beyond his busy schedule. At Democratic events in recent years in Ohio, you’re as likely to hear about “the dignity of work” as you are to see a Buckeyes sweatshirt. Brown introduced the phrase to a new generation of Democrats, picking up on the rhetoric of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, whom Brown is careful to credit. That idea, which became a theme of Biden’s successful general election campaign, can be traced back to Brown, who served with Biden in the Senate. The “dignity of work” thesis is widely seen as a template for winning Ohio—respect for a chance, but not open-ended welfare.
Not that Brown minds. For him, the phrase is more than a slogan. It’s the potential for the government’s role in helping rebuild a middle class.
For his adherents, it’s a way to crack the code in a Midwest that has, to be blunt, rejected a lot of Democrats’ messaging in recent years. Hillary Clinton lost Ohio by 9 percentage points in 2016. Brown won two years later by 7. Biden would go on to lose by 8 two years after that.
But here’s the problem with copycats: they more often meow than roar.
“Workers aren’t on the agenda. They are the agenda,” Brown tells me after a few minutes of good-natured ribbing following the event. It’s hokey, but it works when he says it.
You see, Brown is as understated as he is authentic. It’s easy to see why he was a favorite for Heartland Democrats to run against Trump in 2020 until he decided against it. You mention Brown and there’s a puzzled look, even among party insiders; they wonder if the Supreme Court has revisited Brown v. Board the same way they toppled Roe v. Wade. Use Brown’s first name, and a grin spreads as wide as they hear it. And that is The Power of Sherrod. He’s an embedded fixture in Ohio’s political scene dating to 1975—two years after Biden joined the Senate. Brown effectively controls the state political machine, installing a loyalist as its chairwoman in 2021. And yet Brown has survived criticism that he’s a career politician, in part because he can outhustle anyone in a union hall and out-empathy even those who aren’t much inclined to give Democrats a chance. It’s much the same way his counterpart, retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman, can summon the patrician GOP base with even-keeled conservatism that doesn’t offend Democrats despite a pedigree dating to George H.W. Bush’s White House.
Still, Democrats in Ohio remain at a disadvantage. Because of their exclusion from power at the state level and the congressional delegation, they have struggled on any number of fronts, including being unable to influence the current congressional map, which favors Republicans by a 12-to-4 margin, even though Biden won 42% of the popular vote in 2020. A reserve of future talent is a perennial problem child for national Democrats, and that’s especially true in Ohio, where much of the anemic liberal grassroots has stopped thinking of victory as even an option.
“Look at the farm system. The bench is hard to build because you have so many districts that are predetermined,” Brown tells me in the parking lot of a proud dive bar in Youngstown. “It affects the morale of Democrats.”
Whaley, a self-described mentee of Brown who nonetheless has about one-tenth of her opponent’s warchest in hand, picked up right where he left off: “The unlimited money they have, particularly for the statehouse races, makes it very difficult.”
Which, in turn, only increases Brown’s cachet—as long as everyone remembers to call him Sherrod.
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