What Can Sherrod Brown Do for the Democrats?
But before anyone makes committee assignments, Brown must dislodge DeWine, a social conservative who backs the Bush Administration on most issues but has worked hard to fashion a moderate image. In a state where indictments of party operatives for influence-peddling have hurt Republicans this year, Brown's standard rap identifies the incumbent as the embodiment of a "Republican revolution" that has turned policy-making over to special-interest groups. Asked at an AARP candidate forum about prescription-drug prices, Brown recalls that he took a busload of seniors to Canada to buy drugs while DeWine took close to half a million dollars in contributions from the pharmaceutical industry.
Above all, Brown tags DeWine, and a lot of other politicians, as free-trade enthusiasts of the "new economy" that has left Ohio factory towns in the dust. When Derry Glenn, the Lima councilman, says "unemployment is just too high in this part of Ohio" and asks Brown what he'll do about it, the candidate responds: "I hear people on the East Coast and the West Coast say, 'We're moving beyond manufacturing. We're in a postindustrial era.' Well, that doesn't work for Lima." When Antelle Haithcock asks, "How much can an individual member of Congress do to keep a company here?" Brown shoots back: "Stop passing these trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA, which are as bad for workers in Guatemala as they are for workers in Ohio. Take some of the $2 billion a week we're spending on this war in Iraq and put it into developing alternative-fuel industries, so we can stop buying oil from countries that fund terrorists."
Brown does not fear addressing the war and, though he's taken hits for his outspoken opposition to the invasion and occupation, his stand does not seem to be hurting him. But Brown's prochoice position and his consistent support for gay rights could take their toll in a state where Republicans have successfully exploited social issues. In 2004 an anti-same-sex-marriage referendum was used not just to draw religious conservatives to the polls but also to define Kerry as too liberal for the heartland. Outside the Carpenters hall in Lima, Glenn says, "When they brought in that same-sex-marriage stuff, a lot of Democrats moved over. Kerry lost 'em." This year, Republicans have peddled unsubstantiated suggestions that the popular Democratic nominee for governor, ordained minister and US Representative Ted Strickland might be a closeted gay man and came within a hair of insinuating that Brown should be identified as "D-Sodom & Gomorrah." National right-wing talk-radio personality Sean Hannity has attacked Brown as "a super liberal," while Rush Limbaugh looked at the Democrat's name and voting record and mistakenly identified him as a black member of Congress--in a clumsy attempt to stir racial divisions among Democrats. DeWine television ads--prepared by a firm that produced anti-Kerry "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" commercials--attack Brown for opposing the Patriot Act.
For his part, Brown is sticking to economic issues, something he has done with remarkable success in a socially conservative Congressional district where even blue-collar voters who do not always agree with him recognize, as a gun-owning union member at the Ford plant in Lorain once explained, that "Sherrod Brown fights for us on the issues that matter." For Brown, the challenge this year is to get blue-collar workers, farmers and small-business owners in a sprawling state to share that sentiment. DeWine's negative ads will make the task harder, even as Brown fights back with a campaign that he promises will never just take the hits in the way that Kerry's did.
As Brown sees it, the real way to counter the attacks is by spending inordinate amounts of time traveling to the far corners of the state to engage in the sort of retail politics that can draw straying voters back to the Democratic line. In Dayton the candidate keeps aides waiting as he listens to Gina Keucher, a 41-year-old mother of four, describe how rising gas prices have forced her husband--the owner of a small bakery--to make his own deliveries. "He bakes all night and then heads off to do the deliveries. It's killing us, but we can't afford to hire a driver and pay for the gas," she says. Brown launches into something close to a tirade about the $7,000-an-hour the CEO of ExxonMobil makes, the influence of Big Oil's campaign money and the failure of Congress to challenge profiteering at the pump. Keucher is impressed, not just by the message but by the time the candidate has taken with her. As Brown leaves, she says, "I've voted for some Republicans, but this guy is great. Just think if we had a few like him in the Senate."