What Can Sherrod Brown Do for the Democrats?
This year is supposed to be one of renewal for Senate Democrats. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's fundraising is strong. Candidate recruitment has gone well. While polls suggest Democrats are on track to hold their seats, Democratic challengers lead Republican incumbents in Montana and Pennsylvania as well as Ohio. In Missouri, Tennessee and Rhode Island, Democrats are running about even in races for GOP seats. And if the political winds blow right this fall, Democrats could find themselves within striking distance of Republican incumbents in Virginia, Nevada and Arizona. A Democratic takeover of the Senate is still a long shot, but the fact that there is even discussion of the prospect that the party could find the six seats it needs to achieve that goal has a lot to do with the unexpectedly strong campaign Brown is waging in a state that has for more than a decade been a killing ground for Democratic hopes.
For all the talk of red and blue, the battleground states where control of the Senate will be determined this year, and where the 2008 presidential contest is likely to be decided, are really purplish amalgams of cities of varying sizes and characters, suburbs and rural regions that Karl Rove understands in all of their complexity. In stark contrast, Democratic candidates and strategists have tried too frequently to win "easy"--by concentrating on generating increased turnout in "metro" strongholds, by going after suburban soccer moms and, too often, by fuzzing the message on economic issues. That approach hasn't worked. Senate contests are by their nature distinct from one another, but the overall pattern in 2002 and 2004 saw the Democratic Party fail to challenge vulnerable Republican incumbents and lose historically Democratic seats at a rate that handed the GOP a 55-to-45 majority in the chamber that has the most power to slow the President's agenda.
There is nothing easy about the approach Brown has taken. He accepts that Democrats must energize their base, but he refuses to accept that the base is geographically constrained. If Democrats want to win statewide races, Brown says, they must reconnect with voters who live in places that have been off the party's map for the past few election cycles. And they must recognize that after years of neglect of fundamental economic issues by Democrats who should have known better, a new generation of Democrats has to invest the most precious of all election-year commodities--time--in conversations that are really about rebuilding trust.
So it is that, on a rainy afternoon, as the candidate is being rushed out of the last meeting in Lima, Brown spies an elderly woman in the passenger seat of a parked car. "He always stops," whispers an aide, half admiring, half exasperated. And so Brown does, to listen as she speaks for five minutes about how heartbroken she is that her grandchildren can't find jobs in the city. Brown assures her that he won't let Lima down.
Standing a few feet away is Frank Lamar, an elected trustee from a Republican-leaning township neighboring Lima. "My constituents tell me the reason they stopped voting for Democrats was because no Democrats that matter come around our part of the state anymore," says Lamar. "But just look at Sherrod Brown, talking to that old woman. People see that, even some of the Republicans. And they start to think: Here's a Democrat who actually thinks we matter. Now, isn't that something? Might just have to vote for him."