The road to the Democratic Party’s renewal runs through Allen County, Ohio. And Sherrod Brown is on it, looking for the towns his party forgot and the voters who got away. “We have a government in Washington that has betrayed the middle class and the working poor in this country,” the Democratic Senate candidate tells a crowd gathered in the back of a Carpenters Union hall in Lima, the manufacturing town that is the turbine in the county’s sputtering economic engine. “You know what I mean when I say ‘betrayed.’ There’s no other word for it. And I’m not one of those Democrats who is going to hesitate to talk about that betrayal. The stakes are too high for places like this.” “Amen!” comes a call from the crowd. “Sherrod’s talking the language people here talk,” says Derry Glenn, a Lima city councilman, who stands in an open doorway at the back of the hall. “You start by establishing that you understand what’s wrong. Kerry never did that.”

Theoretically, Lima should be Democratic turf. A blue-collar town with a solid union base and a substantial African-American population, this city of 40,000 has lost 8,000 manufacturing jobs and a quarter of its population over the past two decades. A few years back, a PBS documentary crew titled a report from Lima Lost in Middle America. Though Lima still has a Ford plant and an Army tank facility, the deindustrialization that has hammered Ohio during George W. Bush’s tenure has taken a particular toll here. The local unemployment rate sits at 6.9 percent, a full point above the Ohio rate, which is a full point above the national rate. Yet in 2004, Democrat John Kerry only managed a tie with Bush in the city, while the Republican swept Allen County by a 2-to-1 margin. The inability of the Democrats to capitalize on economic issues to put towns like Lima in their column has contributed mightily to Republican domination of Ohio, where all major statewide offices are in GOP hands and where the last two presidential elections handed Bush the electoral votes he needed to secure the presidency. No matter what one thinks about the electoral shenanigans Republicans pulled before and during the 2004 presidential vote, a Democrat has to hold his own in places like Lima and Allen County if he wants to win by a big enough margin to put talk of recounts behind him. “We are going to do a lot better than Kerry in these towns,” Brown says, as he whirls through another sixteen-hour day at senior centers, union halls and Farm Bureau meetings in communities that don’t see many big-name Democrats.

Brown, a seven-term Congressman who gave up the chance to be a key player in what may be a Democrat-controlled House after November to challenge Republican Senator Mike DeWine, knows he must change his party’s fortunes in Lima and a dozen other mid-size factory towns if his gamble is to succeed. And he recognizes that he will not crack the political codes of blue-collar counties that voted for Bush by repeating talking points produced by Democratic strategists in Washington. He’s got to go deeper to make a connection that renews old loyalties and protects him against Republican attack strategies that have allowed the party to dominate Senate contests in Ohio and nationally.

What Brown offers Lima is an economic message that owes more to William Jennings Bryan than Bill Clinton, who always ran weaker in Ohio than he did nationally. Brown is not just another critic of the free-trade policies of the past several administrations. He wrote the book on the subject, The Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed, which earned him praise from author Tom Frank for being the rare Democrat who actually understands what’s the matter with Kansas–and, perhaps, Ohio. He preaches a fair-trade gospel that begins with a promise to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade deals to protect workers, the environment and communities–as opposed to encouraging multinational corporations to entertain relocation outside the country. But Brown’s no “back to the future” populist; he recognizes that altering trade policies won’t bring all the lost jobs back. He wants Democrats to adopt industrial policies that champion the development of new industries in old manufacturing towns. Brown’s “we need to make Ohio the Silicon Valley of alternative energy” pitch has resonated with CEOs who don’t typically talk up Democrats. “Sherrod understands that Ohio can remain a manufacturing state if we’ve got a federal government that supports the development of new industries,” says Thomas Willis, president of Precision Energy & Technology, a fuel-cell firm, who appears with the candidate to vouch for Brown as the real friend of small manufacturers in a race with DeWine. Brown builds his message out with a promise to restructure tax policy to favor working families rather than billionaires and runaway corporations–he’s for childcare, homebuying, college-tuition and elder-care tax credits; he’s against tax cuts for the rich–and with talk about redirecting money spent on the Iraq War to meet domestic needs.

The plan plays well on the stump. In what is certain to remain a tight race–and such a critical race for Democrats that the party had Brown deliver its first national radio address of the fall campaign–the challenger now leads DeWine in most polls. With an aggressive message, and a determination to take that message not just to places Kerry won in 2004 but to the places where he lost, Brown is running a different race from the one Democrats usually wage in battleground states. That’s what makes this contest such a big deal for progressives far beyond Ohio. They have long argued that the Democratic Party will only overcome Republican national-security and God-guns-and-gays sloganeering by talking tough about economics and linking their domestic agenda to blunt opposition to a costly occupation of Iraq. If Brown, an antiwar economic populist who supports abortion rights and gay rights, can defeat a Republican incumbent with a special-interest-laden bankroll and Karl Rove-inspired attack ads, then the lesson for Democrats is a dramatic one. Instead of pulling punches, they can throw them. “What Sherrod’s doing is what every Democrat should be doing,” says Roger Tauss, legislative director of the Transport Workers Union. “The Democrats have had trouble figuring out how to talk about economics. They don’t know how to reach people who are hurting but still vote Republican. Sherrod refuses to believe those voters can’t be won over.”

In particular, Brown does not give up on blue-collar voters in forgotten cities like his hometown of Mansfield. With his Kennedyesque looks and Clintonesque memory for facts and figures–not just on hot-button issues but on projects like his successful fight to dramatically increase US support for international programs to combat tuberculosis–he moves easily through the political and social scenes of New York and Los Angeles, where he must raise money for a campaign that could cost $20 million. But he is, first and foremost, an Ohio boy. The son of a small-town doctor who grew up working summers on a family farm, he has spent his adult life representing automaking towns like Mansfield. Elected to the state legislature at 22 and as Secretary of State at 29, Brown in the early 1980s seemed destined to replace one of Ohio’s Democratic senators, Howard Metzenbaum or John Glenn. Instead, his political career was derailed in 1990, when he lost the state post to Republican Bob Taft–now Ohio’s scandal-plagued lame-duck governor–in a brutal election that saw state and national GOP operatives pour millions into an attack campaign intended to stop Brown in his tracks.

But Brown proved resilient. When a northern Ohio Congressional seat opened in 1992, he beat a well-funded Republican foe by running far ahead of the national Democratic ticket and arrived in Congress in time to vote against NAFTA. Representing a blue-collar district that was home to thousands of auto- and steelworkers, the Yale-educated Brown became their champion–not just in the House but in the streets of Seattle, where he marched in 1999 with Ohio unionists protesting the World Trade Organization. With Brown, workers come first, says John Ryan, longtime head of Cleveland’s North Shore Federation of Labor, who recalls the Democrat’s willingness “to take on the President of his own party by denying President Clinton fast-track authority” to negotiate trade agreements. Brown’s tactical skills and his knowledge of the issues, which were recognized by House minority leaders Dick Gephardt and Nancy Pelosi when they made him point man in trade-policy fights with Democratic and Republican administrations, guaranteed that he would emerge in the Senate as one of his party’s most effective spokesmen on economic issues.

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.”

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.”