The Test Case Race

The world headquarters of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. is still in Akron, Ohio, but all they make there now are decisions. Except for a few specialty racing tires, Goodyear hasn't made tires in Akron in years. Industry here is dead, dead, dead, and there is nothing we can do to revive it.

Apparently, Sherrod Brown never got that memo from the Atari Democrats. Twenty-five years after the cutting-edge members of his party gave up on quaint ideas like manufacturing and collective bargaining, Brown, a seven-term congressman from northeast Ohio, is running a campaign for Senate that breaks every rule in the New Democrat playbook.

On a cloudless day in August, Brown is holding a press conference on a sidewalk two miles up East Market Street from Goodyear's headquarters. Here in Akron's hollowed-out core, he talks earnestly about rebuilding Ohio's industrial base by investing in alternative energy. He blasts incumbent Republican Senator Mike DeWine and President Bush for having “such a bias toward oil and gas and so little interest in helping with ethanol, helping with solar and wind power.”

Brown has been holding dozens of press conferences like this over the course of his campaign. The focus may shift to free-trade or the Medicare drug plan, but the basic message is the same: DeWine and Bush -- the two are twins in Brown's world -- have capitulated to corporate interests and abandoned the public interest. “We have seen in our government today that the drug industry is writing the Medicare laws,” Brown says, “that Wall Street writes the Social Security privatization proposals, and the oil and gas industry dictates energy policy.” That may be fairly standard rhetoric this season for Democrats, but in a speech before family farmers in Columbus, Brown goes on to complain that certain members of his own party have also compromised their principles when they've supported trade bills that cater to big business. “Bill Clinton used to do this and it drove me nuts,” he says.

This is the campaign dreamed of by political writers like Thomas Frank and David Sirota, who insist that Democrats can become the majority party again -- can win back all those Values Voters -- only by returning to the economic populism they abandoned. Brown often sounds like he's quoting directly from Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? Explaining his emphasis on bread-and-butter economic issues, the pro-choice Brown says, “People that might have voted [against me] on choice or ... gay rights are going to say Brown's fighting for us, and that's how we're going to win.”

Other Democrats aren't so sure. They fear that Brown's message is just too liberal to appeal to an electorate that went narrowly for Bush in 2004. If Brown wins this high-profile Senate race in a hotly contested battleground state, progressive Democrats will have earned some serious bragging rights. If he loses, the party's centrists can claim that it's time for the people and the powerful to all just get along.

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Brown's is a populism of substance rather than style. He doesn't do photo ops in duck blinds. That comes as a relief on a miserable summer day in Cincinnati, during the worst of a brutal heat wave. Instead of standing in 100-degree heat clutching a gun, Brown is in the air-conditioned lounge of a local nursing home doing yet another news conference -- this one on the failings of the 2003 Medicare prescription-drug law. Four TV crews are here to film the horror stories. One Medicare recipient admits that she's taking dangerously low doses of her meds because they're still unaffordable. A son tells how a private insurer forced his elderly mother into an overpriced drug plan. Brown, who looks more like a genial Rotary Club member than a liberal firebrand, listens intently to each story.

It's hard to find a less jaded member of Congress than the 53-year-old Brown. Instead of going on golf junkets to Scotland, he travels to slums in Central America to meet with impoverished factory workers. Trade has been Brown's signature issue in Congress -- he wrote a 2004 book called Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed, and he led the fight last year in the House to stop the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), coming within just two votes of blocking it. Brown has also been one of the most passionate congressional opponents of the Iraq War, taking to the floor of the House before the war began to read letters from veterans opposing it.

The conventional wisdom holds that jumping from House to Senate requires less passion and more moderation. But Brown rejects the “Republican-lite” strategy. Some argue that “Mike DeWine's here so I just have to be here,” he says, placing his hands so close together there's no daylight between them. “But I'm going to make a sharp contrast between DeWine and me. ... I'm going to say he's been against [raising] the minimum wage, I'm for it. He was for the war in Iraq, I'm against it. ... We'll make the contrast on the energy bill, on stem cells, on issue after issue.”

As of Labor Day, his strategy seemed to be working. In late July, a Columbus Dispatch poll had Brown eight points ahead, and several more polls since then have shown him maintaining his lead. Ohio State University political scientist Herb Asher sees a precedent for Brown's strategy in the career of Howard Metzenbaum, the long-serving liberal senator from Ohio who retired in 1995. People would wonder, Asher says, “How can Metzenbaum, one of the most liberal people in Washington, get reelected here in Ohio? Part of it was that he didn't run as a liberal. He ran as a populist ... and that's certainly an opportunity for Sherrod Brown.” Still, Asher says, given Brown's voting record -- he sides with the left-leaning Americans for Democratic Action 94 percent of the time -- DeWine has ample opportunity “to make the case that he's too liberal.”

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For DeWine, a 12-year incumbent who has the fifth-lowest approval rating among all senators, a scorched-earth assault on Brown may be his only hope. Not only does he need to deflect attention from the Bush record, he also needs to distract voters from the corruption scandals plaguing the Ohio GOP. Well before Labor Day, DeWine and the Republicans aired TV spots painting Brown as a tax-raising, terrorist-appeasing extremist. The problem for DeWine is that those attacks aren't resonating with voters the way they once did. The GOP has lost much of its terrorism-fighting advantage since then, and fewer voters cite terrorism as the most important issue for candidates to address. As for taxes, if Democrats can turn that debate into a larger discussion about economic issues, Republicans become extremely vulnerable, especially in the Midwest. A July Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that only 18 percent of Midwest residents feel they're doing better economically than a year ago, while 43 percent said they're doing worse. That makes the Midwest the most pessimistic region in the country.

In addition, Brown is proving adept at the rapid response. DeWine's first attack ad, made by the same firm that did the Swift Boat spots against John Kerry, was a soft-on-terror takedown that might have crippled a candidate two years ago. But the Democrats quickly fired back, refuting the charges against Brown and noting that DeWine's commercial had used doctored footage of the Twin Towers. Suddenly, everyone from the Columbus Dispatch to The Daily Show was talking about Mike DeWine exploiting September 11 for political gain.

In late August, DeWine admitted at a campaign event that his vote in 2002 to authorize the Iraq War was based on bad intelligence, and if he'd known then what he knows now, “it would have been an entirely different situation.” Brown immediately pounced, issuing a statement that skewered the incumbent, who sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, for having based his Iraq War vote “on inaccurate and unreliable evidence that he had the opportunity and duty to review.”

If DeWine fails to gain traction on taxes or national security, there's always the chance he'll go after Brown on social issues. But that could prove awkward for DeWine, who's cultivated a reputation as a GOP moderate. (He was a member of the Senate's bipartisan Gang of 14 that negotiated a truce last year over judicial nominations.) Stressing social issues could also focus unwanted attention on DeWine's flip-flopping on gay marriage. In 2004, DeWine opposed the amendment banning gay marriage that Christian conservatives put on the Ohio ballot, but this summer he backed his party's antigay marriage constitutional amendment. This year, pandering to Ohio's religious right, which is closely linked to embattled GOP gubernatorial nominee Kenneth Blackwell, poses real risks. With Blackwell trailing Democrat Ted Strickland by as much as 22 points in some polls, getting too close to his camp could prove fatal.

While DeWine runs away from Blackwell -- there wasn't a single mention of him on DeWine's campaign Web site as of early September -- Brown and fellow House member Strickland constantly plug each other's candidacies. They barnstormed the state together during a three-day bus tour in August. The joint appearances offer Brown a bit of political cover, since Strickland's roots in rural Ohio and his background as a Methodist minister give him a more moderate image. But really, given Brown's own background, it's a testament to the times that he might need any cover.

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Brown grew up in the small north-central Ohio city of Mansfield. He inherited his politics from his mother, a New Deal Democrat who at 86 is active in his campaign. But Brown pleased his Republican father as well, becoming an Eagle Scout in 1967 while in high school. While other sons of the 1960s were rebelling against their fathers, Brown and his two older brothers converted theirs. His dad, a family doctor who voted for Goldwater in 1964, ended up pulling the lever for McGovern in 1972. Brown, who was already involved in Mansfield politics before he went away to college at Yale, returned home immediately after graduation in 1974 when the Democratic county chair asked him to make a suicidal run against a local Republican state representative. But after knocking on nearly 20,000 doors, Brown won the seat, and for all but two years he has spent the rest of his adult life in public office, serving in the state legislature for eight years, another eight as Ohio secretary of state, and the rest in Congress.

Despite his lead, Brown hasn't run an error-free campaign. In fact, it nearly self-destructed before it began. In August 2005, after all but formally announcing his Senate candidacy, he unexpectedly backed away from the race. Brown, whose first marriage ended in divorce in 1987, had recently remarried and word filtered from his camp that he was worried about subjecting the new union -- he is married to Connie Schulz, a Pulitzer-Prize winning Plain Dealer columnist -- to the stress of a high-profile campaign. The more cynically minded noted that Brown had considered and then rejected a run against DeWine in 2000 and suggested it was just another case of cold feet.

With Brown apparently out of the race, in jumped Paul Hackett, the Iraq War veteran from Cincinnati who'd thrilled party activists by nearly winning a special congressional election last summer. But soon after Hackett announced, Brown reversed himself and got back in. Suddenly, it looked like the Democrats had a nasty primary fight on their hands. In February, however, Hackett succumbed to heavy pressure from party leaders and withdrew from the race. But he left charging that Brown's campaign had spread ugly rumors about his service in Iraq. An angry Hackett, still in demand on liberal talk radio and the cable news circuit, complained for months afterward. His many fans agreed and filled the blogosphere with rants against Brown.

Many Democrats began to fear that Brown's campaign was floundering. Word spread that he was wasting money on high-priced consultants and that little work was getting done. But just after Hackett got out of the race, Brown hired a new campaign manager, John Ryan, a Cleveland labor leader widely respected for his organizing ability. Soon, the campaign was reconnecting with party activists and building an impressive grass-roots base. Then in early July, Brown and Hackett met and achieved one of those rare political reconciliations that seems to be genuine. Hackett endorsed Brown warmly at a July 10 rally, and since then he has gushed about Brown on MSNBC's Hardball, sent out fund-raising letters on his behalf, and talked him up at events across the state.

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Hackett wasn't Brown's only potential obstacle. Last year, some state party leaders, unsure of Brown's ability to win, pleaded with President Josiah Bartlet himself -- Dayton native Martin Sheen -- to enter the race, and it was rumored that Jerry Springer might get in.

In this age of maximum disgust with Washington, it's hard to fight the impulse to go with the outsider -- to embrace anyone other than a professional politician, especially one seeking a Senate seat in a red state with Brown's voting record. But if we hope to prove once again that there can be such a thing as good government, maybe it's time to differentiate between the politicians who've been corrupted by Washington and those who've retained their core beliefs and can use the knowledge they've gained in the city to drain the swamp of corruption in the Capitol.

Brown, speaking of the work he did to build a coalition against CAFTA, says, “I think I understand how to do this sort of inside-outside strategy, where you get the public talking to their members of Congress and … where you end up with a very different public policy as a result.” As is his wont, Brown goes on to discuss the many alternative policies he hopes to push -- a patriot corporation act that would reward companies that invest in America, fair-trade legislation that would protect the rights of workers in every country. “I know the patriot corporation bill isn't going to happen right now,” he concedes. But if he's elected to the Senate, Brown believes he'll be able to spur debates that have been sorely neglected. “Let that debate happen,” Brown says. “And more power to the one that wins it.”

Jim McNeill, a journalist in Washington, D.C., is a former managing editor of In These Times and has written for the Chicago Tribune, Dissent and The Baffler.