There is an almost frenetic energy to Sherrod Brown as he tours me through his office. Everything on display, he tells me with a rumpled, avuncular charm, is about the “the dignity of work”: a framed voter registration form that was printed on McDonald’s tray liners in 1988, when he was Ohio secretary of state; a photo of him playing guitar with one of the principals of the band America, who told him to stick to his day job; a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was instrumental in opening the workplace to women and minorities; and a picture of himself standing next to John Lewis on the 33rd anniversary of the Selma march. He ends his tour exactly where it started: a replica of a cage used to hold canaries in coal mines to detect deadly levels of carbon monoxide.
If you haven’t already caught the drift, Brown is big on symbolism; he even wears a metal pin depicting a canary in a cage, gifted to him decades ago by a steelworker. But being one of the few Senate Democrats coming up for reelection in a red state, it’s hard not to see the 70-year-old lawmaker as a kind of embodiment of the bird itself: Democrats currently hold a slim two-seat majority in the upper chamber, meaning that he—along with Montana’s Jon Tester and West Virginia’s Joe Manchin—could determine which party clinches the majority. Brown, for his part, has beaten the political odds before. He is the only Democrat to win a statewide office in the Buckeye State since 2012; he won reelection in 2018 by just shy of seven percentage points. But Ohio is far from the bellwether state it once was. The state has only grown redder over the past six years—and the election of Trump-backed MAGA acolyte J.D. Vance is evidence of that.
To win, Brown will have to sell the public on his progressive bona fides and his reputation as a champion for the working class—in spite of the D next to his name on the ballot. But, when I met him just a few days after the upper chamber returned from August recess, he didn’t seem all that concerned. “I feel good,” Brown tells me. “I am standing up to the drug companies, standing up to the railroads, standing up to Wall Street…voters see that and realize that the work I do can make their lives better.”
The biggest reason he’s sleeping easy: State Issue 1, which would have changed the threshold to amend the Ohio constitution from a simple majority to a 60% supermajority. The proposal was widely seen as a failed attempt by Ohio Republicans to make it harder to codify abortion protections in the state constitution, which will be on the ballot later this year. “Most Ohioans believed that women’s health decisions should be made by women and their doctors, not a bunch of Columbus politicians,” Brown says. But the senator sees the defeat as critical even beyond abortion access. “What else was an extremist, in the pocket of corporate interests, legislature going to do to workers, to voting rights, to consumer protections? And so to me, it was abortion first, most immediately, but it was all those other things too.”
Issue 1 could be a promising portent for Brown, given his strong record on abortion access. (Brown was reelected in 2018 by a greater margin than the measure in Ohio’s August special election lost by in Appalachia and the Northwest counties, where Democrats typically perform poorly.) But it’s also been a black mark for one of his potential opponents, Ohio secretary of state Frank LaRose, who introduced the measure last year and reportedly told state Republicans that it was “100% about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution.” LaRose himself is in a three-way race in the Republican primary for the Ohio Senate seat with Bernie Moreno, a former car dealership owner, and state Senator Matt Dolan, whose family owns the Cleveland Guardians baseball team. Meanwhile, the national Republican Party—and not to mention Trump—have largely stayed out of the slugfest.
I asked Brown whether he’s keeping tabs on all the pugilism. “I don’t think a lot about that. I’ll let the rich guys fight it out among themselves,” he says, adding that he has no plans to change the playbook that led him to victory. “My campaign won’t really be any different from what I’ve tried to do for the last 16 and a half years.” Tim Burga, the president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, expressed the same optimism. “I believe Sherrod Brown will be able to cut through all the campaign ads and the noise again, because Ohioans really do know who he is,” Burga told me. “When he talks about the dignity of work, it’s not just a slogan, he actually practices that.”
During the August recess, Brown met with auto workers in Lordstown, Ohio where he was celebrating his push to make General Motors honor their national United Auto Workers contract. “We got them already a $5 an hour raise and a back pay,” he told me, adding that it was “a good start”—but “not good enough.” Still, Dave Green, a regional director of the United Auto Workers in Ohio, told me it was a powerful testament to Brown’s credibility in the picket line. “He just doesn’t say he’s going to help workers. He comes out and helps workers,” Green said. “When people say all politicians are the same, no, they are not. They’re not. I’ve met many of them and endorsed some and fought against others.”
In the meantime, as Republicans duke it out over who should advance to the general election, Brown intends to focus on his day job. “I just want to get stuff done,” he says, pointing out his work with Vance on the railway safety bill after the deadly train derailment in Ohio earlier this year, as well as and his years of collaboration with former Ohio Republican senators Rob Portman and George Voinovich. “There are Republicans—I’m not going to mention them by name—but who will probably never work with me, because they are right-wing ideological partisans,” he tells me. “A lot of people are difficult to work with; some easier than others.” But that, of course, won’t stop him from trying.
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