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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Russo: Sen. Brown’s Progressive Populist Template Shows Dems How to Win Ohio, Working-Class Voters

The following article by John B. Russo, visiting researcher at the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor at Georgetown University, co-author of Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown, and co-editor with Sherry Linkon of the blog Working-Class Perspectives. is cross-posted from The American Prospect.

The midterm elections showed that the Democrats’ blue wall is being rebuilt brick by brick in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and northern Illinois. A red wall also seems to be going up, and its bricks include West Virginia, Indiana, Iowa, southern Illinois, and Missouri. As these new political walls get built, one brick that once seemed to fit neatly with its blue neighbors looks to be turning red: Ohio.

Many Democrats seem ready to give up on Ohio. Michael Halle, who coordinated Hillary Clinton’s battleground state strategy before managing Ohio Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray’s campaign this year, told The New York Times that “it was time for Democrats to jettison Iowa and Ohio in future campaigns in favor of Arizona and Georgia.” Clinton campaign communications director Jennifer Palmieri now says that that the Clinton campaign should have spent less time and money in Ohio and spent more in Georgia, Texas, and Arkansas. Speaking from ground zero for Democratic crossover voters in Youngstown, Mahoning County Democratic Chairperson David Betras commented after the midterms that it wasn’t the people who had left the party. Instead, Betras stated, the Democratic Party had left Ohio.

The Republicans in Ohio somehow overcame ongoing scandals involving their promotion of charter schools, sexual harassment charges against Republican leaders, and the schism between the Trump and Kasich wings of the Ohio Republican Party. The Democrats and community organizations also mounted an impressive organizing campaign that generated record turnout for a midterm election. Yet Republicans swept statewide offices save for the non-partisan Supreme Court races.

The Ohio results make Republican dominance clear. The Ohio GOP won 73 of 116 Statehouse races while collecting just over 50 percent of the total vote. That sounds close, but Republicans did not even field candidates in nine races. They also won 12 of Ohio’s 16 congressional districts with just over 52 percent of the overall vote. The results reflect past gerrymandering by the Kasich administration—which will only get worse as Republicans will control reapportionment in 2020.

So what’s the matter with Ohio? Conventional wisdom says that Ohio is too white, too working class (by education), and too rural to support Democrats anymore. That might seem to explain voting patterns in the midterms. Republican Mike DeWine won the largely white exurban, small town, semi-rural, and rural areas that dominate the state. Cordray won in urban and some suburban areas, mostly in the northeast, where the population includes many people of color. Unfortunately, those areas are chiefly found in just nine of Ohio’s 88 counties. Some of those blue regions, especially the traditional Democratic strongholds of Cuyahoga, Mahoning, and Trumbull Counties, no longer deliver enough votes to overcome growing Republican power elsewhere in the state.

But conflating race, class, and region misses several complicating factors. First, Ohio illustrates a point made recently by John McCullough, writing for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting: When pundits talk about the “working class,” they are usually not talking about class but about whiteness.  According to a 2016 Brookings Institution report, Ohio is whiter than other rust belt states (82 percent, compared with 77.6 percent in Michigan). And while much of the state is rural, its suburban and exurban areas are growing, and their predominantly white populations include both working- and middle-class residents.

Ohio’s whiteness explains only part of the problem, though. The Democrats also created their own obstacles through inbred party leadership and poor messaging. Despite a series of defeats, the Ohio Democratic Party still relies on the same leaders, consultants, and lobbyists who failed in past elections and have not developed a bench of future candidates. Twelve years ago, the last time Democrats won Statehouse races in Ohio, the party capitalized on Republican scandals. Not this year. Further, as Alec MacGillis has written in The New York Times, the Ohio Democratic Party, unions, and some progressive organizations failed to support more progressive Democrats or to invest time or money in “areas where the party is losing ground.”

Cordray and other statewide candidates also failed to offer concrete proposals that would address the economic challenges facing both working- and middle-class voters. The only candidate who focused on such policies was also the only Democrat who won statewide: Senator Sherrod Brown. Why? Brown’s campaign embraced his small town Ohio roots and stressed his consistent support of policies—like protectionist trade rules, increasing the minimum wage, and reducing prescription drug prices—that would improve the lives of working people. This message, combined with his long-standing commitment to campaigning in every county, red or blue, ensured that his message appealed to broad range of voters across races, class affiliations, and regions.

Unfortunately, Cordray wasn’t able to follow Brown’s model. Despite Cordray’s leadership of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which should have defined him as a progressive who would defend ordinary people from Wall Street and corporate misbehavior, he failed to directly address the economic anxieties of working people. While Cordray and Brown voiced some of the same concerns—like lowering the cost of college education or addressing the opioid crisis—Cordray waited until late in his campaign to emphasize the kind of economic policies that have long been at the core of Brown’s political identity. He also lacked Brown’s track record and his down-to-earth style.

Brown’s coattails were simply not long enough to carry other Democrats. In fact, Brown’s numbers may have been pulled down by the other statewide candidates. He won by only 6.4 percent, despite a weak Republican opponent and an 8-to-1 fundraising advantage, according to David Skolnick, political analyst for The Vindicator—the local paper in Youngstown, a Brown stronghold.

As the 2018 midterms make clear, Ohio Democrats cannot count on a strong organizing effort alone to yield victories. They also need the kind of clear message, wide-ranging outreach, and concrete proposals that Brown offered. If Democrats want to reclaim Ohio, they need to recognize that many Ohio Trump voters are also Sherrod Brown voters and vice versa.

But will the Ohio Democratic Party change its approach? Will there be a return to Ohio’s history of northern progressivism that Sherrod Brown channels? I doubt it. Even Brown acknowledges how conservative Ohio has become. And unless they embrace the kind of pro-worker world view that Brown has championed, Ohio Democrats will remain helpless as Republicans continue to cement the state within their red wall.

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