One of the most important Senate races next year will be right in the heart of the Rust Belt. In Ohio, two-term Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) is running for a third term. In a state that President Trump was able to make massive gains in, Brown has long cast himself as a populist, especially on trade and financial issues. Though the Republicans have a primary, it’s likely they will choose their 2012 nominee, State Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), for a rematch.
More often than not, Brown has been in elected office since the early 1980’s. Initially serving as Secretary of State, in the 1990’s, he won a House seat in the Cleveland area. Brown was popular in his district and was known for his skills as a retail politician. In fact, when Republicans were redrawing the districts in 2001, Brown was given a safe seat, as the GOP feared drawing him out would prompt him to run statewide. Brown held his seat until 2006, when he finally decided to run for Senate, against Sen. Mike DeWine (R).
While 2006 turned out to be a Democratic wave year at the national level, Brown had some local factors playing his is favor. During that time, the OH GOP was undergoing a massive implosion; it’s outgoing Governor, Bob Taft (R), was sporting a 7% approval rating. As a result, Democrats swept five of the six statewide offices that year (with the GOP narrowly clinging to the Auditor’s office). In what had started out as a competitive race, Brown trounced DeWine by 12%:
In 2012, Republicans ran State Treasurer Josh Mandel, who won his office in the Republican wave of 2010. Brown benefited from President Obama’s operation in the state, and was usually considered, at least, a slight favorite throughout the race. President Obama carried Ohio by 3%, and Brown doubled that margin, to 6%. However, both Democrats received almost the exact same share of the vote, and had strikingly similar maps:
Overall, the area where Brown did best relative to Obama was in Appalachia. Brown also held up well in suburban Cleveland, where his old House seat used to be.
Though the incumbent pulled out a win, Mandel still managed to cut Brown’s 2006 margin in half. A large amount of blue – 22 counties worth of it, to be specific – vanished to red:
Brown only improved in four counties compared to 2006. Perhaps, not by coincidence, they were some of the most populous. Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Franklin (Columbus), Montgomery (Dayton) and Hamilton (Cincinnati) all moved in his direction.
The ‘trend’ map (on the right) didn’t look that much better for Brown, either. The ‘trend’ is the county swing relative to the statewide swing. For example, if a county swung 5% Republican, it would still have ‘trended’ Democratic, as the statewide swing here was about 6.4% towards Republicans. Under the trend map, suburban Delaware County becomes blue, as does college-oriented Athens and working class Lucas (Toledo). Brown flips two counties near the Dayton area with the trend map; DeWine was from this area, so perhaps he had less room to fall there.
Here’s a comparison of the top five most populous counties, and the rest of the state. The only major county here that swung against Brown was Summit, which houses Akron. Brown represented this area during the latter part of time in the House. It seems he had a regional vote there, which wore off as he became a statewide figure.
Looking further, here are the top ten most populous cities in Ohio, ranked in descending order by votes cast. Brown slumped noticeably in the cities of Parma and Lorain, which are near Cleveland, but otherwise posted gains. His single-digit improvements in many of these likely speak to President Obama’s aggressive efforts in the state. Still, one city that stands out is Cincinnati, which swing 17% (!) towards him.
While Brown got a boost in urban areas, Democrats would be wise not to hold their breath for a similarly robust urban showing in 2018. On the other end of the electoral spectrum, going forward, they will have to tend white working class. As we mentioned earlier, Brown ran furthest ahead of Obama in Appalachian Ohio. This region is essentially coterminous with Ohio’s 6th Congressional District.
For this piece, I looked at the 2001 to 2011 version of OH-06. At the time, this was drawn to be a heavily Democratic seat – meant to elect Rep. Ted Strickland (D), at the time – but has since drifted rightward. Last decade’s version of the OH-06 was shaped like a crescent, and stretched from the Youngstown area down to Portsmouth. It took in a number of medium sized towns along the Ohio River, such as Marietta and Steubenville, as well as the college town of Athens:
Though it was drawn for Strickland, by mid-decade, it had already become marginally GOP leaning. In 2004, it gave President Bush a narrow 50/49 win. In 2008, as President Obama flipped the state, OH-06 was the only district in Ohio to become more Republican, voting 50/48 McCain. The trend continued in 2012; Obama held the state, but would have lost that version of OH-06 by nearly 6%. While the district was close in these years, the Democratic nominees were at least competitive. 2016 was a departure from this, with President Trump carrying the old OH-06 by a 2:1 margin, and improving in every township:
Brown has performed better here, but the trend is similar. In 2006, he carried it by a clean 60/40, though he was perhaps bolstered by Ted Strickland’s Gubernatorial campaign. By 2012, he would have carried it, but by a much closer 49/46:
Over the span of Brown’s races, the 6th moved from being 4% to the left of his statewide margin, to 3% towards the right.
If Democrats are going to start making inroads with the type of white working class voters that flocked Trump last year, the Ohio Senate race will be a good testing ground.
DDHQ currently rates this race as Leans Democratic.