United States Senator Sherrod Brown is wearing Velcro strap sneakers. They are distinctly geriatric in flavor, black and sturdy-looking, the sort that might be found in the “Mall Walking” section of the shoe wall at FootLocker. Brown is wearing them with a suit. On stage. At a big Teamsters rally a couple of weeks before Election Day.
Say what you will about Brown—and plenty has been said about the liberal bête noire of national conservatives during this election cycle—but the man certainly has his own distinct brand of business casual. And in his fierce race to maintain his Senate seat against Republican State Treasurer Josh Mandel, it just might be Brown’s brand of who-gives-a-hoot sartorial schlump and off-the-cuff crankiness that is winning Ohio voters over.
His opponent is a trim, smooth-faced 35-year-old Iraq War veteran who favors pin-neat suits and a crisp haircut reminiscent of a Marine buzz. Mandel stands in stark physical contrast to the 59-year-old Brown, who sports an unruly tousle of hair even in official photos. Mandel is an up-and-comer who served in the Ohio legislature from 2006 to 2010, was elected State Treasurer in 2010, and announced his bid to run against Brown in the spring of 2012. If the senator’s craggy face has been forged by the winds and rain of Ohio politics and its oddities, Mandel’s is sticker-smooth—and his ideology is a match, modeled on the cookie-cutter Republican ideology of the moment.
The Brown campaign has portrayed Mandel as nothing but a political climber. “I get up and go to work every day and fight for jobs for my state and my opponent gets up for work every day and thinks about the next office he’s going to run for,” Brown told me recently. His supporters have used Mandel’s frequent absences from state Board of Deposit meetings and his hiring of some younger members of his State Treasurer campaign staff to positions within the department as further fodder. Late this summer, Democrats gleefully eviscerated Mandel when a video of a rally in Southern Ohio surfaced featuring the Northern Ohio-born Republican affecting a Southern drawl. For his part, Mandel has tried to tie Brown personally to Washington gridlock, accusing him of missing a number of Senate votes—most of which, according to the Brown campaign, had to do with the Senator’s recovery from a car accident. Conservative groups like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS, which has shelled out close to $10 million in ads to defeat Brown, have painted him as a Washington liberal out of touch with regular Ohioans.
The contest has attracted the nation’s second-highest amount of outside spending—$24.6 million, mostly by super PACs running negative ads on both sides. But though Democrats worry that a high turnout from Mitt Romney supporters could boost Mandel’s numbers on Election Day, it appears that Brown will weather the astronomical spending by national conservative groups. Brown has maintained a consistent lead throughout, and as of Wednesday, according to polling averages from Nate Silver at The New York Times, the incumbent led Mandel by six percent.
Not surprisingly, Mandel garners strong support from the state’s traditional Republican base. He’s also snagged the backing of some Jewish voters in Cuyahoga County, a group that traditionally leans Democratic. Mandel, who is Jewish, hails from the area, and his candidacy has inflamed some split sentiments in the community—whether or not to vote for the hometown boy—which prompted an anti-Mandel op-ed by his own cousin by marriage in a Jewish daily.
Despite all the money on his side, it seems that in their guts, Ohio voters just don’t like Mandel very much. In a poll for Ohio’s eight largest newspapers that came out this week, independent voters said they favored Brown over Mandel by a margin of 16 points; of those who identified as Mandel supporters, 34 percent said they would vote for him but had reservations about doing so.
Anti-Brown sentiment and its accompanying money from national interest groups stems from his record as one of the more liberal voices in the Senate, but Brown has been able to stave off the attacks because of his skillful harnessing of Ohio-style working-class populism. It’s a brand that is proving successful for Ohio Democrats in general. If Brown’s 2006 election, when he unseated Republican Senator Mike DeWine, was a snowflake, the successful 2011 effort to defeat Senate Bill Five, which would have outlawed collective bargaining rights for public unions, was a snowball of grassroots, middle-class support that Democrats had been seeking in the state for a long time.
Brown’s liberal bona fides are unimpeachable, but his success has largely ridden on his ability to personify Ohio’s working class. He’s avoided the “just tofu and entitlements for me, thanks,” stigma of other Senate liberals partially because of his relentless push for American manufacturing and his anti-NAFTA rhetoric, but also because he looks and sounds and acts like the kind of guy who will tell you to your face that you’re up crap creek in a leaky canoe. As the Columbus Dispatch put it in its endorsement of Brown, “While the incumbent is far more liberal than the state he represents and has supported policies of President Barack Obama that have made this the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression, Brown has been an accessible and tireless advocate for Ohio, including central Ohio.” The same paper, it should be noted, endorsed Romney for president.
Much of Brown’s advantage has to do not just with his opponent’s inexperience and slickness, but with the impact of the auto bailout on Ohio. It’s a concretely positive economic outcome from the last four years—which have largely dealt in doom and gloom—that both the senator and President Obama have based their campaigns in Ohio upon. The two Democrats are playing especially to the labor base here, hoping that their message of middle-class progress—tangible in a state whose unemployment rate has dropped from 10.5 percent in 2010 to 7.3 percent today—will pay dividends come Election Day.
Back at the Teamsters rally on a nippy Saturday morning in early October, Brown, Velcro shoes and all, appears alongside a number of other local Democratic and labor movement glitterati. It’s a get-out-the-vote rally at the Teamsters Joint Council 436 on Sweet Valley Drive—a forlorn-looking industrial area that in no way lives up to its name—in Valley View, Ohio, a small suburb of Cleveland. The outdoor rally, which has attracted a critical mass of middle-aged men in Teamsters-logoed leather jackets and wrap-around sunglasses, is casual and participatory. The crowd sings a song to Congresswoman Betty Sutton when they find out it’s her anniversary; a sugary smell wafts from the reams of doughnuts arranged in neat rows inside the union hall where men hover over them; and the parking lot outside is filled with Chevys and Fords and bumper stickers that read, “Hitler hated unions also!”
It’s the kind of event where you could light up a cigar and you wouldn’t get a dirty look. And people do. It’s the kind of rally where you would expect Jimmy Hoffa to show up. And he does—James Hoffa Jr., current General President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. In fact, he’s the warm-up act for Brown, taking the stage to chants of “Hoffa! Hoffa!” Hoffa hammers home a message about the importance of getting union families to the polls to vote for Brown and the president, then digs into the Republican presidential candidate’s infamous 47 percent remarks. “Anybody here think you’re a victim?” he shouts to resounding applause. “I see a bunch of strong Americans ready to stand up and kick Mitt Romney’s ass.”
Brown strides onto the stage to deliver a stump speech that, though undoubtedly focused-grouped out the wazoo, manages to ring with authenticity when spoken in his trademark rasp, which has been oft-remarked-upon but is not an uncommon vocal growl in this neck of the woods. In a kind of Rust Belt elegy, he speaks about the positive effects of auto bailout on the state.
“The Chevy Cruze is in many ways the story of Ohio,” Brown begins. “The engine is made in Defiance, Ohio, the transmission comes out of Toledo, Ohio. The airbag components come out of Brunswick, Ohio; the steel comes out of Cleveland, Ohio; the aluminum comes out of Alcoa in Cleveland; some of the other steel comes out of Middletown, Ohio; the sound system comes from Springboro, Ohio; the seats come from Warren, Ohio; the stamping is done in Parma, Ohio, and 4,500 workers in Youngstown, Ohio, make the Chevy Cruze.” The crowd cheers wildly.
After the rally, hustling from the stage to another event, Brown maintains that heading into the final days of the campaign, he wasn’t anxious about the outcome. “I’m not worried, I’m just concerned with the money they’re spending,” he says.
Partially, this concern is for the flurry of ad buys that have been made in the final stretch of the campaign—Republicans’ last hope to sway voters away from their liberal senator. They’ve included spots by Crossroads GPS that say Brown voted to raise his pay six times while in office, and others that emphasize what the group says is Brown’s record of 95 percent adherence to the Obama agenda, calling particular attention to his support of the Affordable Care Act. But most people in the state don’t see Brown as a ‘Washington liberal’; he’s simply the kind of Ohio Democrat who’s been newly ascendant in recent years—the kind who fights to fend off corporate interests that helped create a sky-high unemployment rate and then tried to take away organizing rights from average people.
The last-minute millions aren’t likely to boost Josh Mandel into the Senate. Ohio Democrats can, at least in this race, rest relatively easy over the final five days. But the influx of cash into the state by corporate interests is a longer-term concern; it has them already thinking about the state’s next big battle—the gubernatorial election in 2014. John Kasich, the current Republican governor, is a former Lehman Brothers executive, and he led the charge last year to take away the collective bargaining rights of public unions—a move that proved unpopular with voters of both parties.
Brown’s backers hope that his reelection to the Senate will build on the snowball effect of Ohio’s resurgent left-wing populism—and point the way for other Democratic candidates to come. His success would mean proof that you can be more liberal than your state and still win—as long as you’re the kind of liberal who actually fights for the regular guys. It doesn’t hurt if you look and talk like one, either.