By Dan Sewell, Associated Press
OXFORD, Ohio (AP) — Ohio Democrats are hoping one of their winningest politicians ever can help halt statewide Republican domination, pitting Sen. Sherrod Brown’s popularity against Donald Trump’s after the impressive 2016 presidential-race victory raised questions about the future of the Buckeye State’s traditional role as a bellwether.
Brown, who won his first Ohio legislative election in 1974, is expected to capture a third term by a substantial margin over Trump-backed GOP Rep. Jim Renacci. The governor’s race is considered a toss-up, other statewide races are competitive, and Democrats are within range to flip a House seat or two. Republicans swept statewide offices in 2014 and 2016, and Trump’s 8-point win over Democrat Hillary Clinton was the biggest presidential margin in Ohio since 1988.
Democrats know that in a midterm election, which tends to favor the out-of-power party, and with an open governorship because Republican incumbent John Kasich is term-limited, this is their best opportunity in years to turn that tide.
Brown has been campaigning in the final week for other Democrats on the ballot and has made fundraising appeals for Democratic governor nominee Richard Cordray. He is transferring $300,000 from a Brown-led fundraising committee to help other Democrats. He has raised $2 million for Ohio Democrats in the current two-year election cycle, while raising more than $27 million for his own campaign.
“I think people want change,” Brown said in an AP interview before his third Senate debate, at Miami University. “I think people see corruption in Columbus, and the rich getting tax cuts. I think that’s going to affect voters up and down the ticket.”
Brown said he wants Cordray, a former federal consumer watchdog, as “my partner” in standing up to Wall Street.
Brown planned to join former Vice President Joe Biden, Cordray and other Democratic candidates Saturday in the Cleveland area. Meanwhile, Trump will lead a rally for Republicans in Cleveland on Monday, the day before the election.
Trump is not on this year’s ballot but is very much on the minds of voters on both sides.
Even in the same house.
“I’m hoping that the Democrats are motivated to get out there and vote,” said Sally Schott, executive director of a nonprofit organization. The suburban Cincinnati woman, 58, is alarmed at “how uncivil things are right now.”
Her husband, Tom, 62 and retired from a career in print communication sales, said he expects Republicans will turn out to express their support for Trump, as he will.
“I think he’s done real well. The economy’s doing well; I think the world’s in a better place,” Schott said. “I’m happy.”
Another Republican sweep on the heels of Trump’s decisive 2016 victory might move the state off a 2020 Democratic presidential nominee’s must-win list, said Kyle Kondik, who wrote 2016’s “The Bellwether.” Kondik, at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, studied the state’s record of picking the presidential winner in all but two elections since the 19th century.
“Given how Trump ran pretty significantly ahead of his national margin in Ohio, I wonder if that will scare off Democratic presidential investment,” Kondik said.
But Kondik agreed that Brown could lift Democrats in tight races such as the governor’s race between Cordray and Attorney General Mike DeWine, a former senator unseated by Brown in 2006 who has been winning elections nearly as long as Brown has.
Brown said he couldn’t predict whether he will have any coattails.
“You guys get to do that,” he replied.
The gravelly voiced senator speaks blue-collar language and has populist appeal. He has praised Trump moves to toughen trade deals and use tariffs.
“Sherrod Brown is the most difficult Democrat in Ohio to beat,” said Gary Cates, a former longtime Republican state legislator in southwest Ohio. “He’s a got a pretty good brand that represents a broad cross-section of people.”
Brown has also been a state legislator, secretary of state, and congressman, winning 15 of his 16 elections.
A Brown campaign ad had factory workers praising Brown, 65, while noting he has been described as “disheveled,” ”rumpled” and “wrinkled.”
“Sherrod Brown is just exactly what you see,” said Michele Fisher, 61, a small-business woman in suburban Cincinnati. “He will listen. He’s there to help people.”
In an Oct. 12 rally in the southwest Ohio community of Lebanon, Trump urged support for Renacci, a fourth-term congressman who decided to challenge Brown after getting White House encouragement. Trump took note of Brown’s support of him on tougher trade.
“In fact, I just want to think, is he a Republican?” Trump said. But he added: “He didn’t vote for tax cuts. He doesn’t vote for us, folks. It might be nice for him to say he agrees with my economic policy when he’s never going to vote for it.”
Besides the tax cuts, Brown has been sharply critical of Trump’s immigration policies and has called on Renacci to join him in urging Trump to show leadership in trying to unite the country.
Before the rally on a rainy Friday evening in a Warren County Fairgrounds arena, Renacci said in an interview that Brown’s lead isn’t as big as widely reported, and that “if we get turnout, he loses.”
Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” blared on the arena speakers as Renacci spoke. Recent polls have given Brown a double-digit percentage-point lead. Renacci blames Brown’s fundraising prowess on special interests.
Renacci has repeatedly said Brown’s liberal record is more like “a Hollywood liberal” than a typical Ohioan’s views. Renacci, 59, has recycled 1980s allegations of domestic abuse from Brown’s divorce, triggering a campaign ad by Brown’s ex-wife, who has remained a political supporter of Brown, saying Renacci “should be ashamed.”
Brown’s campaign followed with an ad for “Air Renacci,” satirizing the businessman’s campaign flights aboard a strip-club owner’s private plane.
Brown was vetted by Hillary Clinton’s campaign as a possible 2016 running mate, but he insists he has no strong interest in running for president in 2020.
Republicans including Cates say don’t underestimate the power of the guy not on the ballot.
“I’ve been really surprised by the level of Trump energy there still is in Butler County,” said Ann Becker, a West Chester Township trustee and veteran GOP activist. “(Trump) kind of galvanizes us.”
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