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Sherrod Brown and the Wellstone factor

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If every swing state Democrat voted as consistently liberally as Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown has during his first five years in the chamber, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Patty Murray’s job in 2012 would be much, much harder. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), left, participates in a news conference on Capitol Hill to discuss the political challenges facing health reform efforts. (J. Scott Applewhite, AP)

And yet, instead of being a political pariah, the DSCC sees Brown as something of a model for other candidates — in large part because his personal popularity and populist style they think could inoculate him from a voting record that at first glance looks to be the ideological left of the Buckeye State.

To observers on both sides, Brown is a something of a modern-day Paul Wellstone, the famously liberal Minnesota senator who defied the odds by winning two terms in the Senate before his tragic death in a 2002 plane crash.

“It’s essentially the same thing, in many respects,” said Democratic strategist Jerry Austin, who has worked for both men. “The thing about Paul is, he was an everyman. You didn’t look at him and think anything but he’s a regular guy. Sherrod Brown is a Yale graduate, but he’s a normal guy … he’s frumpy.”

Appearances aside, like Wellstone, Brown has effectively positioned himself as a populist, a nice fit for these uncertain times. Whatever he’s doing, it’s worked — at least thus far.

The latest poll from Quinnipiac University showed 50 percent of Ohioans approved of Brown’s job performance compared to just 30 percent who disapproved. Historically, those numbers may not be great, but in today’s unpopular Congress, most incumbents would take them in a heartbeat.

To this point, Brown seems to have positioned himself better than the most vulnerable Democratic senators, including Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), all of whom are running in swing or Republican-leaning states.

Democrats are banking that the trio can also make up some ground because of their attractive personal styles that, party strategists argue, will allow them to create space between themselves and Obama, who is likely to lose in each of the three states.

But Brown is still perhaps the best example of working with what you’ve got, and even Republicans acknowledge it.

“Anytime you have a senator with that much distance between where they are and where voters are, there’s going to have to be other sources for their political strength,” said one Republican familiar with both Brown and Wellstone, who was granted anonymity to discuss the issue candidly. “That was true for Wellstone and to some degree ... there is some of that with Brown.”

Another Ohio Republican said Brown will not be out-hustled.

“Brown is way to the left of Ohio in general, but probably the only person who could outwork Brown is [Ohio GOP Sen. Rob] Portman,” said the source.

That said, the Wellstone parallel isn’t all good for Brown. Republicans note that the Minnesota senator didn’t do as well as then-President Bill Clinton when both were on the same ballot in 1996, and they add that he was something short of a shoo-in during the 2002 election, before his death.

They also point out that Minnesota is more left-leaning than Ohio, and that another Democratic senator thought to carry the Wellstone banner, Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold, was defeated for reelection last year.

Brown is in much the same position, and he certainly faces a tough reelection fight in a tough national political environment. He also has a very well-funded opponent in state Treasurer Josh Mandel, a rising GOP star who at 34 years old has raised nearly $4 million in his first two six months as a candidate.

Republicans hold out hope that Mandel will run a strong campaign and insist Brown’s record will catch up to him when the election begins in earnest, but even they admit that Brown has certain intangibles that other Democrats don’t.

Whether that translates to victory, we won’t know for 12 months. But the campaign will certainly be one worth watching because of Brown’s unusual style.

A style Democrats say will make ultimately make the difference for Brown.

“Sherrod is not trying to reinvent himself,” said former DSCC executive director J.B. Poersch. “And that’s important, because authenticity is going to be important to voters in this race.”

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