As you watch the election results come rolling in on Tuesday evening, keep an eye on Ohio. That’s where incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is facing off against Rep. James B. Renacci (R-Ohio) for Senate. Why is this important? Because Brown is defending his seat in a bellwether state that Donald Trump won by eight points in 2016 – and that Democrats will almost certainly need in order to win in the next presidential election in 2020.
Brown is unapologetically liberal on many issues but not always in the ways you’d expect. He’s often described as an economic populist. He rails against Wall Street and the banks. He assails the Republican tax cuts as a giveaway to the rich, and his stump speech makes frequent reference to the rampant corruption of the GOP. His rhetoric is heavy on the need to defend farmers and the working class.
Yet he has made common cause with President Trump on trade and China – all part of his effort, he says, to level the playing field for beleaguered Ohioans. He’s cool to the current Democratic enthusiasm for Medicare-for-all, calling it a “question for another day,” though he defends Obamacare and touts incremental progress toward a single-payer health-care system. And though he mostly holds to mainstream Democratic positions on immigration, he’s resisting calls for the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
If the Democrats really hope to pull off their much-touted blue wave in this election, it won’t depend on victories in Brooklyn or Berkeley. It will depend on such places as Ohio – and candidates such as Brown. And so far the signals are mixed – especially in those crucial Midwestern battleground states. Though national polls show the Democrats in the lead, it’s still unclear whether they’ve found a formula that will persuade Trump supporters to change their minds.
And many of Trump’s supporters belong to that fabled but elusive group known as the “white working class” – mostly non-college-educated men. Some Democrats, says Justin Gest, assistant professor of public policy at George Mason University, think that “the white working class is lost to the Democrats and will never come back.” Yet they’re mistaken, he says, if they think they can rely on demographic change to shift the balance of power in their favor. Whites will still be the majority in the United States for another 25 years or so — a period in which a lot can change. And in the meantime, Gest notes, they make up 61 percent of the population — and 71 percent of voters.
Many Democrats bridle at the notion that they must adapt in order to lure Trump voters back into the fold. Yet it’s worth remembering that Trump won his surprising 2016 victories in Midwestern swing states in part because disgruntled white Obama voters defected to him. Trump’s hardcore supporters, who remain loyal to him no matter what, are probably not persuadable. But there’s a large group that is more flexible: Gest calls them “the exasperated” — whites who feel marginalized by economic and cultural change and who voted for Trump largely as a gamble.
Democrats don’t have to indulge in racist pandering to reach these voters. What they do need is a clear and coherent policy on immigration – something the party signally lacks at the moment. As a result, they’ve effectively ceded the issue to Trump, who can successfully brand them as the bunch who favor open borders and the reckless elimination of ICE.
Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, points out that this disarray is entirely characteristic of the Democrats. The Republicans, she argues, are bound together by a “conservative orthodoxy” that helps them to maintain remarkable discipline on messaging. The Democrats, still intent on appeasing the myriad interest groups and demographics in their coalition, struggle to do the same. (Remember Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s tragicomic DNA test?)
The problem is compounded by the Democrats’ reluctance (or inability) to coordinate their pitch to voters – and, just as important, to lend it emotional resonance. “Republican messaging is ‘Obamacare will kill your grandmother,’ ” says Bitecofer. “Democratic messaging is ‘Obamacare will lower loss ratios by 0.5 points.’ ” The Democrats’ overly “cerebral” approach, she says, is a major barrier to making effective appeals to average voters, most of whom pay little attention to politics.
And that’s where Brown comes in. “He’s a great example of how to campaign on economics if you’re a Democrat,” Bitecofer says. “It’s the banks, the corporations, the elites. But he doesn’t overboard it like Bernie Sanders.”
If it works for Ohio, it could work for the rest of the United States. We’ll know more after Tuesday.