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Sherrod Brown May Prove Tough Target in 2012

Sherrod Brown May Prove Tough Target in 2012

By Erin McPike - February 24, 2011

Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, a self-described progressive, has had a target on his back since the day he ousted two-term Republican Sen. Mike DeWine by an eye-popping 12-point margin in 2006.

But as he gears up to run for a second term in 2012, even Republicans who thought he'd be easy to knock off after a single term are starting to suggest Brown is going to be tough to beat - despite the drubbing Ohio Democrats took in last year's midterms. According to both Republican strategists and the Democrats advising Brown, the reason Brown appears to be formidable is rooted in how he's conducted himself during his first term.

First, Brown's chief of staff, Mark Powden, spent 20 years working for former Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords, who was a longtime moderate Republican until he switched his affiliation to Independent and began caucusing with the Democrats in 2001. Powden served a stint as Jeffords's staff director when the then-Republican chaired the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in the 1990s, and he also later served Jeffords as his legislative director.

Brown tapped Powden to be a policy adviser when he took office in 2007 and promoted him to be chief of staff two years later. But while Brown's choice of a longtime staffer for a Senate Republican might surprise a few Ohioans who know Brown's political stripes well, Powden says Brown is not a senator who will compromise his political convictions.

"He's got his own mind. The only area where I've tried to moderate him is the Boston Red Sox," Powden joked in an interview. Brown's team in Major League Baseball remains the Cleveland Indians.

The Ohio Democrat came out against cap-and-trade when it passed the House of Representatives in 2009 because he reasoned that its provisions would be too hard on manufacturing in the Buckeye State. But on most other issues, Brown has shown himself to be among the most liberal lawmakers in the upper chamber, which puts him to the left of the electorate in Ohio. As he prepares to face voters next fall, however, don't expect him to start siding with Republicans on key votes; he recently doubled down on his support of the new health care law.

When Brown decided to run for the Senate in 2006, he promised that he would stay true to the identity he developed in his 14 years as a congressman in the northeast corner of Ohio, which tilts to the left.

National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brian Walsh acknowledged that Brown is a dogged campaigner who is committed to his beliefs, but he drew a comparison between Brown and former Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold to suggest that Brown is beatable next year.

"I would remind of another unapologetic liberal who opened his campaign offices very early last cycle, and that would be Russ Feingold," Walsh said. "So I think anyone doubting Republican chances in Ohio this cycle should be cautioned about recent political history."

Of course, despite the recent two-term tenures of Republicans DeWine and former Sen. George Voinovich, the Buckeye State is perhaps more well known for its support of two iconic Democratic senators: John Glenn and Howard Metzenbaum.

Metzenbaum held his seat for three terms after a brief, earlier stint in the Senate and a few other failed attempts, including a Democratic primary against Glenn. Glenn served in the Senate for four terms, from 1974 thorugh 1998.

Though still facing his first reelection battle, Brown has been mentioned as an up-and-coming Senate icon in his own right.

As Powden explained, "He's incredibly enthusiastic about his job. He thinks the task of presiding is an incredible honor." He added, "His mantra is: ‘How do you leave this place better than you found it.'"

One issue area Brown has had to learn since coming to the Senate is agriculture, and he's already expanded his portfolio on the issue. After traveling the state extensively, Brown added six provisions to the 2008 Farm Bill reauthorization, including the Average Crop Revenue Election program, which helped to boost the state's farmers.

And aside from Powden, the bulk of Brown's senior staff consists of native Ohioans. A Brown spokeswoman said about 80 percent of the total staff comes from the state.

One of those is Jack Dover, who serves Brown as economic development director after having been his chief of staff in the House. Dover spends most of his time in Ohio to facilitate partnerships that promote economic development.

Dover's influence and Brown's economic development focus have won the senator plaudits from the business community in Ohio, including from business leaders like Alex Fischer, the president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership. The organization, which formed in 2002, is a coalition of central Ohio's key business leaders.

Fischer said that while he did serve Tennessee as a Republican when he was deputy governor, he doesn't let partisanship seep into his business efforts in Ohio. Nevertheless, the former GOP politician and current Ohio business leader did praise Brown in a phone interview with RealClearPolitics on Wednesday even though he said he can't support his campaign.

"I've been very complimentary of the senator's approach to engaging with the business community on the topic of economic development," Fischer said. "He's actively engaged on a very regular basis on economic issues in our community, and although there are many issues that many members of our business community don't agree with him on, economic development is one that I believe should be bipartisan. Senator Brown has done an outstanding job of engaging on those issues."

That praise is coming straight from Columbus, Ohio's capital, where many of Brown's potential GOP opponents work. And so far, most of them have been a bit skittish about taking on the incumbent.

Republicans point out that it's too early in the cycle to suggest that the lack of an announced GOP challenger could cause the party problems in its efforts to oust Brown, but Republican Rob Portman had announced his Senate candidacy by mid-January two years ago in the previous cycle.

At the time, Democrats had a more difficult time finding a challenger, and there were about four interested in candidates. Ohio Republicans are facing a similar situation now, as DeWine, who is currently attorney general, and Secretary of State Jon Husted have both said they're not interested in the race. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan told RealClearPolitics he is "leaning heavily against" the race. Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor, who was just elected last fall to her current position, appears most interested, but some GOP consultants familiar with her wonder about her commitment to a long and tough campaign. There's also newly-elected Treasurer Josh Mandel, who Republican insiders say is very ambitious. Still, Mandel is only 33 and some consultants think family obligations may keep him out of the race this cycle.

Both parties are anxiously awaiting to see how the redistricting process could shake up the field, but for now, Brown is still without a challenger.

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at emcpike@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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