WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Sherrod Brown has survived a decade of statewide Democratic losses in Ohio by building a reputation as the rare person in his party who can still connect with the white working-class voters who have increasingly shifted to Republicans.
But as he heads into what could be a tough reelection campaign, Brown is facing a critical test in the aftermath of a train derailment in an eastern Ohio village. Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, argue the federal response shows Democrats have left such regions behind. Brown is under heightened pressure to prove them wrong.
In the early stages of what will be a fierce fight for control of Congress next year, the response to the train derailment in Ohio is emerging as an early barometer of whether Democrats can rebuild support in working-class communities. Brown has laid the blame for the disaster squarely on the corporation that operated the train that derailed, Norfolk Southern, and positioned himself as a fighter for places like East Palestine.
“It’s the kind of community that’s too often forgotten about or exploited by corporate America,” he told reporters this week. “My job is always to fight for the dignity of work, to fight for these workers, to fight for these communities, to make sure this never happens again. I’ll work with anyone to do that and to get these reforms passed.”
Brown has also made a pair of visits to East Palestine to meet with emergency workers and local residents. And this week, he followed with bipartisan legislative action to call on federal agencies to make long-term medical testing available to residents as well as proposing new federal safety regulations and financial consequences for train operators.
As the images of black, billowing smoke from the wreck and concerns of local residents morphed from a man-made disaster into a political battleground, there is a growing sense among lawmakers that locals don’t appreciate being used as pawns. A parade of political figures, social media influencers and TV producers have descended on the village of 5,000 residents in recent weeks.
Republican Rep. Bill Johnson, who represents the area, called on President Joe Biden to visit the community and said he would hold a field hearing of the House Subcommittee on Environment, Manufacturing and Critical Minerals in East Palestine. But he also urged caution: “Right now, the residents of that community want the workers to get that place cleaned up. The last thing they want is a circus of politicians coming there to get what they determine to be a photo op.”
Johnson and other House Republicans also expressed skepticism this week at any new regulations on train operators, even as Republicans for weeks had eagerly seized on the derailment as proof Democrats are not focused on policy at home.
Trump toured the village last week, both reprising his presidential role of providing disaster assistance and hitting the campaign trail. He handed out red “Make America Great Again” hats and slammed Biden for visiting Ukraine while forgoing Ohio. The state’s junior senator, Republican JD Vance, joined Trump’s tour, and conservative figures like Rudy Giuliani and Tulsi Gabbard soon followed.
The stretches of eastern Ohio industrial towns have tilted increasingly to Republicans over the last decade, contributing to Ohio’s shift from a presidential bellwether to a potential GOP stronghold. Republicans have cast it as a forgotten swath of the country — fertile ground for Trump’s grievance politics or Vance’s own rags-to-riches story, told in his 2016 memoir “Hillbilly Elegy” that made him a political star.
“They felt like they have been ignored, which is why it’s been very strong Trump country,” said former Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat who lost the Senate race to Vance last year and urged bipartisanship and an emphasis on economic policy over social issues during the campaign and as part of Vanderbilt University’s Project on Unity and American Democracy.
But the region is also familiar ground for Brown, who has become a mainstay in the state’s political constellation with a populist brand. Brown, who wears suits purchased from a union shop near his Cleveland home, has developed an old-school network of union support over a decades-long political career that began in the General Assembly.
David Pepper, a former chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, says Brown’s “secret sauce” is his willingness to take his made-in-America, union-strong messaging to places outside the cities. Brown doesn’t usually win the rural towns and suburbs, but he is able to dampen his losses there to defy the political headwinds.
“There’s a sense that’s built over decades of work,” Pepper said of Brown’s brand. “That guy is fighting against big corporations for the little guy.”
For Democrats, he’s proof they can still win in the Buckeye State. But as Republicans look to Ohio as both a must-win presidential state and a potential path to a Senate majority, Brown sits atop the list of seats that could be flipped.
At times, Brown has appeared uneasy in the aftermath of the East Palestine derailment. He said it was a “mistake” by the Biden administration not to quickly dispatch a high-level official to the scene. He repeatedly emphasized his bipartisan work with Vance, calling their rail safety bill “a signal” that he would work well with the Trump-aligned Republican. And he pointed out that he had made multiple trips to East Palestine in recent weeks.
But already, Brown’s political opponents have seized on a Fox News report that Brown also attended a fundraiser in California last week before stopping in northeast Ohio on his way back to Washington.
Matt Dolan, one Republican challenger, called Brown “the toast of Hollywood liberals” this week and has tried to tie him closely to Biden. Dolan, a state lawmaker who lost the GOP primary to Vance last year, is the only Republican to officially enter the 2024 race, though more are expected.
Brown was dismissive both of Trump’s visit and the report on the California fundraiser.
But Pepper said he would face a tough reelection that could hinge on whether Trump’s wing of the GOP remains dominant in its primary. Statewide, Republicans with a more muted, centrist style, such as Gov. Mike DeWine, have performed best by attracting moderate voters.
Pepper said, “The more Trumpy the candidate against Sherrod, the better Sherrod does.”
In last year’s Senate contest against Vance, Ryan complained that national Democrats never saw the race as winnable and spent funds elsewhere — another sign the party had moved on from places like Ohio. But as Democrats try to hold a razor-thin Senate majority next year, Sen. Gary Peters, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, vowed to help Brown.
”I will make sure that he has the resources to win in the end,” Peters said.