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Corporate Cash Streams Into Ohio to Unseat Senator Sherrod Brown

Ohio will be a battleground come November, but the big money groups are spending lavishly now in hopes of unseating the Senate's best economic populist.
 
 
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Everybody expects Ohio to be a battleground come November, with political attack ads on every channel and phones ringing off the hook with election-related robocalls. Even though it's only spring, corporate cash is already flooding into the state as big money looks to unseat one of the most progressive members of the Senate, Sherrod Brown.

“They see this race as important to getting a majority in the US Senate regardless of what happens in the presidential race,” Brian Rothenberg of ProgressOhio told AlterNet. “Ohio is a swing state in a couple of ways; one is the presidency but the other is the Senate.”

And Greg Sargent at the Washington Post noted recently, “In what may come as a surprise to many Democrats, the Ohio Senate race appears to be the target of more spending by GOP-aligned outside groups than the [Elizabeth] Warren contest or any other Senate race in the country.”

It's likely to come down to organized people versus big money in a state that boasts a fired-up progressive-labor movement that recently beat back GOP governor John Kasich's attack on workers' union rights. Grassroots groups in the Buckeye State are now skilled in running campaigns from the ground up, and Brown, unlike many of his fellow Democrats, has always been unequivocal about declaring which side he's on, winning his 2006 race through a kind of economic populism that many Dems seem uncomfortable emulating (and that prefigured the rise and popularity of Elizabeth Warren).

Brown vs. Mandel

Ohio voters, according to Rothenberg, “are not single-issue voters, they're looking at the overall package of how the person does, how they fight for you. Sherrod has a long history in this state.”

Ohioans have known for years what the rest of America figured out after the financial crisis in 2008: the economy isn't working for the majority of Americans. And Brown was ahead of the curve, campaigning on that issue back in '06, when he first won election to the Senate—with one of the largest margins of victory over an incumbent in history. The author of a book called Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy has Failed, Brown is also an outspoken advocate for women's reproductive rights and LGBT rights, linking these issues with attacks on workers in a way many Democrats (including his colleague from Ohio, Marcy Kaptur) fail to do. He's worked to preserve manufacturing jobs in Ohio (and outside of the state), and sponsored such legislation as the Payroll Fraud Prevention Act and the Foreclosure Fraud and Homeowner Abuse Prevention Act of 2011. It's no wonder that he's a prime target for the Right.

“I think it's because the other side really understands how good for the 99 percent Sherrod Brown is. When he talks, he speaks to everybody. He speaks in a way that pulls everybody together in understanding what the issues really are. I think for the other side that's a pretty scary thing,” said Jason Perlman of the Ohio AFL-CIO.

His opponent, meanwhile, has most recently made headlines for hiring political allies (including young, inexperienced campaign staffers) for nicely paid positions in the his office—after accusing his opponent, incumbent Democrat Kevin Boyce, of the same thing. “Unlike the current officeholder, I will ensure that my staff is comprised of qualified financial professionals — rather than political cronies and friends — and that investment decisions are based on what is best for Ohioans,” he argued on the campaign trail. He's also been called out by state Democrats for disappearing on the job, spending more time fundraising for his Senate campaign than actually performing the duties of his office (Mandel was elected in 2010 as part of the GOP sweep of the state), and for taking a trip to the Bahamas to raise money from the payday lending industry. The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported:

Mandel is chairman of the state Board of Deposit, which decides how and where to deposit public money, but has missed every one of its meetings. Months after taking his seat as Ohio's treasurer in January 2011, he began traveling widely to raise money -- $5.8 million so far, records show -- for his Senate campaign. He is expected to have one of the deepest campaign chests of any Senate challenger this year.

Perlman noted, “At the end of the day, there's just news report after news report of how little time [Mandel] actually spends in the office he now holds. I think it will come back to haunt him.”

“Although Josh Mandel's been able to raise money, he hasn't been able to get a lot of traction,” Rothenberg said. Polls back him up—RealClearPolitics' average shows Brown with a nearly 8-point lead, and NBC News shows him up by 10.

“They're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars weekly already but the poll numbers aren't changing,” Rothenberg pointed out. “In a post-Citizens United world, these are businessmen, you gotta wonder whether they look at the polls.”

On the campaign trail, Mandel's made a name for himself trying to co-opt Brown's signature issue by blaming the senator for sending jobs to China—a hilarious claim on its face (even rated “pants on fire” by PolitiFact Ohio), but one that shows the power of economic issues to drive this campaign cycle. According to his Web site, Mandel “believes that creating a business-friendly, pro-growth environment to foster job creation in Ohio and America is the highest priority of his campaign. He strongly believes that common sense tax reforms, the repeal of government-run healthcare and the elimination of over burdensome agency regulations on small businesses are crucial to the recovery of our state and national economies.”

But after two years of GOP-driven policies that haven't done much for working people, Rothenberg said that Ohioans aren't buying Mandel's line. “Quite frankly, he's building a record of being a mini-Mitt and it's kind of the wrong year to be a flawed candidate and represent the 1 percent.”

Follow the Money

Ohioans have already been treated to anti-Brown, anti-Obama ads aplenty—and it's only the beginning of April. Perlman noted that a ton of money has already been spent, and they're expecting it to continue.

When Greg Sargent, with data provided by the Brown campaign, crunched the numbers, he found that nearly $5 million had been spent on ads attacking Brown alone. Those ads have been funded by groups like Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS ($800,000) and Concerned Women for America (an anti-abortion group). The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent heavily on the state, and new reporting from Lee Fang at Republic Report traces funding for the Chamber back to corporations such as Coca-Cola, eBay, AETNA and Chevron. The Sunlight Foundation also reports that the Club for Growth and FreedomWorks (another right-wing group funded by the Koch brothers) have ponied up for the race (the Club for Growth is the top donor to Mandel's campaign) and he's gotten $283,490 from investment banks.

Mandel, who is Jewish, has also been criticized by Jewish groups for taking a donation (a small one, of $1,000) from former House candidate Rich Iott, whose campaign against Marcy Kaptur in 2010 went down in flames when it was revealed that he had a hobby of dressing up like a Nazi.

With so much money pouring in so early in states like Ohio, local activists are starting to wonder if the ads will make a difference in the end. Many people no longer get their news from the TV, let alone from the big major networks, and services like TiVo allow viewers to skip over ads, while web viewing provides audiences an entirely different set of advertisements. Rothenberg wondered if people in swing states are bombarded with so many negative ads that they just end up tuning them out, or decide not to trust any of them.

“It'll be interesting to see how this goes for the rest of the year, but at some point you would think that if the numbers don't change, despite all the commercials they're running attacking a US Senator, that either their messaging is off, or they're going too negative too early, or they've got a bad candidate and people know Sherrod Brown,” Rothenberg said.

As Ohio, So America?

Corporate groups looking to unseat the Democratic president and take back the Senate for the GOP can get twice the bang for their buck spending money in Ohio, one of the biggest swing states (worth 18 electoral votes), attacking a progressive senator and the president at once.

On the other hand, Brown's popularity could benefit Obama, whose lukewarm record on jobs and coziness with the big banks, coupled with a hands-off attitude (recent populist rhetoric notwithstanding) to the labor struggles that rocked Ohio and Wisconsin in the last year, might face a struggle in the state—though at the moment he does have a nearly 6-point lead over Republican front-runner Romney in recent Ohio polls.

Conflict within the state Democratic party aside, Brown has been a steadfast ally of the working people who fought to preserve collective bargaining rights for public workers, and has been vocal in linking the attacks on union rights to the larger attacks on voting rights and women's rights nationwide, as well as to the Occupy movement.

“We progressives are a pretty divided lot sometimes,” Rothenberg acknowledged, but the fight to overturn SB5 “actually brought everybody together working as one, and because of that we have a strong movement.”

It would be poetic justice, to be sure, if the GOP's attacks on working people during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression resulted in a newly strong movement that helped Democrats hang on to the Senate and the presidency.

“Hopefully we'll prove that money can't buy every election.” Perlman said.

 

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.
 
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