Top Progressive Senator Shares What It's Like to Fight Against $15 Million Deluge in Right-Wing Election Money

Election '16

“To me all of this is about, whose side are you on?" Senator Sherrod Brown told AlterNet. It's something he says a lot, whether it's about foreclosures or his home state of Ohio's recent attacks on public workers. In the senator's raspy voice it carries echoes of the old labor song, “Which Side Are You On?”

But when he's talking about the $15 million (and counting) that's been spent against him so far this election year, it carries new weight. It doesn't pay, after all, to be on the side of the workers. The big money's on the side of the bankers, the businessmen who've outsourced Ohio jobs and want to keep doing so, the union-busters who tried (and failed) to take away public employees' right to collective bargaining. It's on the side of 34-year-old Ohio State Treasurer Josh Mandel, the Republican who wants to take Brown's job from him after serving less than two years in statewide office.

Brown's race has become emblematic of post-Citizens United politics, with articles aplenty about the money the Right has spent to try to knock him out of his spot. Republicans want to retake the Senate, dreaming of a Congress where they can actually push anti-abortion legislation and one of the 33 attempts at repealing Obamacare all the way to the president's desk. And since Ohio is a swing state, outsider issue ads do double duty, whacking Obama and Brown at once and hoping to elect a president who will sign those bills into law.

But this race is about more than just right-wing money being indiscriminately poured into Senate races. It's a test of Brown's politics, to see whether the populist who won his seat in 2006 with one of the largest margins of victory over an incumbent in Ohio history can repeat that feat in a presidential election year, with all eyes on his state. The economy's still in shambles and the senator's been proven right on several issues (including free trade, his particular area of expertise), but with outside cash pouring in and an opponent who doesn't mind lying, will his record matter?

Which Side Are You On?

“This is a strong progressive leader who is demonstrating to the rest of the country that you can be a fighter for all Ohioans and have a strong progressive voice. It's populist and that scares them,” Brian Rothenberg of ProgressOhio told AlterNet.

A quick perusal of Brown's official YouTube page will show you what Rothenberg is talking about; you can watch his Senate floor speech about ending too-big-to-fail banks, calling out Wall Street's fraud and arguing not just for keeping Dodd-Frank but for strengthening regulations. You can hear the senator argue against outsourcing jobs, noting that production overseas not only has cheaper labor costs but also fewer environmental regulations--and mentioning his suit made in Cleveland by union workers. “I think he's been the strongest advocate for working people in the Senate,” Michael Podhorzer, political director for the AFL-CIO, told AlterNet.

Economic populism just hasn't been something Democrats have been very good at in recent years; the “Third Way” of the Clinton era opened the floodgates to Wall Street money and many Dems were unprepared when the economic crisis forced them to deal with the anger from their constituents as big banks were bailed out and jobs disappeared. But Sherrod Brown has been talking that talk—and backing it up with real policy proposals—since before Democrats realized it mattered. John Nichols noted back in 2006 that Brown was willing to take on his own party—not by swinging right to side with the Republicans or parrot their deficit fearmongering like the Blue Dogs, but by fighting Clinton's trade policies and calling for an investment in jobs at home. That message resonates doubly now.

In conversation with AlterNet, Brown also discussed student debt, “one of the significant crises of our time,” calling for more investment in Pell Grants and state funding for public universities, and said that the administration needed to be more aggressive in dealing with foreclosures. He's introduced the Foreclosure Fraud and Homeowner Abuse Prevention Act of 2011, which would have, among other things, banned “dual tracking” homeowners who've applied for mortgage modifications into foreclosure.

“We've seen a government that's betrayed--government and large business interests--betrayed what I think American values are,” Brown told AlterNet. “Companies that move offshore, shut down, lobby for trade agreements and tax law that provide incentives to move offshore, saying they have to do it to compete. I think not enough Democrats are willing to stand up and point that out and fight to change it.”

Standing up and fighting got Brown a coveted endorsement this year from the Ohio Fraternal Order of Police. Their support came after Republican Governor John Kasich introduced Senate Bill 5, which would have stripped collective bargaining rights from all public employees in the state—outdoing even Scott Walker by including police and firefighters in the bill. “We had experienced a lot with [Brown] during the Senate Bill 5 fight, he was very good, very vocal against it,” Mike Weinman of the Fraternal Order of Police told AlterNet. “That really endeared him to our membership, that was a very tough fight for us, something we were never used to doing.”

“It's clear it was an attack on the middle class. Voters saw it that way,” Brown said. “That's why it wasn't public sector unions against the world; it was public sector, private sector, people in their churches, they came together. They saw this as an assault on the middle class and our standard of living.”

Weinman explained that the FOP's endorsement vote works from the bottom up, that the 26,000-strong membership made the decision to support Brown. Though Ohio defeated Senate Bill 5 at the polls convincingly, FOP members and other union members remain concerned about the push for so-called “right-to-work” legislation in Ohio and nationally. At their state conference, he noted, “I think there were only three votes against, maybe. It was pretty overwhelming, the support for Senator Brown.”

Senate Bill 5 wasn't the only place Republicans overreached in Ohio recently. Attacks on abortion rights—including the ridiculous scene of a fetus “testifying” in front of the state legislature—have women in the state feeling angry over the way they've been treated. Jill Miller Zimon, a member of the city council of Pepper Pike, a Cleveland suburb, said women she talks to are frustrated. “I think Ohio women really demand a lot of authenticity, they're incredibly good at smelling out who's not authentic,” she said. “I think the swing states have a higher threshold for what we expect in terms of authenticity.”

Though there's been plenty of fearmongering that Brown is too socially liberal for Ohio, the senator is explicit about the link between anti-choice and anti-labor policies. “What they did in Ohio was emblematic of the attack on the middle class, going after women's rights after winning an election on jobs. They're attacking women's rights, voter rights and worker's rights.”

“He doesn't just talk that talk. This is not just to get the women's vote,” Miller Zimon said. “These things come up to him intuitively. Why wouldn't women care about jobs and economics just as much as men, except we have additional issues? The economy is in fact so much harder on women and he absolutely gets that.”

Cecile Richards and the Planned Parenthood bus have been campaigning for the senator in Ohio, and Zimon pointed out that he maintains a commanding lead among women voters in poll after poll. 

Ohio, Rothenberg noted, likes a fighter—the state supported homegrown populist Howard Metzenbaum even while voting for Ronald Reagan. “There's a history of that in Ohio and it fits Ohio's character,” he says. “People aren't ideologically perfect; you make a decision that the candidate might not agree with you 100 percent of the time but they are going to fight for you.”

Big Money, Big Problems

After hearing all this, it's easy to agree with Sherrod Brown when he says that his race wouldn't be a race at all without the millions in outside spending. In addition to his solid support within the state, there's the matter of his evasive opponent, Josh Mandel, who seems to have spent his time as Treasurer doing little besides campaigning for the Senate. Called a “Cartoon Candidate” by the Akron Beacon Journal, Mandel's recent greatest hits include calling the auto bailout “un-American,” skipping work to fly to the Bahamas for a fundraiser with the payday lending industry, and joining Mitt Romney for an event purportedly in support of the coal industry—where coal miners were forced to attend, unpaid, to provide a photo-op for the Republicans.

Mandel's campaign, like Romney's, seems perfectly comfortable with flat-out lies, earning a “Pants on Fire Crown” from fact-checker Politifact Ohio. “In Ohio we have a candidate whose lack of maturity and lack of respect for the process is appalling,” Rothenberg said. “A lot of people are complaining that it's the nameless faceless money that is saying and doing these things. You see these Senate candidates that actually are distancing themselves from those rough commercials, but in the case of Josh Mandel he's leading the charge.”

For Weinman and the Fraternal Order of Police, Mandel's lack of respect for the process showed when he refused to even fill out their endorsement questionnaire. “He just didn't take the process seriously at all. He kept telling us his polling showed that he was going to get six out of ten police votes regardless of the endorsement. It was these things that didn't really endear himself to the people,” Weinman said. He noted that they did go out of their way to accommodate Mandel because their organization does lean conservative—most of them are registered Independent voters, but this was their first endorsement for a Democrat for Senate since 1988.

Yet the polls have tightened in Ohio; a recent one shows the race a toss-up. It's not Mandel's personal fundraising—Brown has raised $15 million to Mandel's $9 million—but the outside spending. “Before Citizens United, this race would never have been competitive at all,” Podhorzer argued.

Sherrod Brown's been the number-one target of super PACs and is likely to remain so—in fact, Miller Zimon pointed out, with Todd Akin's recent comments about rape and abortion making a win for Democrat Claire McCaskill in Missouri more likely, the outside groups (including Karl Rove's) that have said they'll stop funding Akin might put that money into Ohio instead. The groups funding Mandel or opposing Brown will be familiar by now: FreedomWorks, Club for Growth, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and more.

As for the ads themselves, they range from attacks on Brown for voting with Obama “95 percent of the time” (the horror!) to much more insidious arguments. “The ones that really get me are the ones that are just totally disingenuous,” Rothenberg said. One that bothered him in particular attempted to attack the senator on trade—an issue he literally wrote the book about. 

Do all these ads really make a difference? Rothenberg has his doubts. “Because we're a swing state and all of the television commercials started so early, it's hard to be anywhere in Ohio where somebody doesn't have an opinion one way or another,” he says. “I think that it's going to come down to voter turnout at this point.”

Yet on that level too, the fight isn't quite fair. As Brown noted, the attacks on voters' rights have been ongoing around the country, but in Ohio, opposition to early voting and a battle over provisional ballots have targeted Democratic counties and voters of color. (A good overview of the struggle over the vote in Ohio is available here.)

“Clearly they're trying to make it unfair,” Rothenberg said. “That's part of what we have to deal with so at some point you just deal with the reality you're given and push forward and try to have turnout.”

Brown will have to try and counter organized money with organized people. Podhorzer noted that labor is supporting Brown as much as anyone, if not more. “We have workers talking to each other in the worksite, going out to their neighborhoods, calling people on the phone, to make sure that workers remember how good a friend he's been.”

While the AFL-CIO has its own super PAC now, the idea that the unlimited, unaccountable money is equivalent on both sides is simply laughable. Podhorzer said, “It's like a billionaire and a homeless person competing to buy a yacht.”

And so as the election gets closer, we'll be watching Ohio—not just to see who wins the presidential race or who controls the Senate, but to see if you really can buy an election. If Sherrod Brown wins despite the amount of money spent to defeat him, Rothenberg said, “It means that you can't buy and own government, that you can be a strong populist and progressive and you can fight and win.”

In other words, it means that Democrats can counter corporate cash not by swinging right and kowtowing to banks to try to get their slice of the big money, but by arguing for principles, standing up for working people and struggling students, defending women's rights to their own bodies, and doing politics the old-fashioned way, door to door, person to person.

Miller Zimon is hopeful. “It feels like there is just an enormous amount of activity on the ground. I am quite confident Sherrod will pull out the win but what the other side is doing is just obscene.”

For Sherrod Brown himself, that's the only answer. “We fight back by out-organizing them and speaking with a clear message.” It's what got him to the Senate, and he's betting it'll keep him there.  

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