Democratic Senate Loss in Ohio Raises Bar for Sherrod Brown in 2024

Both John Fetterman of Pennsylvania and Tim Ryan of Ohio sought Senate seats this year as Democrats appealing to the working class.

But the fates of Mr. Fetterman, now senator-elect, and Mr. Ryan, who decisively lost, illustrate how their two states, once politically conjoined, have taken dramatically divergent paths. While Pennsylvania is a battleground that in a good Democratic year votes blue, Ohio has all but fallen from the list of competitive states.

That is a troubling sign for Democrats who in two years must protect their narrow control of the Senate on a highly unfavorable map. In 2024, Democrats will defend Senate seats in red states that include Montana, West Virginia and Ohio.

With the victory of J.D. Vance over Mr. Ryan fresh in mind — a Republican triumph in broadly disappointing midterms for the party — Ohio Republicans this week were sharpening knives in anticipation of taking on Senator Sherrod Brown, the Democrat whose long-term credibility with blue-collar voters was a template for Mr. Ryan.

At the same time, some Republicans cautioned that Mr. Brown would be a more formidable opponent. One strategist, Jai Chabria, who was Mr. Vance’s chief campaign adviser, called Mr. Ryan “the zero-calorie Sherrod Brown.”

Mr. Brown said last week that he planned to seek a fourth term in 2024, though his comments were short of an announcement. If he follows through, his survival as a gruff-voiced champion of what he calls “the dignity of work” will be acutely tested.

A supporter of Mr. Ryan monitors returns at the campaign’s election night party.Credit…Brian Kaiser for The New York Times
A campaign event for Mr. Ryan in Dayton, Ohio.Credit…Brian Kaiser for The New York Times

“The state dynamics have changed,” said Bob Paduchik, the chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, at a postelection autopsy before the state Chamber of Commerce. “The Ohio Republican Party is a working-class, conservative party. Sherrod has portrayed himself as a working-class Democrat, and there just aren’t many of those left around in Ohio.”

Mr. Brown, through a spokesman, declined to comment. His top political adviser, Justin Barasky, who also worked on Mr. Ryan’s race, acknowledged that “the national Democratic Party brand has suffered significantly with working-class voters,” including Black and Hispanic voters. But Mr. Barasky said that Ohio had not slipped entirely from Democrats’ grasp, like some other formerly competitive Midwest states.

“Ohio is not going the way of Missouri and Iowa, that’s why we have a Democratic senator, and they don’t,” he said. “But we’re not Pennsylvania anymore, and we’re not Wisconsin and we’re not Michigan.”

The Aftermath of the 2022 Midterm Elections

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A moment of reflection. In the aftermath of the midterms, Democrats and Republicans face key questions about the future of their parties. With the House and Senate now decided, here’s where things stand:

Biden’s tough choice. President Biden, who had the best midterms of any president in 20 years as Democrats maintained a narrow hold on the Senate, feels buoyant after the results. But as he nears his 80th birthday, he confronts a decision on whether to run again.

Is Trump’s grip loosening? Ignoring Republicans’ concerns that he was to blame for the party’s weak midterms showing, Donald J. Trump announced his third bid for the presidency. But some of his staunchest allies are already inching away from him.

G.O.P leaders face dissent. After a poor midterms performance, Representative Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell faced threats to their power from an emboldened right flank. Will the divisions in the party’s ranks make the G.O.P.-controlled House an unmanageable mess?

A new era for House Democrats. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to serve in the post and the face of House Democrats for two decades, will not pursue a leadership post in the next Congress. A trio of new leaders is poised to take over their caucus’s top ranks.

Divided government. What does a Republican-controlled House and a Democratic-run Senate mean for the next two years? Most likely a return to the gridlock and brinkmanship that have defined a divided federal government in recent years.

“Yes, Tim lost, and the governor’s race was a blowout, so it’s very simple to say, ‘Oh, man, Sherrod is in big trouble,’” he added. Yet, a detailed look at the results, he said, “leads you to believe Sherrod is in a relatively strong position.” He cited Mr. Ryan’s higher share of votes in most counties that Joseph R. Biden Jr. won in 2020, among other factors.

Once a battleground like those northern industrial neighbors, Ohio voted twice for former President Barack Obama before swinging hard to former President Donald J. Trump, who appealed to the cultural and economic grievances of white voters without college degrees.

This year, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania all delivered strong results for Democrats. The party won the governorship of all three states, and Mr. Fetterman won his Senate race. Ohio’s Democratic candidate for governor, Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, lost by 25 percentage points to the Republican incumbent, Gov. Mike DeWine, who was not penalized for signing one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans.

Mr. Ryan, left, with Mr. Vance during their second debate in Youngstown, Ohio.Credit…Gaelen Morse for The New York Times

The contrast between Pennsylvania and Ohio seems especially jarring because both states held Senate races for open seats of retiring Republicans. While Mr. Fetterman won by 4.5 points — one of Democrats’ biggest midterm victories — Mr. Ryan, with a similar political persona, lost by 6.5 points.

The grandson of a steelworker, Mr. Ryan ran on an anti-China, pro-union message, telling voters if they wanted a culture war, “I’m not your guy.” Both he and Mr. Fetterman, who touted his years as mayor of a hard-hit steel town outside Pittsburgh, adopted the hooded sweatshirt as a proletarian uniform.

Northeast Ohio, which Mr. Ryan has represented in Congress for 20 years, was once the most Democratic area of the state, built on the power of organized labor when heavy industry dominated the economy. But Northeast Ohio has moved more to the right than any part of the state.

Mahoning County, which includes Youngstown in Mr. Ryan’s district, not only voted for Mr. Vance, but also gave him a larger share of votes than what the county cast for Mr. Trump in 2020. It was the first time in nearly 50 years a Republican presidential candidate won Mahoning County.

The swing away from Democrats in Northeast Ohio gives some party strategists agita about Mr. Brown’s race.

“Youngstown should be the heart and soul of the Democratic brand — it’s not,” said Irene Lin, a Democratic strategist in Ohio. “Can Sherrod survive? I’m not sure.”

A Ryan campaign stop at a factory in Chillicothe, Ohio.Credit…Brian Kaiser for The New York Times
A supporter of Mr. Ryan outside the second debate against Mr. Vance in Youngstown, Ohio.Credit…Gaelen Morse for The New York Times

Ohio and Pennsylvania have many demographic similarities, including nearly identical percentages of Black and white residents and similar levels of educational attainment, according to the census.

But there are also differences that tilt the tables toward the G.O.P. in Ohio. The population of Pennsylvania’s major cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, which lean heavily Democratic, outnumbers Ohio’s similarly Democratic-leaning big cities, Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati.

Ohio has nothing comparable to the heavily populated suburban band outside Philadelphia, which has become strong Democratic terrain.

Democratic strategists argued that despite the demographic headwinds, Mr. Ryan outperformed expectations this year, improving by two points on Mr. Biden’s 2020 loss in Ohio. They also predicted Mr. Brown would be able to run a much more competitive race in 2024. He has a statewide brand and a history of defeating leading state Republicans in earlier Senate races, including Mr. DeWine in 2006 and Josh Mandel, a former state treasurer, in 2012.

Mr. Brown will also have an advantage that Mr. Ryan lacked: the all-but-certain support of millions of dollars from outside Democratic groups who want to protect the Ohio seat, after the same groups left Mr. Ryan on his own.

Democrats are hardly in full retreat in the state. In three races for the House of Representatives this year, the party’s candidates flipped a Cincinnati-based seat, held a Toledo-based district that Mr. Trump had carried and won the state’s most competitive race, an open seat in the Akron area.

To Republicans, Mr. Ryan lost because the reach-across-the-aisle persona he campaigned on — ducking the Democratic label and boasting of voting with Mr. Trump on trade — was belied by his overall record of support for Mr. Biden’s agenda and by some past statements that aligned with the left.

“The theory of our case was that he was a fraud, was pretending to be something he wasn’t,” said Mr. Chabria, Mr. Vance’s chief strategist.

He predicted there would be many well-funded Republicans drawn to the Senate primary, sensing an opportunity to flip a seat. “Sherrod Brown is ripe for the picking,” he said. “I think that there’s a huge opportunity.”

Senator Sherrod Brown, left, will have something Mr. Ryan did not: a strong statewide brand.Credit…Dustin Franz for The New York Times

Republicans in Ohio who are said to be exploring a run include Frank LaRose, the newly re-elected secretary of state; Mark Kvamme, a venture capitalist; and Matt Dolan, a co-owner of the Cleveland Guardians baseball team who finished third in this year’s G.O.P. Senate primary.

Scott Milburn, a Republican who was a top aide to former Gov. John Kasich of Ohio, said Mr. Vance’s seemingly comfortable win belied some weaknesses. Chiefly, his 6.5-point margin victory was far narrower than the double-digit victories of most other Republicans in statewide races this year.

Mr. Milburn said that if Republicans nominate a 2024 candidate with similar weaknesses — Mr. Vance was attacked as a carpetbagger and as an abortion hard-liner — Republicans will struggle against Mr. Brown, who has a demonstrated ability to connect with voters.

“Sherrod is an incredible retail politician,” Mr. Milburn said. “That guy can work a parade and make you think you’re the only one in it. I’ve run candidates in the same parades as him and seen it happen.”

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