Evaluating Sherrod Brown’s Path to Reelection

Senator Sherrod Brown has comfortably won three senate races and currently is the only Democratic statewide elected official in Ohio. His most recent reelection performance was impressive for a Trump-era Democrat in an increasingly-Republican state, but our 2018 WAR model suggests that it wasn’t particularly extraordinary. Brown overperformed by just 1.2 points relative to expectations, meaning our model would have expected a generic Democrat to have beaten a generic Republican by a similar margin.

Ohio’s 2018 Senate campaign dynamics explain much of Brown’s lopsided margin of victory. For one, the national environment clearly benefited Democrats, raising the floor in Ohio enough to enable him to win comfortably. The Senator also benefited from a weak opponent, Congressman Jim Renacci, whom he outspent significantly. Had the GOP run a stronger candidate for Senate, like then-Attorney General Mike DeWine, Republicans may have been able to pick up the seat.

“Down-ballot lag” also worked in Brown’s favor, and was crucial to his wins in traditionally Democratic, white working class counties in the Mahoning Valley, northeastern Ohio, and the lakefront — all of which had swung heavily towards Trump in 2016.

Those very same places got redder again in 2020, allowing Donald Trump to win Ohio despite losing nationally, ending the state’s bellwether status. For many, this was seen as the beginning of a period of Republican dominance in the state, putting Brown’s reelection chances in jeopardy.

Since 2022, though, things have gotten more complicated in Ohio and the nation writ large. The Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, returning the issue of abortion to the states, sparked outrage among the national electorate — which is overwhelmingly pro-choice — and contributed to the GOP’s underwhelming midterm performance. Democrat Tim Ryan even outperformed Biden across the state in Ohio’s 2022 Senate race.

The public perception of Republican stances on abortion rights and protecting democracy has also taken a nosedive in the last year. But red state abortion restrictions and Donald Trump’s repeated promotion of election denial conspiracy theories aren’t just unpopular with well-educated, high-propensity voters in the nation’s suburbs. The problem for the GOP runs deeper than that — even in Ohio. 

Nothing shows that more clearly than the Buckeye State’s double-digit rejection of Issue 1, a Republican-led effort to make it harder for Ohioans to amend their state constitution. The vote sent the GOP a clear message: voters do not like to see politicians limiting their democratic role — especially when crucial social issues like abortion rights are at stake.

Of course, an off-year referendum is not at all equivalent to how we would expect Ohio to vote in a Senate race occurring in a presidential year. We still believe Republicans are favored to win Ohio across the board next year, but the latest nationwide developments show that Brown’s chances of winning reelection may be higher than conventional wisdom suggests.

To contextualize Brown’s path to reelection in the current political environment, we created six regions composed of similarly-situated counties. We considered factors like population density, educational attainment, demographics, income, and voting patterns in the last few presidential elections when making our groups. Some hard choices had to be made in the process, like finding a place for Montgomery County (Dayton), but we believe that our regions still shed light on Ohio’s political geography and voting patterns during the last decade.

Let’s take a look at the characteristics of the regions we’ll be using to analyze Ohio in 2024:

  • Ohio’s three urban cores are Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Franklin (Columbus), and Hamilton (Cincinnati) counties. All three are heavily Democratic, have sizable minority populations, and are more educated than the state as a whole. Hamilton and Franklin continue to trend Democratic, while Cuyahoga stagnates due to population loss in inner-city Cleveland.
  • Ohio’s suburban counties are promising for Democrats; they are wealthy and well-educated compared to the rest of the state, and are trending Democratic at a faster pace. Any future winning coalition for Ohio Democrats will depend greatly on growth in these counties.
  • The exurban counties are more populated and educated than the counties in the state as a whole, but are less so than their suburban counterparts. Democrats have made some inroads in the exurbs, but they remain quite Republican. 
  • The counties running along the lakefront out to the Mahoning Valley form a historically Democratic band. This region is predominantly white working class and has historically been one of the most Democratic parts of the state, though Republicans have gained here as of late. This region is now the most competitive in Ohio. It is anchored by the Democratic cities of Toledo, Elyria, Akron, and Youngstown.
  • Appalachian Ohio includes most of the state’s southeastern rural and micropolitan counties. Democrats used to be competitive here due in part to high union affiliation and the presence of coal mining, but as with their neighbors in the northern part of the state, Republicans have made gigantic gains here during the Trump era.
  • Ohio’s Farm Belt contains the heavily Republican rural and micropolitan counties in western Ohio. Unlike Appalachian Ohio, most of this region has been Republican for decades. The region’s large German-American population started consistently voting for the GOP in the 1940 election. 

Aggregating by region, we used an average of county-level results of the 2018 and 2022 Senate races to calculate basic benchmarks for Brown’s upcoming reelection. Because Ohio’s last two Senate contests were decided by similar margins for opposite parties, averaging them provides a good baseline for a neutral or ‘tied’ race.

Brown will almost certainly not meet or exceed his 2018 performance in the less-educated, Republican trending regions of the state (the Lakefront, Appalachia, and the Farm Belt). We previously discussed the challenging fundamentals he faces in an analysis of the 6th congressional district, an Obama-Trump seat which contains many of Appalachian Ohio’s rural counties. 

Association with the GOP in the 6th, and in Appalachia more broadly, is becoming more entrenched based on analysis of partisan vote shares in primary elections. Lifelong Democrats who started voting for Republicans during the Trump era and have stopped voting in Democratic primaries won’t be reverting en masse any time soon. 

That said, Brown’s incumbency and his modest 2018 WAR overperformance suggest that he could and most likely will outperform Biden in the traditionally Democratic regions of the Lakefront and Appalachia — taking advantage of down-ballot lag. 

Assuming Brown outruns Biden but does not get very close to his benchmarks in the four aforementioned regions, he could capitalize on growing Democratic momentum in the state’s suburbs, exurbs, and major cities to make up for shortfalls in the less-educated parts of the state. 

These growing regions are more affluent and well-educated than Ohio as a whole and are home to more of the voters who are most prone to consider voting Democratic post-Dobbs. It is particularly notable that the exurbs had the largest leftward swing between the 2022 Senate race and 2023 Issue 1 vote — a sign that voters in these counties are more open to Democrats than their rural neighbors.

It is important to note, however, that it is too early for these benchmarks to take 2024 turnout estimates into account. Differential turnout between the regions could change the dynamics of the race, which could either help or hurt Brown.

Our analysis simply shows Brown’s clearest path to reelection assuming everything goes his way. Because that’s a daring assumption to make more than a year out from election day, we are keeping the race at Leans Republican for now based on fundamentals. Until then, we’ll keep a close eye on the outcome of the Republican primary, polling results, and fundraising figures.

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