Losing the Democratic Senate in Ohio raises the bar for Sherrod Brown in 2024

Both Pennsylvania’s John Fetterman and Ohio’s Tim Ryan were seeking a Senate seat as Democrats this year, appealing to the working class.

But the fates of Mr. Fetterman, now elected Senator, and Mr. Ryan, who lost decisively, illustrate how their two states, once politically linked, have taken dramatically different paths. While Pennsylvania is a battleground voting blue in a good Democratic year, Ohio has all but fallen off the list of competitive states.

It’s a worrying sign for Democrats, who must protect their tight control of the Senate on an extremely unfavorable map two years from now. In 2024, Democrats will defend Senate seats in red states, including Montana, West Virginia and Ohio.

With JD Vance’s win over Mr. Ryan fresh in mind — a Republican triumph in largely disappointing midterms for the party — Ohio Republicans sharpened knives this week in anticipation of taking on Sen. Sherrod Brown, the Democrat whose long-term credibility associated with blue-collar voters was a template for Mr. Ryan.

At the same time, some Republicans warned that Mr. Brown would be a more dangerous opponent. One strategist, Jai Chabria, 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, although his comments were close to an announcement. If he perseveres, his survival as a fierce advocate of what he calls “the dignity of work” will be severely tested.

“The state dynamic has changed,” Ohio Republican Party leader Bob Paduchik said at a post-election autopsy before the state chamber of commerce. The Ohio Republican Party is a working-class conservative party. Sherrod portrayed himself as a working-class Democrat, and there just aren’t many of those left in Ohio.”

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

“Ohio doesn’t go the way Missouri and Iowa did, so 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.”

“Yeah, Tim lost, and the gubernatorial race was a flop, so it’s very easy to say, ‘Oh man, Sherrod’s in big trouble,'” he added. Looking closely at the results, he said, “however, makes you think that Sherrod is in a relatively strong position.” Among other things, he cited Mr. Ryan’s higher share of the vote in most counties that Joseph R. Biden Jr. had in the year 2020 won.

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

This year, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania delivered strong results for Democrats. The party won the governorship of all three states, and Mr. Fetterman won his Senate race. Ohio’s Democratic nominee for governor Nan Whaley, the former mayor of Dayton, lost 25 percentage points to incumbent Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who went unpunished for signing one of the nation’s most restrictive abortion bans.

The contrast between Pennsylvania and Ohio seems particularly startling because both states held Senate races for vacant seats from retiring Republicans. While Mr. Fetterman won by 4.5 points – one of the Democrats’ biggest halftime wins – Mr. Ryan lost by a similar political figure by 6.5 points.

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

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

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

The departure from the Democrats in Northeast Ohio has some party strategists excited 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.”

According to the census, Ohio and Pennsylvania share many demographic similarities, including almost identical percentages of blacks and whites and similar levels of education.

But there are also differences that tilt the tables toward the Ohio GOP. The large Democratic cities of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh outnumber the similarly Democratic large cities of Ohio, Columbus, Cleveland, and Cincinnati.

Ohio has nothing like the densely populated suburbs outside of Philadelphia, which have become strong Democratic terrain.

Democratic strategists argued that despite demographic headwinds this year, Mr. Ryan has beaten expectations, improving by two points from Mr. Biden’s 2020 loss in Ohio. They also predicted that Mr. Brown could have a much more competitive race in 2024. He has a statewide brand and a history of defeating leading state Republicans in previous 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 almost certain backing of millions of dollars from outside Democratic groups looking to protect the Ohio seat after those same groups left Mr. Ryan alone.

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

Against the Republicans, Mr. Ryan lost because the person he had championed — ducking the Democrat label and boasting of voting with Mr. Trump on trade — was belied by his overall record of support for Mr. Biden’s agenda and through some past statements the left aligned.

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

He predicted that many well-funded Republicans would gravitate to the Senate primary because he saw an opportunity to turn a seat. “Sherrod Brown is ripe for harvest,” he said. “I think there’s a huge opportunity.”

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

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

Mr Milburn said if Republicans nominate a 2024 candidate with similar weaknesses – Mr Vance has been attacked as a carpet digger and an abortion hardliner – Republicans will fight Mr Brown, who has a proven ability to engage with voters.

“Sherrod is an incredible retail politician,” said Mr. Milburn. “This guy can hold a parade and make you think you’re the only one in it. I’ve led candidates in the same parades he did and seen it happen.