Can the GOP Gain Senate Seats in States Trump Won? Preliminary Analysis of Sherrod Brown By Luke Perry and Paul Joyce
The Utica College Center of Public Affairs and Election Research has been regularly examining the vulnerability of GOP controlled House districts that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. We now turn to the Senate in a new series that examines the vulnerability of Democratic controlled Senate seats up for reelection in 2018 in states that Donald Trump won. We begin in the bellwether presidential election state of Ohio.
Donald Trump won Ohio by 8.1 percent. Rob Portman (R) also was reelected by 21 points, after early concerns he might be in trouble with Trump atop the GOP ticket. Portman effectively navigated Trump related challenges, while Trump did better than anticipated in the state.
Sherrod Brown (D) is up for reelection next year and has already been identified as vulnerable. Brown served in the House from 1993 to 2006, when he defeated a two term incumbent by 12 points. This margin was halved when Brown was reelected in 2012. Twelve of Ohio’s sixteen House seats are now Republican, and Republicans have controlled the state legislature and governor’s mansion for much of the past two decades.
Given these circumstances, it's no surprise that Senator Brown has been more tempered in opposing Donald Trump than his Democratic colleagues. Brown has voted with the president 30 percent of the time thus far, though most of these votes were support for Trump’s Cabinet members.
There is some overlap on policy, particularly in regard to trade. Like Trump, Senator Brown has been critical of The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in calling for trade policy that better promotes domestic consumption of American products. Brown wrote a letter to Trump sharing his ideas on how best to renegotiate NAFTA. Brown wants to eliminate the independent arbiters from deciding whether countries are compliant and ensure greater transparency during the trade negotiation process, so the public can better evaluate and influence outcomes.
Senator Brown has questioned Trump’s populism in a critique published in USA Today. Brown, also a populist of sorts, called for a more honest and unifying form of populism.
Brown has also expressed concern about the Russian scandal, calling for an independent investigation after James Comey was fired and criticizing Trump for sharing classified information with the Russians. Brown has not called for impeachment, but does think that Trump is clearly uncomfortable with the progress of the investigation and needs to “own up to what’s going on.” Toward that end, Brown sought a list from Treasury Department of Trump’s business contacts in Russia to vet the appropriateness of these relationships.
Brown’s approval rating is virtually identical to Rob Portman’s. 50 percent of Ohioans approve, 29 percent disapprove. This is a comfortable position for Brown, particularly considering Portman was just reelected by a similar margin.
President Trump’s popularity in Ohio has ranged from 40 to 49 percent during his first six months. This is higher than states on the east and west coasts, where Trump’s average approval is below 40 percent, and lower than the high plains and southeast, where Trump tops 50 percent.
If Brown can win pocketbook issues, like protecting Medicaid expansion the state implemented through Obamacare, and hold his ground with the president regarding populism, his chances of holding the seat remain good.
Brown has been included in early predictions of 2020 presidential candidates (examples here and here). The Senator helped shaped the Democratic Party platform, increasing the minimum wage, strengthening unions, and cutting business taxes, and was on the shortlist for being on Hillary Clinton’s Vice President in 2016. If Brown is able to overcome a challenging reelection bid, there may be bigger things on his horizon.
Luke Perry is Chair and Professor of Government at Utica College.
Paul Joyce is an MPA candidate at the University of Albany.