Are these the last two Democrats who can win in red states?
How Montana Sen. Jon Tester and Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown stay afloat in Trump country.
Late last month, when Democratic Sen. Jon Tester finally announced that he’s running for reelection from Montana, you could almost hear the collective sigh of relief from party leaders nationwide.
The same dodged-bullet sound greeted Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown when he revealed his own intentions back in November. “I’m running in 2024,” Brown told Spectrum News. “And I run to win.”
It’s not unusual for Democrats or Republicans to rejoice when one of their own decides to seek another term, for the simple reason that incumbents tend to prevail far more often than not.
But Tester and Brown aren’t just any incumbents; they are Democratic incumbents from states that keep getting more and more Republican. As a result, their reelection bids raise a fascinating — and, for Democrats, frightening — question: Are Brown and Tester the last of a dying breed? Or can they show the rest of the party how to win in red states, even in the MAGA era?
The stakes couldn’t be higher. With a razor-thin 51-vote majority in the Senate, Democrats can only afford to shed one of the 23 seats they’re defending next year. If they fail to hold Ohio or Montana, they will almost certainly lose control of the upper chamber.
The good news for Democrats is that both Brown and Tester have defied the odds before. Tester has never lost an election, while Brown, who’s been running for office for five decades, has lost only once, in his 1990 bid for a third term as Ohio secretary of state.
In 2012, Tester ran 7 percentage points ahead of Obama in Montana. Six years later, both Brown and Tester beat Hillary Clinton’s 2016 numbers in their states by double-digit margins (10 points and 15 points, respectively). That year, Brown not only earned 280,000 more votes than his party’s gubernatorial candidate, Richard Cordray; he received 100,000 more than Mike DeWine, Cordray’s victorious Republican rival.
“Senator Brown and Senator Tester have repeatedly won challenging elections because they are backed by a broad, unique coalition of voters who know they always fight to put the interests of their states first,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Amanda Sherman Baity told Yahoo News.
The problem, however, is that 2022 isn’t 2012 or 2018. Since Tester and Brown were last on the ballot, both the Buckeye and Big Sky states have become much more hostile toward Democrats. In Montana, the GOP has doubled the size of its majorities in the state Legislature and elected a hard-right Republican governor; in Ohio, Donald Trump twice won the presidential vote by wide margins after Barack Obama’s back-to-back victories in 2008 and 2012.
“There's no question the environment has gotten more difficult,” says David Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Akron. “Donald Trump was able to capture a lot of working-class voters who had traditionally been more of a Democratic stronghold. Until now, Jon Tester and Sherrod Brown, in each of their elections, have been able to recapture a lot of those voters — even as they otherwise vote for Republicans up and down the ticket. The big question is will they still be able to recapture those people in 2024?”
Today, no other Democrats hold statewide office in either state — just Tester and Brown. That, of course, explains the party’s rapturous response to their reelection bids; the assumption is that no other Democrats would stand a chance next November.
But it also explains the anxiety behind that response: What if Brown and Tester are the pre-Trump exceptions that prove the rule? What if it’s too late for the next generation of red-state Democrats to follow in their footsteps?
In a widely discussed essay published last October, political scientist Ruy Teixeira neatly summed up the Democrats’ existential troubles. “The party is uncompetitive among white working-class voters and among voters in exurban, small-town and rural America, [which] puts them at a massive structural disadvantage,” he wrote. “There is a simple — and painful — reason for this. The Democrats really are no longer the party of the common man and woman. The priorities and values that dominate the party today are instead those of educated, liberal America which only partially overlap — and sometimes not at all — with those of ordinary Americans.”
To figure out, then, what the Democratic Party’s red-state playbook might look like after Brown and Tester, it’s worth trying to pinpoint why the two of them have survived so long in enemy territory. They’re often lumped in with the Senate’s only other red-state Democrat, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, who has yet to reveal whether he’s running for reelection. In a state Biden lost by even more than Montana or Ohio — a staggering 39 percentage points, to be exact — Manchin’s candidacy would be no less crucial than Brown’s or Tester’s. But his strategy has always been a lot simpler: win over voters who oppose Biden’s agenda by opposing much of Biden’s agenda himself.
(In fact, Manchin, who recently declined to identify himself as a Democrat, went so far on Sunday as to refuse to endorse Biden ahead of the president’s expected 2024 reelection bid — and even suggested he might run against him.)
Occasionally, Tester will break with Biden as well; last week, for instance, he joined Manchin in voting to roll back a new Labor Department rule that allows retirement plan managers to incorporate climate and social factors into investment decisions. But while Manchin is a reflexive centrist, Tester has actually voted with the president more than 90% of the time. And Brown is one of America’s most progressive senators.
Because of that, they probably represent more promising models for a party that’s largely left Clintonesque triangulation behind, but can’t afford to write off states like Ohio and Montana forever.
So what’s the secret of their success? According to strategists, it all boils down to “authenticity.” To be sure, that’s a slippery (and woefully overused) term in U.S. politics. Yet here it means something relatively direct. Nearly everything Brown does is about a specific group of people: workers. And nearly everything Tester does is about a specific place: rural America.
That specificity, in turn, has very real rewards.
When Tester first arrived on Capitol Hill, coastal types were quick to call him a “new kind of Democrat,” which had a nice ring to it. Unfortunately, they couldn't agree on what kind of Democrat he was. Some pundits pegged him as a populist. Others saw him as a Western libertarian. One even floated the phrase “macho Dem.” But as his decisions have repeatedly demonstrated — on debit cards, on guns, on fracking, on wolves — Tester is something rarer and riskier than all that: a rural politician in an overwhelmingly urban party.
“My stances are shaped by where I come from,” he once told this reporter. "When I'm spending 16 hours on a tractor, it gives me some opportunity to sort through issues in solitude. Folks out here face challenges that most people don’t realize.”
Tester comes by his backcountry persona honestly. He was born in the small, remote town of Havre, 35 miles south of Saskatchewan. His mother's parents were Swedish homesteaders who established the family farm in 1912; his father's family were Mormons who followed Brigham Young to Salt Lake City, where many of his relatives still live and practice the religion. He’s 6 foot 1, nearly 300 pounds, with a Roger Maris flattop and a left hand that's missing its three middle fingers, which were severed by a meat grinder when he was 9.
He still lives on the family farm in Big Sandy. He curses with abandon.
Brown’s background, meanwhile, couldn’t be more different. The son of a physician father from Mansfield, Ohio, and a social activist mother from Mansfield, Ga., he never worked in a factory himself; instead he went straight into politics after studying Russian at Yale. But Brown was raised, he says, with a “sense of justice” — his mom crusaded for civil rights; his father never forced patients to pay more than they could afford — and so, as a young state representative in the mid-1970s, he would spend his Fridays at the local union halls, Steel 169 and UAW 549.
“I’d hang around for two or three hours in the morning or afternoon, and I would listen to workers coming in,” Brown told Yahoo News in 2019. “Right away I understood that they had more challenges than I did, as a doctor's kid. If they got in trouble, they didn't have the same safety net, the same privileges.”
These were Brown’s neighbors — and earliest constituents — and even as he left Mansfield to climb the political ladder, he kept their concerns front and center. For 18 years, he refused to enroll in a congressional health plan, saying he would not accept federally subsidized care until the American public could avail itself of the same option. In Congress, Brown went on to lead the bipartisan opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), crossing then-President Bill Clinton; more than two decades later, he helped torpedo the Trans-Pacific Partnership, defying Barack Obama. In between, Brown wrote a book called “Myths of Free Trade.” On election night 2016, he surprised his gloomy staffers by immediately offering to help Trump renegotiate NAFTA.
For much of his career, this sort of throwback approach has made Brown something of a niche figure in his party — a “rumpled,” “gravelly voiced” character with a certain nostalgic appeal to Rust Belt residents left behind by the 21st century economy, but with little to offer Democrats looking for a way forward.
But that’s no longer the case.
In 2016, Trump came along with his “America First” rhetoric and performed better with union households than any Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan, flipping just enough votes in the de-industrializing “blue wall” states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania to win the Electoral College. At the same time, Republicans started running up the score in rural America as well, making it harder and harder for Democrats to capture control of the Senate (which by design skews heavily toward less populated parts of the country).
Eight years later, Brown and Tester continue to embody the party’s strongest antidotes to these related afflictions — loyal Democrats who can somehow hold red-state independents (and flip at least a few Republicans) because they’ve made it crystal-clear who and where they represent. And they could win again in 2024, depending on how the economy is performing next year and whether their most electable Republican rivals survive what’s sure to be another contentious GOP primary season.
Still, Democrats know that both candidates could lose — and that they can’t hold power for long unless they foster future Testers and Browns. On that front, the party’s recent record is worrisome.
In 2022, former Rep. Tim Ryan ran for Senate from Ohio on an anti-China, pro-union message. The grandson of a steelworker, Ryan represented the Youngstown area in Congress for 20 years. Yet the chief adviser for Ryan’s Republican opponent, J.D. Vance — a Yale-educated venture capitalist turned rookie political candidate — dismissed Ryan as a “zero-calorie Sherrod Brown” who was “pretending to be something he wasn’t.”
In a year when Democrats overperformed pretty much everywhere else, Ryan wound up losing by more than 6 percentage points.