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September 24th, 2018

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Populist Sherrod Brown Could Be the Perfect Dem for Trump Country

Salena Zito

By Salena Zito

Published June 20,2018

Populist Sherrod Brown Could Be the Perfect Dem for Trump Country

CANFIELD, OHIO — While a crucial federal election is happening here this year, the U.S. Senate race between Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican Rep. Jim Renacci, you'll see campaign signs in these lawns, many of them homemade, that bear the name Donald J. Trump.

Ohio is one of 10 states Trump won in 2016 where a Democratic senator is trying to retain his seat. Trump took the Buckeye State easily, and in theory it is part of the expansive universe in which Republicans could make historic gains.

But will they? The question looms large in Ohio, where Brown has effectively tamped down his leftist politics and amped up his populist rhetoric — something that will help him win back Democrats from the Trump coalition and hold on to his seat, that is if he can play just as well in downtown Columbus as he can in the Mahoning Valley.

Can Brown pull this off? Can a far-left liberal win in Trump Country?

Dr. Paul Sracic, political science professor at Youngstown State University, thinks Brown can do it. "He just might be the model of how you bring back straying Democrats into the fold not just for the midterms, but also for the 2020 presidential elections." Scraic cited Brown's stances on trade, which line up with Trump's positions.

Polls so far, including the Suffolk poll and Quinnipiac University polls last week, show Brown with a comfortable lead over Renacci.

Flush with money, Brown went up quickly with an ad that says, "Jim Renacci has been a lobbyist even while in Congress."

In a time when "Trump" and "populism" are considered bad words by the mainstream media, that's not the story here. Renacci's biggest drag won't be Trump but his difficulties raising money. Brown's problem isn't his populism but how far left his party has gone on culture wars regarding God, guns, Hollywood and the national anthem.

The race in Ohio might depend on voters like Jim Sarene, the sort of invisible voter whom pollsters missed and who swung the 2016 election to Trump. Will Sarene come out again? I went out and asked him, but the first thing I learned about him was not to call him Jim. Why? Everybody calls him "Geege."

Sarene lives in the Mahoning Valley city of Canfield, a leafy suburb of Youngstown that is strikingly different than the worn-out former industrial center a couple of miles away.


Mahoning County is deeply blue, or it was. Once known as the Steel Valley, it is located along the Pennsylvania state border. With the exception of George McGovern in 1972, every Democratic presidential candidate has won this county in the last 60 years.

In a stroke of brilliance, Trump visited the Canfield Fair in September 2016. The 172-year-old staple is the largest county fair in the state, and his appearance was vigorously welcomed by dislodged Democrats and weary Republicans who were looking for something different.

Despite being a traditional Labor Day campaign stop for any candidate running for president, for some inexplicable reason, Hillary Clinton did not show up. Then-Vice President Joe Biden was sent in her place.

Trump did not win Mahoning County, but the shift in voter preference was seismic; former President Barack Obama won it big in both 2008 and 2012, by about 30 points. Trump finished 3 points behind Clinton, holding her under 50 percent.

Sarene has never voted in his life. He said: "I toyed with the idea of voting for Ross Perot back in the day, but I wasn't motivated enough. I understood he wasn't going to win. But then came Donald Trump."

Sarene came from a working-class family in nearby Liberty, Ohio. He married a local girl, and they moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. Two sons and a decade and a half later, they are divorced. She lives in suburban Pittsburgh. He is in Canfield with his girlfriend, who works at a high-end beauty salon.

He said: "Everyone around here was a closet Trump voter, they didn't want to admit it, because they were afraid of the way people would judge them; if you were a Democrat you got heat for supporting him, so did Republicans, so did women, so did people who were successful. So no one said anything."

Sarene has weathered the fickle economy with grit. He moved from Charlotte to Raleigh; when a company he worked for downsized, he reinvented himself.

He said: "Every time a company was bought, or closed down, because of financing, or whatever, I would always outsource myself. I said, 'Here it is again, survival of the fittest, making things happen, being creative, innovative.' Finally I turned myself and my skills into my own business model."

Now five years later, his biological sciences company is doing well, which gave him the ability to come back home.

He said: "Years ago when I heard Trump speak, I never liked him. I thought, 'What a schmuck. What a schmuck.' But my perspective was different. Now, after I have gone through the trenches and come up and made my own business, I get him. And I looked up and understood that this is who should be president."

His interest in the election surprised his girlfriend: "I ... never watched the news with so much intensity ... I started watching Trump. My girlfriend and I, literally, we'd watch 'Game of Thrones,' and we watched the news. She's like, 'Isn't there anything else you want to watch?' I'm like, 'No.'"

Since the election, not much has changed in his support and his viewing habits. But is he motivated to show up to vote in the 2018 midterm elections and down-ballot races for Congress, governor and the U.S. Senate?

"Yes," he says without hesitation. "And I am voting for Renacci."

He added: "I think it is important for the President to have the support in Congress and I am motivated to show up and give him that support and vote Renacci."

For Geege, it is as simple as that.

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.

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