By John Ryan
Campaign Manager, Sherrod Brown for the U.S. Senate
While the nation concentrates on the political wave that extended across the
country, it is easy to overlook the turning colors of Ohio.
As the campaign manager of the Sherrod Brown campaign for the U.S. Senate
and a lifelong Buckeye, I have a unique perspective of how Sherrod won what the
Columbus Dispatch called "a nationally watched Senate race" with a
This paper focuses on the message. An entirely separate paper could be written on the magnificent 88-county
field operation. Our Field
Director, John Hagner, assembled a small but mighty staff that harnessed the
energy of committed volunteers.
The last time an incumbent Ohio Senator was booted from office was
1976. Howard Metzenbaum had a
well-oiled machine to propel him forward and a national scandal called
Watergate to help push Senator Bob Taft out of office. It was a grudge match
from a well-known name against another familiar name. Even with a well know name, a seasoned Ohio politician, a
fundraising machine and a major scandal, the Democrat only managed a 3 point
spread. This makes Sherrod Brown's
victory all the more significant.
Middle Class Message Worked
"They work hard, love their country and play by the rules..."
Sherrod said in his introductory television ad announcing his strong middle
class message. He then talked about how job-killing trade pacts hurt workers
and promised that he would look at how such treaties would affect Ohioans. It was a simple but effective
As soon as it played, we heard how
well it was received from everywhere in the state - major cities,
southern Ohio towns and everywhere in between. It's no surprise that the economy, cost of higher education
and health care (all middle class issues) topped our internal polls as well as
a poll on Ohio published in the New York Times shortly before the election.
Our internal polls, conducted by the Feldman Group, also proved that
Ohioans were more concerned about the economy and having a government willing
to stand up for citizens than the social issues that dominated previous Ohio
For example, 11% of Ohioans were less likely to vote for Sherrod Brown
than Mike DeWine due to Brown's support for allowing states to recognize
same-sex marriages. But Brown
gained 51 points for his support of minimum wage increases.
When given the following two statements in our internal polling, Brown
had a 29-point advantage: "Brown has the support of most labor unions and
the AFL-CIO; DeWine has the support of the insurance industry, oil company
executives, and drug companies."
Earlier in the campaign, we were unsure how the trade
message would work in the Columbus market. Unlike other major Ohio cities and smaller towns, Columbus
has a vibrant economy thanks to higher education and state government. When we tested the trade ads in
Columbus, they worked well. Voters
Sherrod stuck to his message - one that complemented his voting
record, past involvement and passion. As an author of a book on trade, Myths of Free Trade (proceeds going to nonprofits), Sherrod Brown cares
deeply about how free trade pacts have affected working people. He traveled around the state talking
about how trade impacted Ohio when the playing field is not balanced.
Sherrod Brown's television and radio ads mirrored what he said on the
campaign trail. Sherrod held
more than 40 press conferences in 2006 before the start of the summer. He contrasted his record with
that of Mike DeWine's. Sherrod
centered on fixing trade pacts that hurt our state, filling the void (donut
hole) of Medicare Part B, making higher education affordable and middle class
The middle class message worked. Sherrod Brown was 11 points down in a Cleveland Plain Dealer poll in late April and six points up in the same poll
the Sunday before Election Day (He won by double The Plain Dealer projection!) More significantly, our internal polls showed a 19-point
lead on the question of who best represented the middle class. 23% more people thought that Mike
DeWine listened to special interests instead of ordinary people.
Middle Class Ohio
Sherrod Brown's message to 'put the middle class first' resonated throughout
Ohio. His win margin was far wider
than most elections throughout the nation and especially unique for Ohio; three
of the four Democrats in targeted Ohio Congressional races ended in defeat or
in contested, close elections. Brown carried 45 of Ohio's 88 counties, 30 more counties than Senator
John Kerry won two years ago. In addition, Sherrod Brown came within one percent of DeWine in five
counties, including landing 49.2% of the vote in conservative Hamilton County
that includes Cincinnati. Another
four counties were within 2% and in three more, Brown was within three percent
Votes for Sherrod Brown exceeded registered Democrats by
5,000-10,000 votes in six counties, 10,000 to 20,000 in five other counties and
over 20,000 in three Southern Ohio counties where Brown was not supposed to do
Reviewing the win county by county, it is clear that we did not run up
the numbers in our heavily Democratic areas to produce the 12-point
Consider these numbers in the counties with the largest
cities, areas historically the heaviest Democratic:
The average percentage improvement of the vote of the top
five Democratic turnout counties is 5.22% over John Kerry's
Or look at the areas where John Kerry had the largest
The average percent improvement of the vote for Sherrod
Brown versus John Kerry in the top Kerry counties is 7.58%.
Looking at the strongest Bush counties, one can see that
Sherrod Brown's middle class message worked throughout Ohio:
The average percentage improvement of the vote of the top
five Republican yields is 12.06%, considerably higher than in Democratic areas
or in areas where John Kerry's yields were the strongest.
Of the 30 counties that flipped Democratic in the Senate
race versus the outcome of the last presidential race, some counties barely
moved into the 'blue' category while others were solidly Sherrod Brown
counties. Our partnership with
Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland
and his relationship with
people in his old and new district made a significant difference in our
improvement. Those counties where Sherrod Brown
barely made it over the 50% mark include the following five that were
lowest percentages for Brown:
There were also many counties that had previously been
strong Republican counties that moved decisively to Sherrod Brown's win
column. Below are the five top
Brown counties that had voted for Bush in the last election:
It's not surprising that Sherrod did so well in rural areas of
Ohio. In a July 5-12, 2006 poll by
Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, "jobs and economy" was the most
important issue of rural voters with 28% citing it as one of the two most
important issues. "Moral
values" was number four in importance of Ohio rural voters behind
"the war in Iraq" and "Medicare and Social Security."
Rural voters worry about rising gas prices and health care costs and
felt Republicans would do nothing about it. While Sherrod Brown spoke about moving from our dependence
of oil, DeWine made the top ten list of politicians receiving funds from big
Our campaign spent considerable time in the rural
areas. Sherrod participated in
numerous 'road trips' that concentrated on rural communities including the Road
to Change, the Independence from
Special Interest July 4th weekend tour, Turn
Around Ohio tour with Ted Strickland and
other statewide candidates, and our final get-out-the-vote multi-town stops.
Sherrod Brown's wife, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Connie Schultz,
also engaged in an aggressive schedule of Hometown Tours in smaller towns throughout the state while Congress
was in session and Sherrod was in Washington DC. Each Hometown Tour would include a visit with activists in the area, a major event, and
interviews with media. Radio ads
promoted Connie's visit and included Sherrod's middle class message.
Sherrod's family also pitched in the effort. His mother, Emily Brown, seemed to speak to every voter in
his hometown of Mansfield and the surrounding area. His daughter Liz camped out in five rural counties all
summer surrogating for her Dad as if he was running for County Commissioner. For months Sherrod's daughter Emily
volunteered as a key organizer during the day for the coordinated campaign and
campaigned in rural Northwestern Ohio at night. His brothers Charlie and Bob spoke on his behalf throughout
During all of these activities, the message was clear - Sherrod
would continue his fight for the middle class as a Senator.
Whether it was Sherrod, Connie or another family member, there
was a focus on how change in Senators would best help the middle class
those who wanted to be in the middle class. The press operation
put emphasis on getting Sherrod
interviewed by the media, including smaller outlets.
These grassroots events were supplemented with regular morning radio
interviews that took place throughout the campaign. Sherrod woke up early and conducted interviews nearly every
day. Our candidate stayed on
Outspent on Television
In addition to incumbency and name recognition, DeWine had a money
advantage that was very noticeable on television. DeWine started the campaign with nearly double the $2
million Sherrod Brown transferred over from his Congressional campaign
($3,659,013). The Brown campaign
had a slow start in raising money. But the combination of the national fundraiser, Kim Kauffman, and Ohio
Director, Kimberly Wood and later Finance Director Michael O'Neal, ended up
raising over a quarter a million more than DeWine in the third quarter.
In addition to the ads DeWine ran
immediately before the primary, DeWine's ads started the week of August 28 with his campaign, the NRSC and Chamber of Commerce all going up for him. Airwaves were dark for Sherrod
According to an internal Brown document, our campaign was short nearly
$3.7 million in television spending after the primary election through
What was remarkable, it was during this time that polls
showed Sherrod Brown building a considerable lead. Our internal poll showed them head-to-head at Brown 43 to
DeWine's 39 in early August. In
our 601 voter poll the second week of October, the head to head moved to 53%
for Brown versus 38% for DeWine. As our election results proved, the numbers continued to move up as
Independent voters were cutting our way.
Despite the Chamber's $434,000, the PFA's more than two million dollars,
the RNC's three million and the NRSC's nearly three million dollars, the Brown
campaign, aided by a generous (but outspent) DSCC, put enough of a dent in the
DeWine's campaign that the GOP cut and ran from Ohio, although they refused to
admit it until the bitter end.
Messaging through Attacks
DeWine's money advantage combined with his attack ads made it difficult
to get Brown's middle class message out on television. DeWine had more than a five million
dollar advantage between his campaign and the Republican national organizations
compared to Brown and the generous DSCC. The DeWine advantage was even greater when the Chamber of Commerce ads,
Right-to-Life ads and 527's were added to the equation.
Throughout the campaign, the DeWine campaign and his national
independent expenditures ran the same message at the same time - on
taxes, homeland security and slime issues. It meant we had a
two-track attack against us. This made it difficult to get to
Sherrod Brown's middle class message. We took every opportunity
and took some risks - ones that paid
When attacked on various issues, including late slime, we quickly
responded, pivoted and returned to our theme on the middle class. In one radio script, the voice over
said: "The Cleveland Plain Dealer said Mike DeWine's latest attack quote "smacks of desperation." The Columbus Dispatch said DeWine's attack on taxes "doesn't even
come close to raising a legitimate issue." The Toledo Blade said his attack was, simply, "incorrect." Is it any wonder that more and more Ohioans are saying it's
time for a new direction - for a senator who puts the middle class
first?" In his distinct
voice, Sherrod then spoke how Washington has "turned it's back on the
Sherrod also used the legal disclosure on the television ads to remind
voters that he was the one who would stand up for the middle class. He repeatedly said, "I'm Sherrod
Brown - I approve this message. In the Senate, I'll put the middle-class first."
Throughout the campaign, the television ads for Sherrod Brown's campaign
were stronger. Our agency, Doak,
Carrier, O'Donnell, Wilkinson, Goldman and Associates, were graded "a
solid A" by Brent Larkin, editor of The Plain Dealer editorial
page. Larkin said that a
"C+" would be a generous mark for DeWine's ads.
In the closing days, our campaign ran joint radio ads with
Ted Strickland in Strickland's old and new Congressional District. Ted stood up for his long-time friend
while Sherrod spoke about standing strong for the middle class. Sherrod later ran radio ads in smaller
industrial towns mentioning issues that were personalized to those areas. In those radio ads, he promised to work
to increase the minimum wage, make Ohio the "Silicon Valley of renewable
energy," stand up to drug companies and protect American jobs.
Even when attacked at the end, instead of going with the conventional
wisdom of returning with equal television coverage, we went with a 50-50
message - 50% response and 50% a positive, "Before I ask for your
vote, I owe it to you to tell you where I stand..." message on issues. In that last ad, Sherrod Brown said he
was "for an increase in the minimum wage and against trade agreements that
cost Ohio jobs. I support stem
cell research, tighter boarders, and a balanced budget amendment."
As voters understood the difference between these two candidates and
polls were showing the overwhelming support we realized on Election
Day, our fundraising surprised DeWine's. We raised $250,000 more
than the DeWine campaign the third
quarter. Shortly after, the
national Republicans and other independent groups deserted DeWine and the money
Punching Back on Homeland Security Worked
From the start, Sherrod Brown promised that the Republicans would not
own patriotism, faith or security. Sherrod promised that when they hit us, we would hit back -
quickly and harder. Sherrod
delivered on his promise.
Sherrod took the offense. He went on a tour of Ohio highlighting legislation that would include
homeland security in all trade pacts. The 'port security' tour
included cities that lacked the water for a
port. Sherrod pointed out that when cargo goes unchecked, the highway
and train transportation would incur the same risks as ports. He
spoke about how America did not check enough cargo coming into this
country and challenged
leasing our ports to a foreign country that had been connected with
DeWine parroted the Bush Administration on the scheme.
Mike DeWine's first attack on Sherrod Brown was on homeland security. The ad hit on a Friday morning, making
it nearly impossible to put out a response before the weekend. Using selective votes, DeWine's camp
was trying to pound a message home: Sherrod Brown had a "pre-911" view
of the world. It ended with the
tag line, "Out of touch with Ohio's values," an indication of a theme
they tried unsuccessfully later.
Working with the DSCC when such coordination was still legal, we
prepared a response showing that Sherrod Brown had an impressive record on
homeland security and that DeWine did not have a record that made America
By the time our ad ran, an expert realized that the DeWine
campaign doctored the images of the Twin Towers. The editorial pages that later endorsed Mike DeWine piled on
him and within a couple of days he changed the ad. But his image was also changed from being 'Nice Mike' to a
candidate who was willing to doctor images of a sacred icon. While federal law required him to
"approve this ad," he refused to take responsibility for the fake image.
When the DeWine campaign again attacked Sherrod's willingness to protect
America, our campaign came back with Jan Keller, the mother of a soldier who
had written to Senator DeWine voicing her concern about the lack of body amour. She said that while DeWine responded
with a form letter, Sherrod met with her and other parents of those serving our
country and fought to get their kids the needed body amour. She closed with, "We need a
Senator who cares."
While the DeWine campaign came back with their own military families,
the fight was over. People did not
believe that Sherrod Brown did not want to keep America safe.
Our campaign also went after what DeWine billed as his homeland security
credentials - membership on the Senate Intelligence Committee. After hearing him speak repeatedly
about how he was on the Intelligence Committee, our research team pulled his
attendance at public meetings. We
were surprised that he missed nearly half of the meetings, especially since his
Senate voting record was strong. We put his record out on a response ad, used it effectively in earned
media and on a powerful Internet ad that we later put on television. DeWine's offensive tool turned out to
be something that put him on the defense.
We took a two-to-one advantage and
placed the difference on keeping America safe to a three-point difference
according to our internal tracking polls.
The October 29, 2006 New York
Times reported that Democratic Senatorial
Campaign Committee Executive Director J. B. Poersch said, "Our other
candidates saw Brown's success and they began to feel confident they could
survive Republican national-security attacks."
The Face of the Candidate
In addition to the middle class message, our campaign also had a
candidate who looked good talking to camera. People on the street along with focus groups behind the
glass told us that repeatedly. The
DeWine camp must not have been listening to voters. The opposition campaign put their candidate to camera
- on his front porch, in his living room and then in his kitchen. The earlier disadvantage that Mike
DeWine was not known by Ohio's voters despite being in the Senate for 12 years
and earlier service as Lt. Governor turned into our advantage. Ohioans did not like Mike DeWine when
they started to realize who they had previously selected in "yawn"
supporting education. This was
important because as late as the week before the primary, 23% of Ohioans were
unfamiliar with Sherrod Brown while 22% never heard of him; only seven percent
of Ohioans were unfamiliar with DeWine and only three percent said they never
heard of him according to our internal poll.
Concerned that the opposition would define us before we could define
ourselves, the DSCC filmed one of our rallies and provided a brief bio piece
that included Sherrod speaking to camera. The DSCC raised the point that Sherrod always kept private: that, like
his friend and Ohio's future Governor Ted Strickland, Sherrod refused the
government sponsored health care until all Americans were covered. The DSCC television ad ended with
"Change is coming." Ohioans loved it. They were
dying for change!
To move the final undecided voters our way, the DSCC later ran a
featuring former Senator and All-American hero John Glenn speaking
about his friend Sherrod Brown. The television ad featured
Sherrod speaking on the stump. The warm spot did the trick.
It closed the deal.
The week before Election Day, we ran a television ad with Sherrod
speaking to camera saying what he would do as Ohio's junior Senator.
Can't Even Get Slime Right
Whether in person or on television, Mike DeWine could not
even get his slime down right. Repeatedly he had to retract what he had said, change ads and even see
ads promoting his slime taken off the air by television stations across the state.
Seeing his poll numbers continue to drop and the national Republican
money pulled from the state, DeWine and the RNC ran ads that hit on the same attack - a 14-year-old $1,800 unemployment tax that
went unpaid for about a year because the committee had changed their name
(Brown for Congress to Friends of Sherrod Brown) and address (from one
volunteer to another). Once it was
brought to the attention of the committee, it was paid. The ads, that by law could not be
coordinated, both used the same misstated 'facts.' Over $2 million was used to expose the $1,800 bill
that had been paid a decade earlier.
Television stations in every media market refused to run the ads,
something that rarely happens. Newspapers that endorsed DeWine also chastised him for the cheap
shot. But it didn't stop DeWine
from continuing his slime campaign.
DeWine came on with a new television ad campaign pushing new 20-year old
that an employee in the Ohio Secretary of State office might have
sold drugs while Sherrod Brown was head of the office.
Unfortunately for DeWine, they were proven wrong over a decade
ago. Brown was the person who went to
authorities, fired one employee and forced another one out, although
authorities never even filed charges. Newspapers again voiced
their concern that DeWine looked desperate using
At the third of fourth debates, DeWine mentioned the allegation but did
such a poor job, few got it. The
newspapers that mentioned it, chastised him for raising the old, unproven
allegations. In the last debate
DeWine again raised the allegations that were in his ads to boos at the
Cleveland City Club.
The last Friday before the election, DeWine put forward a new ad on
television. It featured an
undercover agent who was involved 20 years earlier. As it turns out the undercover agent was going through a
divorce at the time and later married her boss. It also turns out that her current husband is a Republican
political operative whose company was politically connected to DeWine.
Our campaign had a response ad
on by the end of the day. This was a marked improvement in
response time from the start of the campaign when it took us the entire
weekend to respond. We decided to show the response ad only
half time, allowing us to still have a positive close.
David Cohen, Fellow at the University of Akron Bliss University of
Applied Politics, was reported in the November 8, 2006 Akron Beacon Journal saying: "The war room mentality of Brown's
campaign -- responding quickly to any DeWine charge -- was an enormous change
from Democratic campaigns in the past, most recently John Kerry's failed
Sherrod Brown's campaign's field staff outperformed their resumes. Throughout the campaign, they were able
to support an active candidate with an 88-county strategy and his wife, Connie
Schultz, with her popular 'Small Town Tours.' Under the leadership of John Hagner, the field staff folded
into a coordinated get-out-the-vote campaign this state has not seen in the
last two decades.
On the other side, the DeWine's campaign's field operation was nearly
nonexistent throughout the campaign. While the Republicans were saying they would continue to provide field
operations to the DeWine campaign, they moved 100 staffers of their '72 hour'
program to another time zone - Nevada.
Brown's Footprint on '08
In the press conference the morning after Election Day, reporters asked
Sherrod Brown if he was interested in being a running-mate for president
( "zero interest" Brown quickly responded). The reporters had missed the real connection of Brown's win
to White House politics. Sherrod
Brown's margin of victory - and his strong message on protecting the
middle class - will change how those seeking the presidency will speak to
In an October 12, 2006 column entitled "2008: The
Prequel," David Brooks points to Sherrod Brown's "coherent approach
to globalization and stagnant wages." Brooks labeled DeWine as "one of the toughest and most
widely respected Senators" and closes by saying that "If Brown wins
this year, he'll be the model for Democrats nationally."
As a lifetime Buckeye, I know what sells in Ohio. Even The Plain Dealer said, "He [Sherrod Brown] has run a campaign
that resonates almost perfectly with Ohio's political climate, a campaign whose
overall tone is frustration, anger and yearning for change..."
Unlike most candidates, Sherrod Brown had a bottom-up message. He best explained it in the Toledo
debate. When DeWine answered a
reporter by saying this was not an election about President Bush but about Mike
DeWine and Sherrod Brown, Sherrod retorted that it was an election about the
people of Ohio, not the two of them. Sherrod got it that voters wanted solutions, not any specific
Sherrod often said he was "running for Howard Metzenbaum's seat,
temporarily held by Mike DeWine." Ironically, no one seeking office had a labor message that complemented
the AFL-CIO and Change-to-Win's massive membership educational effort. Sherrod's earned media, stump speeches,
television and radio advertising all sent a clear message of what his campaign
was about - building and maintaining a strong middle class.
Exit polls reported by the Associated Press back up the claims of The Plain Dealer.
After nearly two decades of neglect of the middle class and
higher education slipping away from affordability of the middle class, Ohioans
want public officials who make sure government stands up for them.
Reuters reported on November 8, 2006 (Democrat win may shift focus to
U.S. middle class), "analysts believe the high-profile victory of a class
warrior like Brown has set the stage for an economy-focused presidential
election in 2008."
Finally, The Washington Post Senate Line for October 17, 2006 said: "Brown's people versus the
powerful" rhetoric...appears to be striking a chord. Candidates weighing a run in 2008
should take note."
The combination of a strong victory in Ohio and fair elections in the
future with Jennifer Brunner as Secretary-of-State, provide a renewed energy
I've known Sherrod for over two decades and got to know him fairly well
the last half dozen years. When I
had the rare opportunity to introduce him, I always told the story about how
Sherrod reacted when a bus did not arrive to take mostly seniors to Canada to
purchase less expensive drugs. While I was concerned about the negative media of the absent bus,
Sherrod was counting seats in my car then adding how many people he could take
with him on the unexpected car caravan to Canada. (As it turned out, the Greyhound manager brought on another
bus driver and exchanged buses due to Sherrod's caring, personable nature and
ability to connect with a working person.)
The experience told me that Sherrod is indeed a different kind of
politician. He truly cares.
During this campaign, I saw that side of Sherrod repeatedly.
Early on, he made principled decisions
that ran counter to what would further advance our points on the
board. He encouraged young staffers and asked me repeatedly what
to do later or showed concern for our hectic schedule. The one
fight we had in the campaign
was when he ordered me not to attend an event three hours from my house
had been away from my family too much by his calculation.
Sherrod was also good at working in a collaborative manner. This helped to create a multi-tiered
approach of earned media directed by Joanna Kuebler, our Internet
communications, coordinated by Phil de Vellis and our paid advertising. In debate preparation, Sherrod was more
open to suggestions than most candidates; Tom O'Donnell and former Congressman
Dennis Eckart, especially helped us sharpen our middle class message.
Sherrod's words, his past actions and his actions during this hard-fought
campaign all point to a strong future for those who care about maintaining a
strong middle class in our great country.