The Hunted Democrat
Romano, Andrew, Newsweek
Byline: Andrew Romano
Super-PAC money cut his lead in half. Why Sherrod Brown is running scared.
Today was supposed to be a good day for Sherrod Brown. Scratch that: a very good day. A great day, even. The kind of day that any 59-year-old Yale-educated liberal Democratic incumbent senator from Ohio might dream about between meetings of the Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Food, and Agricultural Research, or whatever it is he does back on Capitol Hill.
The podium is in place. The press has power-walked over from the Columbus Statehouse a few blocks away. The flag of the Fraternal Order of Police hangs from the rear wall, and a dozen cops stand docilely beneath it. They are waiting for the senator to finish working the room. The senator, however, shows no sign of stopping.
"I mean, what's the deal with Johnny Damon?" Brown asks a reporter, referring to the Cleveland Indians' aging left fielder. "He can't hit. He can't catch. He can't throw. He's sort of the five-tool guy ... without any of the tools!" Brown chuckles at his scouting report--then realizes everyone else is silent. "Oh, we're getting started!" he says. He jogs toward the podium like a puckish schoolboy. "Sorry about that!" But no one minds, of course. Today is just that kind of day, and Brown is just in that kind of mood: a joking-with-reporters mood, a jogging-to-the-podium mood, a gee-whiz-isn't-life-grand mood. A great mood, in other words. For a great day.
That's because Brown is about to become the first Democratic U.S. Senate candidate since 1988 to get the endorsement of Ohio's largest police union--a prize that eluded even John Glenn. With it comes 25,000 potential foot soldiers, a gust of positive press, and the kind of blue-collar cred that every Democrat craves.
For a few minutes, it's almost enough to make Brown forget his troubles. But then FOP president Jay McDonald steps to the microphone. The burly cop confesses that this "is quite a shift for" his "conservative membership." Still, he says, the choice was obvious; Brown has "had our backs ... every step of the way." And now that Brown "is in a fight of his own"? Endorsing him is the least the FOP could do. "Special interests are pouring millions of dollars into defeating Senator Brown this fall," McDonald says. He closes his eyes and shakes his big head. "All this outside money," he continues, "just to distort his record."
Brown fidgets, then stares down at the floor. In a normal year, for a normal Democratic incumbent, the FOP endorsement would be a sure sign of an impending blowout. But 2012 is not a normal year--and Brown is not a normal incumbent. Over the last nine months, spending on anti-Brown television ads by super PACs and 501(c)(?4?) "social welfare" groups such as the Chamber of Commerce, the 60 Plus Association, and Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS has soared to more than $11.5 million; meanwhile, Brown's average polling lead over his Republican opponent, State Treasurer Josh Mandel, has been cut in half. The FOP's support is no longer a cherry atop the frontrunner's sundae; it's a shield that's about to get battered in a very brutal, very expensive battle.
Half an hour later, a slightly less jovial Brown tells Newsweek how he's really feeling today. "I'm disturbed," he admits. "If it weren't for all the outside money, this wouldn't even be a race."
Brown isn't the only Democrat who's disturbed right now. Since the start of the cycle, President Obama and his surrogates have made a point of bemoaning 2012's near-biblical flood of third-party cash. In part it's a ploy to pump supporters for checks; as "Joe Biden" pleaded in a July 30 fundraising email, "We're running out of time to close the money gap when it really matters. Please donate $3 today." But it also happens to be true.
We're in the midst of a perfect storm of secretive spending. After McCain-Feingold banned unlimited, unregulated, undisclosed contributions to the parties themselves, the big bucks began to flow to 527s (the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) and 501(c)(? …