11/15/2006 12:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Signature 2006 Race: Sherrod Brown over Mike DeWine in Ohio Senate Race

Democrats gained up and down the ballot in 2006, from the Senate to state legislatures. The races for the US House and Senate were remarkably nationalized, with over half of voters saying they wanted to send a message. The White House largely succeeded rallying Republican and self-described conservative voters around the threat of taxes and terror. But for Democrats and independents, concern about Iraq, the economy, and corruption produced winning margins.

The signature race - and the one with the largest lessons for Democrats across the country - came in Senate race in Ohio, the bellweather swing state that gave Bush his re-election in 2004. It featured two strong candidates who ran very tough, and well funded races.

Republican incumbent Mike DeWine is portrayed as a McCain Republican, and won the endorsement of the Columbus Dispatch for his record on bipartisanship and cooperation. He waged a tough campaign following Karl Rove's strategy, attacking his opponent on taxes and terror. His challenger, Rep. Sherrod Brown, voted against the war in Iraq, against the Patriot Act, against warrantless wiretapping, against the gay marriage amendment, for choice, and for taxes - and the DeWine campaign let voters know it.

Sherrod Brown, an unapologetic social liberal, ran as an unrelenting economic populist. His campaign focused on jobs and the economy, on the threats workers faced from jobs being shipped abroad. DeWine had voted for NAFTA and other trade accords, against overtime pay, against the minimum wage, and for tax cuts for the wealthy - and the Brown campaign let voters know it.

In a socially conservative state staggered by the loss of manufacturing jobs, Ohioans came out strongly for populist economics. George Bush narrowly carried Ohio to the presidency in 2004, but Sherrod Brown won in a 56% to 44% landslide in 2006.

Exit polls show Republicans staying with DeWine, 87% to 13%. Brown sweeps Democrats 91 to 9 in this polarized race, and wins Independents by two to one, with DeWine losing a staggering 29% from his margin in 2000. Brown won 57% of the male vote (53% of white males), with DeWine losing more than 20% points from his total in 2000. The lower the income, the higher Brown's margin, but he won voters with $100,000 or more in income, 55-45, with DeWine losing a stunning 28% from his total in 2000 in this group.

The economy, Iraq and Bush drove the election. More than three-fourths of voters considered the economy extremely or very important to their vote. The 63% of voters who thought the economy was not so good or poor supported Brown 75% to 25%. His populist message got through. The 36% who thought the economy excellent or good went with DeWine 70 to 29%. The 41% who approved the war in Iraq went with DeWine by three to one. The 58% who expressed disapproval voted Brown by a staggering 83 to 17. Fully two thirds of voters considered Iraq extremely or very important in their vote.

On Bush, DeWine and Brown split evenly voters for whom Bush was not a factor in their vote. DeWine won - 91 to 9 - those who wanted to express support for Bush with their vote, but they constituted only 18% of voters. Brown won - 91 to 9 - those who wanted to express opposition to Bush and they constituted twice the number, 36% of voters.

Campaign advertisements give the feel of the election. Each campaign spent roughly $15 million on television advertising. The Campaign for America's Future wrote a full report that analyzes television ads in a number of contested districts. To get a sense of Ohio, just follow these links.

DeWine ran ads that accused Brown of raising taxes

and undercutting national security.

Brown from the beginning focused on jobs from the workers' point of view

  • The Standard

    Air Date: 1 September 2006; Cost: $699,226

  • Countless

    Air Date: 28 September 2006; Cost $972,524

and hit back against DeWine's attacks on taxes and terror:

  • Tax Cut

    Air Date: 25 September 2006; Cost $361,539

  • Critical

    Air Date: 2 October 2006; Cost: $333,178

Brown's victory shows Democrats that a hard-hitting economic populist campaign can carry an unapologetic anti-war social liberal to victory over a tough conservative assault on terror and taxes, liberalism and national security. Brown's victory came in a state suffering from the loss of manufacturing jobs where the economy was the most important issue, although the campaigns probably contributed to that. But the 2006 election took place when the Bush economy was about at its best - having mortgaged the store at home and abroad. With the bust of the housing bubble starting to set in, 2008 is quite likely to take place in an economy suffering from stagnation, if not worse. Progressives should take a good look at Brown's race. As conservative columnist David Brooks of the New York Times summarized: "Ohio is crucial to winning the presidency. If Brown wins this year, he'll be the model for Democrats nationally. If DeWine pulls this out, Republican will copy him. This is what politics looks like as conservatism wanes: feisty economic liberals against independent, party-bucking Republicans."

Now we know who won. And hopefully, progressive candidates will learn something for 2008.