When New York's District 9 went Republican, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, explained that the district, which has been in Democratic hands since 1923, is "a very difficult district for Democrats." By that standard, the entire nation may go Republican in 2012.
Democrats hold a 3-seat majority in the U.S. Senate. But two-thirds of the contested 2012 seats are in Democratic hands. Having to defend so many seats would be challenging at any time (funds have to be spread more thinly), but with a president whose approval ratings are sinking steadily, the prospects for continued Democratic dominance look even worse. Most prognosticators put North Dakota in the likely Republican pick-up column, while Florida, Michigan, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Missouri, Virginia, West Virginia and Nevada are considered toss-ups. Ohio, where first-term Senator Sherrod Brown is seeking reelection, is considered a "lean Democrat" race. We'll see.
Brown has won one contest already: the race to the left. When the National Journal rated U.S. senators, Brown was ranked as "most liberal," beating out even avowed Socialist Bernie Sanders for the honor. Brown supported Obamacare, for example, but only reluctantly because he favored a single-payer, Canadian model.
As in 2000, 2004 and 2008, Ohio is likely to be a key swing state in the presidential contest, so the senate race assumes even more importance. And that race is shaping up to be a classic liberal/conservative clash.
Brown's likely opponent, Josh Mandel, has one thing in common with the sitting senator -- both were considered too young looking when they entered politics. In 1975, a year after graduating from college, Brown was elected to the Ohio legislature. Another member, mistaking him for a page, gave him a dollar and asked him to fetch a cup of coffee. Brown has since spent his entire career in politics, winning the senate seat in 2006 -- a very bad year for Republicans.
The story for Josh Mandel is a little different. He first ran for and won a seat on his town council when he was 26 -- but looked about 16. He was carded everywhere he went. He has since served two tours in Iraq as a Marine intelligence specialist -- one while a sitting member of the Ohio legislature. While he still looks much younger than his 33 years, he doesn't sound it.
Mandel was inspired to join the Marines out of gratitude to this country. He is the grandson of Holocaust survivors. His grandmother, Fernanda, was an Italian Jew who was hidden by a Catholic family throughout the war. The blessings of liberty are not just an abstraction for Mandel.
Mandel is one of those people who seems able to squeeze more days into a year than the rest of us. In contrast to many young men who are still living with their parents after college, Mandel has been a lawyer, a councilman, a member of the Ohio legislature, a U.S. Marine, and Ohio's state treasurer. He boasts that when he first ran for the Ohio legislature (in a 2-1 Democratic district), he knocked on 19,679 doors, wearing out three pairs of shoes. (He hung the shoes on his office wall.) When he swears that no one will outwork him, you believe.
He speaks with energy and philosophical clarity, and Ohio's Republicans are smitten. As a young councilman, he helped push through a property tax reduction for Lyndhurst, Ohio, the first in history. A believer in free market capitalism, he was named "Watchdog of the Treasury" by United Conservatives of Ohio. He believes in free market capitalism, exploitation of Ohio's (and the nation's) plentiful supplies of coal, gas and oil, and limited government. He is pro-life, pro-traditional marriage and pro-Israel (while Brown is pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and supports the Israel critics at J Street). While in the Ohio legislature, Mandel pushed to divest from firms doing business with Iran. And he believes that American leadership -- economic, military and ideological -- is essential for the world.
The race is not going to be easy -- inertia being one of the most powerful forces in political life. But Sherrod Brown is a big spending liberal at an awkward moment of persistently high unemployment (Ohio's rate matches the nation's at 9.1 percent) and widespread disillusionment with President Obama. In a notable show of strength, Mandel has raised $2.3 million in the past quarter, compared with Brown's $1.5. (Full disclosure: my husband contributed to Mandel's campaign.) Brown's war chest remains larger because he's been raising funds for six years. But Mandel, with the support of Tea Party groups, Republicans and conservatives in Ohio, is mounting a formidable challenge.