Sen. Sherrod Brown doesn't sleep much these days. With tough races for Democrats up and down the ballot in the Buckeye State this cycle, the Ohio Democrat has become an omnipresent fixture on the campaign trail there in recent months.
A Democratic operative said it's not uncommon for Brown to drive 500 miles in a day, shoving off before dawn and gripping and grinning until dinnertime. After that, he will hit the Democratic fundraising circuit throughout the evening and won't return home until well after local newscasters have signed off for the night.
"During the day I'm doing Senate stuff, and at night I'm helping candidates," Brown told Roll Call in an interview this week. "That's kind of what I've always done."
But there's no doubt that Brown is also looking out for No. 1 in the waning weeks of this year's election cycle. After ousting Sen. Mike DeWine (R) four years ago by 500,000 votes, it's Brown's turn to be tested in 2012, when he will likely face a frustrated Rust Belt electorate that's still snakebitten by a bad economy.
Republicans expecting to wear big smiles come Wednesday — and potentially seeing their own Rep. John Boehner (Ohio) elevated to Speaker in January should the GOP win House control — are already looking toward 2012 and unseating Brown.
A union official estimated that Brown has shown up at perhaps 10 or more Ohio Democratic fundraising events that the source has attended since midsummer.
"He's very concerned about the races [in Ohio], that people are putting the right resources into the right races and the right places," the union official said. "He's the steady captain at the helm, not getting too high or too low. ... He sits in the crowd, doesn't like the limelight and is very behind the scenes."
Republicans have taken notice. Even before the 2010 midterm elections, GOPers say they are keeping a watchful eye on Brown's apparent early re-election strategy.
"You can see that he's building an organization for two years from now," said Bill Batchelder, Ohio's Republican state House leader. "He's traveling all over the state, collecting e-mail addresses. Of course, he wants to help his party, but he's also building his own organization."
Brown has become something of a progressive hero to the left.
In an interview, Brown declined to discuss his re-election strategy — other than to confirm that he's running and predict that he will win. He also said he expects to raise at least $11 million, the same amount that he spent in 2006. That could make the next 24 months even busier than his current clip, considering he only had $1.4 million in the bank as of Oct. 1, according to CQ MoneyLine.
"I expect to be re-elected in 2012," Brown said. "Of course, every officeholder thinks about the next election, but this fall I've continued to do my job and help candidates."
Brown predicted the political climate will be dramatically different in 2012, when Democratic-sponsored initiatives such as the stimulus will have had time to materialize. In November 2008, when Ohio voters handed President Barack Obama 51 percent of the vote, 7.6 percent of the state's population was unemployed. By this August, just months before an Election Day when Democrats are expected to lose the governor's mansion, a Senate seat and perhaps five or more House districts, Ohio's unemployment rate had jumped to 10.1 percent, according to CQ Economy Tracker.
"The voters want to see things fixed, and in their minds, we haven't created jobs fast enough," Brown said. "By 2012, it will be more apparent that we've done much of what we promised we'd try to do."
Batchelder agreed the economy poses problems for Brown. But he also claimed that Brown's chances could be further complicated next cycle by tea party supporters and other motivated conservative voters who are likely to turn out to vote against Obama.
"My suspicion is that the present view of voters will continue, and it's a real problem for someone like [Brown] in Ohio, where even many of the Democrats are conservative," Batchelder said.
With conservative activists likely to mobilize, the GOP state House leader and other Republicans are pinning their 2012 Senate hopes on a possible run by conservative Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, a second-term Member who is expected to become the next Republican Study Committee chairman.
"He's well-liked out here," Batchelder said.
Although his office declined to comment, Jordan, who was a University of Wisconsin wrestling phenom, certainly appears to be quietly laying the groundwork for an eventual statewide run.
According to CQ MoneyLine, the lawmaker has given away 15 percent of all of his campaign receipts this cycle to GOP campaigns and party committees around the state, including to former Rep. Steve Chabot, Rep. Patrick Tiberi and challengers Steve Stivers and Jim Renacci.
Jordan has also given $70,000 this cycle to the National Republican Congressional Committee and $18,100 to the Ohio Republican Party, according to campaign finance records. His leadership political action committee, the Buckeye Liberty PAC, has given an additional $28,000 in candidate and campaign committee contributions, campaign finance records show.
"He'd be a [expletive] monster, both in a primary and in a general," a former Republican leadership aide said of Jordan's 2012 Senate prospects. "That guy is one tough [expletive]."
Another Republican operative called Jordan "a pretty good fundraiser" and said "he's pretty well respected" by party officials around the state.
A DeWine-Brown rematch is also not out the question, Republican sources said. But DeWine is running this year to be Ohio's next attorney general, and his campaign all but ruled out a 2012 rematch this week.
"Mike DeWine has no plans to run for the U.S. Senate," DeWine aide Mary Mertz wrote in an e-mail. "He is excited about the job of attorney general and has an aggressive agenda he is ready to implement."
This year's Republican nominees for state treasurer and secretary of state, Josh Mandel and Jon Husted, respectively, are also said to be considering possible 2012 Senate runs.
"Their eyes are more fixed on the governor's race than the Senate race, but those opportunities only come around every once in a while," a Republican operative said. "They're doing a good job and are moving around the state."