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Republican hopes to recapture the Senate could be derailed by the national party’s opposition to extending payroll tax cuts for most Americans by slapping a surcharge on the wealthiest, resurgent populism in the critical state of Ohio serving as the most concrete example of the major political risks at play.

On a conference call Wednesday afternoon to make his personal pitch for the Middle Class Tax Cut Act of 2011, which would extend and expand the payroll tax cut for workers enacted at the beginning of this year, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, up for re-election next fall, lambasted Mitch McConnell and Republicans for their opposition, which he said was simply about protecting the rich.

“It’s remarkable that one political party is so intent on protecting people making a million dollars a year that they won’t budge on anything,” he said, before expressing optimism that public pressure would ratchet up and force the GOP’s hands.

“I’m hopeful pressure from the public will get them to change their minds on this.”

And opinion polls make clear that this is an example of an epic disconnect between elites (politicians in Washington) and actual Republicans across America.

“This is something where the Republican leadership could potentially alienate not just swing voters but also their own party base if they insist on letting the cuts expire,” said Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, noting that his firm found in August that over 70 percent of Republicans oppose letting payroll tax rates rise. “That will be a big liability for the party in competitive Senate races in places like Virginia, Montana, and Missouri next year.”

Republicans are primed by their public and elected leaders to support tax cuts — always and absolutely. That McConnell and Co. have other ideas in this case could prove a liability in their campaign to take control of the Senate — or so Dems are hoping.

“I think it hurts Republican senators or Republican candidates who don’t take a stand,” said Justin Barasky, press secretary for the Ohio Democratic Party. “If [State Treasuer] Josh Mandel [Brown’s likely opponent] is willing to do two fundraisers in D.C. but isn’t willing to say he’s for extending a payroll tax cut for the middle class, it shows you he’s not on their side; he’s more comfortable with high-priced lobbyists.”

Mandel’s campaign declined a request for comment, but neutral political observers handicapping Senate contests see an opening here for Democrats to press their case on income inequality, even if candidates outside of Congress might be able to duck the issue.

“One of the benefits in a lot of these Senate races, is a guy like Josh Mandel in Ohio, they don’t actually have to vote on any of these things, they’re bystanders,” said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. This is in contrast to Republicans like Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who says he backs extension of the payroll tax break but is dancing around a specific proposal to do so, reluctant to defy GOP orthodoxy on something as fundamental as raising taxes on the rich while simultaneously looking to burnish his image as a moderate.

“Pure strategy: it makes sense for him not to say anything at all; he doesn’t have to,” said Jason Johnson, a Hiram College political scientist. “Mitt Romney didn’t have to say anything about Issue 2 [which would have enshrined anti-union legislation passed by Republican Governor John Kasich], he could have just let it fail and showed up in Ohio some time next year after he won the primary. But he made a mistake by making an announcement.”

Romney told the press just days before the anti-collective bargaining law was rejected by a broad majority of voters that he supported it, which Johnson said makes Ohio an extremely tough lift for the Republican presidential frontrunner — and by implication, that party’s candidates down the ballot.

And with the political wind at their backs thanks to the win on Issue 2, the payroll tax cut fight could just be more political ammunition for Democrats and unions in this working-class stronghold.

“I think the Democrats probably do have something of a political winner here and they’re trying to push it as much as they can,” added Kondik.

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