Democrat Sherrod Brown just won reelection resoundingly in a Trump state running on Trump’s issues — taking a hard line on trade and helping blue-collar workers.
Now the Ohio senator is talking increasingly like he’s prepared to take on the president himself.
In an expansive interview that began in his Senate office, Brown sketched the outlines of a potential presidential campaign that connects with the working-class, particularly Rust Belt voters who’ve fled the Democratic Party for Trump — but with a less divisive message.
“I don’t play off American workers against Mexican workers," Brown told POLITICO, even as he touted his ability to draw support from “a lot of Trump voters.”
"I don’t inject race in it,” he added. “I don’t inject anti-foreigner sentiment in it.”
Brown won a third term earlier this month while the rest of his state drifted further right. He garnered nearly 100,000 more votes than the Republican who won the governorship, Mike DeWine. The performance — in the type of state that Democrats need to reclaim from Trump — has thrust the 66-year-old Brown into the 2020 conversation.
Brown drew other sharp contrasts with Trump as he cast the president as a fake friend of working-class people. He said last year's GOP tax bill “blew a hole in the budget by giving hundreds of billions of dollars to Donald Trump’s social class” and singed the president for going after core fixtures of American society.
“I respect the institutions of this country. I’m not a lawyer, but I respect the courts. I’m not a journalist, but I respect journalism,” Brown later said, on his way to speak to Al Sharpton's National Action Network group. The husband of a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, he went on to warn a reporter about Trump’s constant bashing of the press.
“I have some concerns that, no offense, but one of you is going to end up dead because of the way he’s talking about this.”
Brown had professed vocal disinterest in running for president up until his recent victory. The White House is “not something I’ve dreamed of,” he said, and he doesn’t feel bound to any deadline to decide, even if it’s “way after” the new year.
Brown is among at least a half-dozen Democratic senators mulling running against Trump. But with the exception of Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, who’s gotten buzz amid visits to her neighboring Iowa, the other senators in the mix hail from blue strongholds like Massachusetts and California.
Brown’s worker-centric populism — protecting the “dignity of work,” as he puts it — is already a proven commodity with the blue-collar voters a Democratic nominee would need to compete in the upper Midwest states that handed Trump the presidency. He’s a Washington veteran who still looks and talks like an outsider. He played up his regular-guy persona in his most recent campaign, with an ad titled “Disheveled.”
Brown “offers an alternative to what we’re for and what we’re about,” said Dayton, Ohio, mayor Nan Whaley, who worked on Brown’s 2012 reelection bid. “I don’t see someone speaking that message” besides him, she added.
“[Sen. Cory] Booker could speak for an hour and it seems like five minutes. That’s a gift. Brown has got the ability to speak to working people, and I think that’s a gift,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said.
The prospective candidate puts it more bluntly: Ohioans “know when they vote for me, in Youngstown or Lima” — two small Ohio cities — “that they’re going to get what they think they’re going to get – like it or not."
What voters would get in Brown can’t be neatly defined. He’s assembled a staunchly liberal voting record over 25 years in the House and Senate, voting against the 1996 law that tried to define same-sex marriage out of existence and againstthe 2005 bankruptcy bill that galvanized years of anti-Wall Street antipathy on the left. (Former Vice President and 2020 contender Joe Biden, who later vocally embraced same-sex marriage, voted for both of those measures.)
Brown also has legislative experience that some others in his party’s presidential mix haven’t yet accrued. He’s served as the Banking Committee’s top Democrat since 2015 and played a key role in securing a permanent extension of improvements to the earned income and child tax credits.
But that committee seniority didn’t stop a group of centrists from going around Brown and Sen. Elizabeth Warren to help the GOP pass a banking deregulation bill earlier this year.
At the same time, Brown hasn’t fully embraced his party’s hell-no resistance to Trump. He voted for a trio of Cabinet nominees who’ve proven toxic to progressives and declined to sign onto a Medicare-for-all bill backed by most other Democratic senators weighing 2020 bids. A longtime supporter of single-payer health care, Brown has said that he sees a Medicare buy-in for those 55 and older as a more realistic step in that direction.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who’s been friends with Brown since the mid-1980s when both were their states' secretaries of state, called the Democrat "a good guy." But Blunt, even as he declined to "gauge how anybody would compete" in the Democratic presidential primary, warned that Brown's brand alone wouldn't be enough of a boost.
"I’m absolutely sure that who [Brown] is now would have been an incredibly competitive Democratic primary candidate a decade ago," Blunt said. In the years since, he added, "a lot of workers have left that party."
Renacci has an even more critical take, having lost to Brown this month by a narrower margin than many predicted. Brown's defeated foe fumed on Facebook that the senator "should be embarrased [sic] to even" raise the prospect of a presidential bid, and the Republican went further in an interview with POLITICO.
Brown's victory by less than 7 percentage points after far outspending his opponent "really indicates he's a very weak candidate," Renacci said.
If Brown decides to run, Renacci's attacks during their Senate battle could point the way for Trump or other Democrats to go after him. The Republican seized on Brown's decades-old divorce from his first wife, running an ad that cited a restraining order she had sought -- despite her long-ago reconciliation with Brown and strong support for his campaigns.
But Brown's former wife, Larke Recchie, slammed Renacci's maneuver at the time. And Brown is prepared for the intense grind of a presidential primary in another way: His current chief of staff and former campaign manager, Sarah Benzing, is a native Iowan who managed Democrat Bruce Braley's Senate bid in 2014 and worked on Al Gore's 2000 campaign in the state. Beyond that, however, Brown isn't at the stage of locking in any hires for a potential campaign.
Asked who else might carry what he described as "my message," if he decides against a White House run, Brown demurred.
"To me, there’s so many people running," he said. "I want to see how this plays out. For me, and for others."