After Donald Trump torched their firewall two years ago, Democrats started sifting through the ashes of the Clinton campaign for answers in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Now a voice is calling out of that Midwest wilderness with a plan to return the party to the White House.
With his gravelly delivery and his progressive retail politics, Sherrod Brown declares a gospel of liberal economic populism. In early voting states, the Ohio senator has been spreading his message about “the dignity of work.”
“I want to continue to learn about the dignity of work — whether you swipe a card, whether you punch a clock, whether you work for tips, whether you work on salary, whether you’re taking care of kids,” Brown recently told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. “It’s the best way to govern, fighting for the dignity of work, and it’s the best way to win elections.”
The tour has taken Brown from Iowa to New Hampshire, with future stops planned in Nevada and South Carolina. The progressive politician will decide in those states whether to run for president. At least publicly, Brown is undecided. He told reporters in Manchester, “It’s pretty much a 50-50.”
Liberal strategists have run the numbers, though, and they are confident the way back to the Oval Office is wide open. Conveniently for Brown, it runs through the Midwest.
“All a Democrat has to do is take back the former blue wall states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and they win,” said Matt Bennett, a presidential campaign veteran, Clinton administration aide, and senior vice president of the centrist Third Way think tank.
“There is no way a Hillary state is going to decide ‘Trump has been great, so let’s go with him,’” Bennett told RealClearPolitics. “So you can put the Clinton states in the bank; get those three others back and you’re president.”
Politicos like Nate Silver agree. The editor of the FiveThirtyEight blog called the track that Bennett described “the path of least resistance for Democrats to retake the White House.”
Brown has cut a familiar figure since coming to Congress in 1993. Capitol Hill reporters know the former congressman and three-term senator by his unkempt hair, the union-made suits he wears, and the progressive talking points he delivers in a blunt blue-collar cadence. Brown only became a national figure after winning decisively last November in a state where Democrats had two years earlier lost disastrously.
Clinton collapsed in the heartland, losing Ohio to Trump by more than eight percentage points. Brown not only kept his Senate seat in 2018, he won by nearly seven points with a working-class platform on trade, tax policy, and health care.
If the rest of the Midwest is anything like Ohio, goes the conventional wisdom, then that progressive good news can carry Democrats in 2020. But the message will take a messenger who can actually talk to Rust Belt workers, warned Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.
“We can’t just have people from the coasts with this progressive message. It has to be something baked into the middle of the country too,” said Whaley, who formed an outside group last December to urge Brown to run for president.
Progressives all have “the same positions,” Whaley asserted during an interview with RealClearPolitics. But the distinction, she explained, is that Brown talks in a different way and to different people than those other candidates can reach. She imagines a conversation that is “a lot more about wages, a lot more about work” than about social programs in “some Scandinavian country.”
“I think it’s important that our candidate for president is able to talk to the entire country. This is a race for who is going to be the communicator-in-chief.”
Whaley doesn’t mention other progressives by name — superstars such as Sens. Bernie Sanders, who made democratic socialism politically palatable, and Elizabeth Warren, who officially launched her presidential campaign last Saturday. But those two threaten to jostle Brown out of the progressive lane before the primaries begin a year from now.
“I put my record up against anybody for fighting for workers,” Brown told reporters on Saturday when asked if there was room for another progressive populist in the growing Democratic field. “I’ve been a progressive populist my whole career,” he continued, “I’ve fought for the dignity of work. It’s who I am.”
Labor has been Brown’s political bread and butter. He’s regularly railed against free trade agreements, pushed for tariffs on foreign steel, and condemned the Chinese for manipulating their currency. Brown made a career out of these issues while Trump was still telling celebrities, “You’re fired” on prime-time television.
This makes Brown somewhat unique among his better-known brethren.
“He is addressing a crisis of opportunity,” Bennet said. “It has become too hard in places like Ohio to secure a middle-class life through work, even for people who desperately want to.
“That’s a very different problem to solve than corporate greed leading to inequality or failure of government to provide,” the strategist continued, comparing the Ohio senator to Warren, who has made attacks against Wall Street her M.O., and Sanders, who first popularized Medicare for All.
Supporters seem certain Brown is well equipped to win back Middle America for Democrats during a general election. Whether primary voters are willing to accept a Rust Belt savior remains to be seen.
Looking at the potential 2020 field from the outside, venture capitalist and conservative author J.D. Vance told RCP that Brown is “one of the candidates who scares me the most.”
Vance, who briefly flirted with running for Senate in the Buckeye State, believes Brown has the potential to become a Midwestern juggernaut in a general election. He just has to get there first.
Because of Brown’s blue-collar-friendly policies, Vance expects he could win the support of labor and, in the process, provide a national barometer of the political strength of unions. But there might not be much muscle left to flex. As Vance notes, membership in private-sector unions has fallen to just 6.4 percent nationally.
And Vance wondered whether the party would ever again accept any candidate “who cares more about jobs than transgender bathrooms.”
The Ohio Republican believes that the loudest voices on the left come from coastal progressives, activists who place a premium on social issues over the economic concerns of their fellow citizens in fly-over country.
“I don’t think that most coastal Democrats care enough or have enough empathy for what’s going on in the heartland to turn it into a font of Democratic votes,” Vance said.