Sherrod Brown knows he can win on Trump's turf — if he can win over his own party first

The Ohio senator has claimed victory in a Trump state. The question now is whether he can do the same in a crowded Democratic field.
Image: Sherrod Brown
The three-term senator is widely viewed as one of the few contenders who can straddle the party's shift left with a solid bid for Midwestern white working-class votes.Tony Dejak / AP

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By Lauren Egan

BRUNSWICK, Ohio — Although Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, won't make a final decision on a 2020 presidential run for weeks, he already finds himself among the primary season front-runners in at least one lane — one that runs parallel to President Donald Trump's.

The three-term senator, who launched his "Dignity of Work" listening tour here Wednesday night, is widely viewed as one of the few Democratic contenders who can straddle the party's shift left with a solid bid for the Midwestern white working-class votes that helped deliver an Electoral College win for Trump in 2016.

“This is our America,” Brown, who ditched a suit and tie for a pullover sweatshirt, told several hundred supporters in a warehouse outside of Cleveland at his kickoff. “And we will never give up the hallowed ground of patriotism to the extremists — not at the statehouse, and not in the White House.”

Brown literally wears his populism on his sleeve, often speaking about how his suits are made just a few miles away from his home in Cleveland. Grizzled and unpolished — his hair is often described as “messy” — he corrects reporters who refer to the Midwest as the Rust Belt, a term he calls demeaning.

His labor-friendly image is hard-earned, say backers. Brown spent evenings hanging out at local union halls as a young state legislator. When he was elected to the House in 1992, he refused to sign up for congressional health care until universal coverage was passed. In the Senate, he has advocated for progressive tax policy and labor rights.

And he has also proven his ability to win on Trump-friendly turf. When nearly every Ohio Democrat lost statewide in the 2018 midterms, Brown won his Senate re-election race by almost 7 percentage points. Two years earlier, Trump had won the state by 8 points.

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"This isn’t a purple state, Ohio," former Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley of New York said on MSNBC Thursday morning, noting the perennial presidential bellwether's shift to the right in recent years.

"So that has some appeal, that labor left that he brings to the table," Crowley said of Brown.

Although a passionate critic of the president, Brown has found himself compared to Trump on one key issue: trade.

In 1993, Brown went against a Democratic president and opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, writing a book a decade later, “Myths of Free Trade: Why American Trade Policy Has Failed.” His crusade took on fresh momentum within the party after Donald Trump descended the escalator in 2015 and began scrambling free trade politics, winning over disgruntled voters suffering from deindustrialization and wage stagnation. Brown's free trade skepticism was suddenly en vogue.

"Sherrod Brown may be the Democrats' most effective messenger across the middle of the country," Joel Payne, a Democratic strategist, told NBC News by email. "He speaks directly to Rust Belt voters in a way that engages the Trump base while still contrasting with the president. He has found ways to agree with the president when it makes sense for his constituency while still being tough on him."

Supporters say Brown’s scruffy brand of working-class populism could help win back the industrial Midwest from Trump — if he can win over his own party first.

Some of the hurdles facing Brown are the challenges facing the majority in an already-crowded field; others are likely to hit him differently. Both Iowa and New Hampshire — the first two states to vote — are dominated by white working-class voters. If he doesn't make waves in either of those states, the terrain beyond may be even tougher, particularly in a year when many Democrats are hoping for a diverse ticket.

“Once the primary moves south, African-Americans play a very big role,” Linda Fowler, a government professor at Dartmouth College said in a phone interview with NBC News. “The question is whether they will be splitting their votes with candidates such as Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, or if they’re interested in things other than race. But it would certainly be hard for Brown to bounce back."

There are already four women — including a black woman — in the 2020 race, along with a Latino man and a gay man. All would be historic firsts. The only possible first for Senator Brown? If elected, he'd be the first President Brown.

There are other wrinkles. Despite Brown's labor bona fides, his biography as the Yale-educated son of a doctor doesn't precisely fit the pitch, in a race that also features Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who speaks of growing up on "the ragged edge of the middle class."

And if Democrats have any craving for a political newcomer to take on Trump, Brown could quickly be labeled a career politician. He has been in public office for more than 40 years, the past 25 of those in Washington.

Finally, despite the party's leftward push, there are still some Democrats who say a moderate pick might be their path to victory in 2020, with their best bet a Joe Biden or even a Mike Bloomberg — not Brown.

At his kick-off event in Brunswick on Wednesday night, Brown rejected the idea that Democrats will need to embrace a more centrist candidate to take back the White House.

“Too often, people and Democratic activists and pundits act like our party has to choose between advocating for strong progressive values that excite our base — which we do — or talking to working-class voters about their lives," he said. "For us it’s not either/or — it’s both. You govern by speaking to progressive values and fighting for workers."