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Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown may be America’s most underrated politician. The question now is whether that’s about to change.
The day after a midterm election that saw President Trump losing ground in cities and suburbs while holding his own everywhere else, talk among Democrats has already turned to 2020.
“What did Tuesday say about how the Democrats can win back the White House?” operatives and observers began to ask even before the last ballots were counted. “And which candidates-in-waiting saw their stock rise as a result?”
So far speculation has swirled around rising star Beto O’Rourke, who came within 2.6 percentage points of unseating incumbent Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in ruby-red Texas.
Progressives have pointed to red-state losses among centrist senators such as Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota as evidence that moderation won’t work two Novembers from now; centrists have pointed to red-state losses among progressive heroes such as O’Rourke, Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida to make the opposite argument.
And the usual suspects — Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris — have been mentioned again and again.
Few, however, have been mentioning Brown. That’s probably a mistake.
“[Brown] has a reservoir of wisdom the Dems could draw from,” former Virginia Rep. Tom Perriello declared Tuesday on Twitter.
Of all the Democrats who could plausibly play a part in the looming drama of the next presidential campaign, the raspy, rumpled populist emerged from Election Day with by far the most to brag about.
Like his fellow Rust Belt Democrats — Sens. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania — Brown cruised to reelection in a state that broke for Trump in 2016.
Unlike Stabenow, Baldwin or Casey, however, Brown managed to win in a state that backed Trump by 8 percent two years ago — not less than 1 percent, like the others — and where Republicans swept all of 2018’s other competitive contests, from governor on down.
In fact, Brown received 280,000 more votes than his party’s gubernatorial candidate, Richard Cordray, and 100,000 more than Cordray’s victorious Republican rival, Mike DeWine. Brown actually won by a larger margin Tuesday than in 2012, when Barack Obama was on the ballot to boost Democratic turnout. And the gap between his victory this year and Trump’s in 2016 — a swing of 14.5 percentage points — was wider than all but Jon Tester’s in Montana and Joe Manchin’s in West Virginia.
The kicker is that while Tester and Manchin ran as moderates, and while Casey, Stabenow and Baldwin tend to legislate from the center-left, Brown has compiled one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate — a record on which he proudly campaigned. According to the data journalists at FiveThirtyEight, Brown votes with Trump only 28.2 percent of the time — roughly 41 percent less often than you would expect based on how strongly Ohio supported Trump in 2016. That’s the second-largest “Trump-minus” score in the entire Senate.
For Brown, defying the odds is nothing new. As a 2017 BuzzFeed profile put it, the senator has “combined a fierce populism and unapologetic progressive ideals to repeatedly win local and state elections — even as Ohio has trended increasingly conservative.” He’s won in cities and rural communities, old manufacturing hubs and college towns, diverse districts and mostly white districts.
And now he’s won 10 times in row.
First elected to the House in 1992, Brown secured reelection two years later by picking off Republican-leaning workers who’d previously backed Ross Perot’s anti-NAFTA presidential bid. In 2012, running for a second Senate term, he earned 95 percent of the black vote and outperformed his GOP rival, state Treasurer Josh Mandel, in many white, industrial parts of the state — including Mahoning and Trumbull counties, where Brown took 66 percent and 62 percent of the vote respectively. On Tuesday, Brown again won both counties by 15- to 20-point margins.
As Yahoo News has previously reported, Brown didn’t accomplish this by moderating his staunchly liberal views on social and cultural issues. He was one of only two members of Ohio’s congressional delegation to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996; he’s pro-LGBTQ, pro-abortion rights, pro-gun control, and pro-criminal justice reform. (He was the first senator to oppose Jeff Sessions’s nomination as attorney general.)
Instead, Brown keeps winning in Ohio because he has spent his entire career obsessing, first and foremost, over the concerns of workers.
Not just white workers, the way Trump did in 2016. All workers.
“I do my very best to fight for working people in this job,” Brown told Yahoo News last year. “And that means all workers — whether you punch a time sheet or swipe a badge, make a salary or earn tips. Whether you’re on payroll, a contract worker or a temp — working behind a desk, on a factory floor or behind a restaurant counter. The fact is, all workers across this country are feeling squeezed.”
Other, higher-profile Senate populists — Sanders and Warren — tend to view the world through an anti-Wall Street lens. Brown sees everything from a pro-worker perspective. To the casual listener, Sanders and Warren can sound as if they’re bashing billionaires or bankers because they’re billionaires or bankers — a message that might resonate in liberal enclaves like Vermont or Massachusetts but doesn’t play as well in middle America.
In contrast, Brown is always careful to remind voters that the real problem isn’t corporate profits per se — it’s that “workers are no longer sharing in the wealth they help create.”
“With Sherrod, the message works because of the messenger,” Perriello explains. “He has never wavered in standing up to power brokers in D.C. — and even in his own party — to fight for families, workers and consumers. He can sell it because people buy that he means it, that he is fighting for us.”
For 18 years, Brown refused to enroll in a congressional health plan, saying he would not accept federally subsidized care until the American public could also avail itself of the same option. As a state representative in the mid-1970s, he spent long days listening to tales of worry and woe at the steelworkers’ union hall in his hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. He went on to lead the bipartisan opposition to NAFTA, crossing then-President Bill Clinton; more than two decades later, he helped torpedo the Trans-Pacific Partnership, defying Barack Obama. In between, Brown wrote a book called Myths of Free Trade. On election night 2016, he surprised his gloomy staffers by immediately offering to help Trump renegotiate NAFTA (a promise he’s kept). And when Brown rescued a shaggy black dog, he named it Franklin — as in Roosevelt, the Democrat who created the New Deal.
When asked about a possible White House bid, the senator tends to dismiss the notion with lukewarm responses such as “I don’t like the idea of running for president” and “I don’t … have any real interest in that” — though he also admits he hasn’t ruled it out.
“I hear it more and more,” Brown conceded in a September interview with the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I think about it from time to time.”
In truth, Brown seems much more excited about the idea that his strategy could serve as a road map for some other 2020 candidate. “I hope the message that I win with — the dignity of work and whose side are you on — gets into the national debate,” he recently told CNBC. “Because plenty of my colleagues want to be president a lot more than I do.”
To that end, Brown has released a suite of populist policy proposals that would strengthen key labor standards to reflect an economy that increasingly relies on alternative work arrangements (temps, subcontractors, freelancers, and such). He wouldn’t just raise the minimum wage and require paid sick days and paid family leave. He would also expand collective bargaining rights. He would ensure that alternative workers get benefits too. And he would crack down on employers that force people to work off the clock, refuse to pay the minimum wage, deny overtime pay, take tips, or knowingly misclassify workers to avoid paying fair wages.
Finally — and perhaps most potently — Brown would implement what he calls a “carrot and stick” approach to big companies that slash labor costs to pad their profits.
“Republicans are going to cut taxes on the largest corporations and the wealthiest people in the country,” the senator has explained. “I think … those companies that pay a living wage and provide health benefits and retirement benefits and don’t outsource their jobs, they should get a lower tax rate. But the companies that pay $10 or $11 [an hour] so that their employees get food stamps and Medicaid and Section 8 housing vouchers? Those companies should pay a Corporate Freeloader Fee, because taxpayers have to subsidize those corporations’ wages.”
Brown’s plan is probably too bold to become law anytime soon — but as a declaration of intent aimed directly at blue-collar Americans, it couldn’t be clearer. “Because he gets how much families are struggling, Sherrod knows that you make smart solutions more appealing not by cutting the idea in half but by doubling it,” Perriello says. “While Beltway pundits try to label ideas on a mythical left-right spectrum, people in Ohio and around the country care only about where it fits in terms of making a difference at the kitchen table.”
Who knows whether voters outside of Ohio will ever hear a message like Brown’s. It’s possible, even probable, that Democrats will continue to shy away from so-called class warfare and resist even a progressive concept of class identity — a concept that sees class not as a way to turn white workers against the rest of the electorate, as Trump has done, but rather as a way to unite all working-class Americans, regardless of their other identities, around a set of reforms that might help them withstand a 21st-century economy that has rapidly and ruthlessly turned against them: black or white, gay or straight, blue-collar or white-collar.
But if 2018’s divided results demonstrated anything, it’s that, going forward, such an approach may be the surest way for Democrats to succeed again in states like Ohio that have been trending red; to stymie Trump in purple states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania; and perhaps to win back the White House.
“Let our country — our nation’s citizens, our Democratic Party, my fellow elected officials all over the country — let them all cast their eyes toward the heartland, to the industrial Midwest, to our Great Lakes state,” Brown said in his victory speech Tuesday night. “You showed the country that progressives can win — and win decisively — in the heartland, [and] that by putting people first and by honoring the dignity of work, we can carry a state Donald Trump won by nearly 10 points.”
Lest anyone missed the point, Brown went on to contrast his kind of populism with Trump’s — and to link his winning campaign to the coming presidential election.
“Populists are not racists,” he said. “We do not appeal to some by pushing down others. We do not lie. We do not engage in hate speech. And we do not rip babies from their families at the border. … We will never ever give up the hallowed ground of patriotism to the extremists — at the statehouse and in the White House.
“That is the message coming out of Ohio in 2018,” he concluded. “And that is the blueprint for our nation in 2020.”
It remains to be seen whether the reluctant Brown will challenge Trump in two years’ time; his decision will probably depend on whether another Democrat is willing to pick up the pro-worker baton.
And even if he does run, it’s unclear that his gruff, earnest, understated style would translate to a national stage where Trumpian brashness and bombast have increasingly become the norm.
Still, for anyone trying to find a 2020 message in the aftermath of 2018, Brown’s may have been the clearest signal amid a lot of noise.
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