For a while it seemed like every Democratic politician in America was jumping into the 2020 presidential race.
Now it seems like just as many Democrats are standing down.
The latest no-go? Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio. On Thursday, the progressive populist announced that he will not be vying for the White House this cycle despite openly flirting with the possibility during a month-long listening tour of the first four primary states. “I will keep calling out Donald Trump and his phony populism,” Brown said in a statement. “I will keep fighting for all workers across the country. And I will do everything I can to elect a Democratic President and a Democratic Senate in 2020.”
But, he added, “the best place for me to make that fight is in the United States Senate.”
Brown joins an ever-growing list of Democrats who have seriously considered competing but ultimately decided to pass after surveying the increasingly crowded field and calculating that their own chances of victory were too slim to justify the massive commitment of time, energy and resources required to mount a presidential campaign.
Among the others who’ve come to the same conclusion as Brown in the last week alone are former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who switched his party affiliation to Democrat and toured Iowa and New Hampshire before announcing this week that, as a moderate, he didn’t see a path to the nomination in a party that has veered leftward since 2016; Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, who laid the groundwork for a campaign before deciding to run for reelection instead; former Attorney General Eric Holder, who has chosen to campaign against gerrymandering rather than try for the White House; and even former first lady, former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who told a local New York television station Monday, “I’m not running, but I’m going to keep working on and speaking and standing up for what I believe.”
Earlier, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, billionaire Tom Steyer and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick decided to opt out as well. All were closely watched prospects.
Brown’s rationale for bowing out was not immediately clear. But he had always been a reluctant recruit. When asked in recent years about a possible White House bid, the senator had tended 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.”
Yet last November, two years after Donald Trump routed Hillary Clinton in Ohio by 8 percentage points, Brown won reelection by 7 — even as the rest of Ohio’s Democratic slate went down to defeat.
“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. “You showed the country that progressives can win — and win decisively — in the heartland. ... That is the message coming out of Ohio in 2018. And that is the blueprint for our nation in 2020.”
Taking note of the senator’s singular success in an increasingly conservative state — as one of the Senate’s most liberal members, no less — pundits suddenly began to tout him as an underrated presidential prospect. That, in turn, inspired Brown and his wife, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Connie Schultz, to start considering, for what they say was the first time, whether those pundits might actually have a point.
As a result, Brown embarked on a “Dignity of Work” tour of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — in part to spread his pro-worker message and in part to decide whether he really wanted to run.
If Brown had jumped in, he would have added a unique voice to the proceedings.
“There aren’t enough people who call themselves Labor Democrats,” Brown told Yahoo News during his recent swing through Nevada. “There aren’t enough Democrats who look at labor as the central organizing principle of our party. Without a strong labor movement, you end up losing on the big issues of the day.”
His goal, he added, would be to portray Trump as a con man who won the White House by duping workers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — and to pitch himself to those same voters as the real deal.
Brown’s record would have helped him make that case. For 18 years, he refused to enroll in a congressional health plan, saying he would not accept federally subsidized care until the American public could avail itself of the same option. In Congress, Brown went on to lead the bipartisan opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (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.
As a veteran senator, Brown would have come equipped with an array of policy ideas, most of which are designed to strengthen key labor standards to reflect an economy that increasingly relies on alternative work arrangements (temps, subcontractors, freelancers and such). Expand collective bargaining rights. Ensure that alternative workers get benefits too. Crack down on employers that force people to work off the clock, refuse to pay the minimum wage, deny overtime pay, steal tips or knowingly misclassify workers to avoid paying fair wages.
For much of his career, this sort of blue-collar approach has made Brown something of a niche figure in his party — a “rumpled,” “gravelly voiced” character with a certain nostalgic appeal to Rust Belt residents left behind by the 21st century economy, but with little to offer Democrats looking for a way forward.
But as the country has pivoted toward populism — and as Democrats have struggled to respond, especially in the industrial Midwest — Brown came to be seen as a potential model.
During a conference call Thursday with Ohio reporters, Brown dismissed several possible explanations for declining to seek the presidency, from the fact that a Republican governor would choose his successor in the Senate (“Most Democrats would trade a Senate seat for the presidency”) to reports that Joe Biden, who would likely compete for Brown’s working-class base, is on the verge of announcing his own bid (“[I don’t] fear ... any specific opponent”).
Still, it’s clear that Brown’s campaign would have been an uphill battle: He never registered above low single digits in polls that included his name, and a recent Quinnipiac survey showed that 77 percent of Democrats didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion, positive or negative.
Ultimately, however, the truest explanation may be the simplest. Asked by Yahoo News in January why he would even want the job at a time when gridlock has made getting anything done pretty much impossible and partisanship has divided America into warring tribes, Brown sounded genuinely torn.
“That's why I wrestle with it,” he explained. “Most of the people in this race now have thought about running for president for a year, five years, 10 years, their whole lives or at least their whole careers. I know some people have come to the Senate planning to run for president. But it never occurred to me to actually do this until November, when I talked about our campaign in Ohio being the blueprint to win the White House. And then some people started applying it to me.
“I wrestle with what it does to your family, what it does to your soul, to run for a year or two,” he continued. “I’ve just come off a campaign that was pretty long and arduous. There’s no whining on the yacht; I get to do this great job, so I’m not complaining about the workload. But I also know that it’s sort of unnatural to dive into something like this.”
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