2020 Foresight: Sherrod Brown, The Ugly Duckling

After spending years as an unknown politician who allied himself with outcasts like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown’s electoral dominance in Ohio is turning heads as the Democratic Party searches for answers to take down Donald Trump. This article is part of a larger series exploring the prospects of Democratic presidential candidates in depth.

Amy KlobucharElizabeth WarrenJulian CastroCory Booker
Bernie SandersTim KaineSherrod BrownBeto O’Rourke
Joe Biden (VP Stacey Abrams) • Pete ButtigiegMike Gravel

Update: Sherrod Brown announced that he would not run for President.

A Political Anomaly

Sherrod Brown’s career began in 1982 when he was elected as the Secretary of State in Ohio. He served two terms before losing a heated election in 1990. A successful comeback attempt was launched in the 1992 election when he was elected to the House of Representatives. Brown served six terms as a member of the House before winning election to the United States Senate during the 2006 Democratic wave. Although this seems like a fairly conventional path to success, Sherrod Brown is not exactly your run-of-the-mill politician. While the state of Ohio has trended towards conservative candidates in recent years, Sherrod Brown remains virtually untouchable. In 2012 Republicans nominated State Treasurer Josh Mandel, considered a young rising star, who was promptly crushed by Brown. 2018 gave Sherrod Brown another relatively easy victory over Rep. Jim Renacci.

Currently Sherrod Brown is the only statewide elected Democrat in Ohio. Former Attorney General Richard Cordray, who was closely aligned with Brown on many issues and served as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, lost the 2018 election for Governor. Furthermore, Cordray was defeated by Mike DeWine, the former U.S. Senator that Sherrod Brown defeated in 2006. How exactly did these two candidates have enough of a crossover appeal that both of them emerged simultaneously victorious? How did Richard Cordray fall short despite sharing a ticket with Sen. Brown? Why does a state that is becoming more conservative continue to support one of the most liberal U.S. Senators? These questions lay the groundwork of an unexplained mystery, which only adds to the mythology of “Sherrod Brown: political anomaly.”

Sherrod Brown was Hillary Clinton’s second choice for Vice President, narrowly losing out to Sen. Tim Kaine due to the fact that Republican Governor John Kasich would have chosen his successor which would cost the Democrats a valuable Senate seat. With the prospect of Brown running for President in 2020, some Democrats have mentioned his value as a U.S. Senator as one of the reasons that he should not pursue the White House. However, his popularity in Ohio, a critical swing state where Hillary Clinton lost by a relatively large margin compared to similar states, gives Brown a rationale for running. Sherrod Brown has also historically been one of Bernie Sanders’ closest allies in the U.S. Senate, although he chose to endorse Hillary Clinton during the 2016 primary campaign. One might say that Clinton choosing Brown, who has credibility with the populist-minded voters that Trump appealed to, over Tim Kaine could have made the difference in a close 2016 election. Was saving a Senate seat really worth it in the end?

Sherrod Brown’s political stature is analogous to the famous fairy tale of “the ugly duckling.” For most of his career, Brown was regarded as an outsider and did not receive much support from the Democratic Party establishment. Since then he has since matured into a coveted political force that both confuses and endears political observers. His grizzled, somewhat raspy voice gives the aura of someone who has “been there, done that.” His curly, unkempt hair creates the image of a scrappy underdog — much in the same vein as his friend Sen. Bernie Sanders. Yet beneath the surface you have a politician growing into the role of an elder statesman who may hold the coveted key to defeating Donald Trump; maturing from an ugly duckling to a swan, if you will. Even if Sherrod Brown declines to run for President or comes up short in his endeavor, expect him to be at the top of many other candidates’ Vice Presidential short-lists.

The Presidential Power Couple

Perhaps Sherrod Brown’s biggest ace in the hole is his wife, whom Politico described as his “louder half.” Connie Schultz is a nationally syndicated columnist who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. The fact that she is opinionated is well established, and she has struggled in the past with balancing her career with her husband’s political ambitions. Ultimately they mutually arrived at a conclusion: let Connie be Connie, and let Sherrod be Sherrod. With the prospect of Sherrod Brown mounting a 2020 presidential campaign, Connie Schultz would present a unique dynamic — Sherrod Brown would not expect her to take a back seat, he never has. Hillary Clinton, who established the archetype of the strong political spouse, tried and struggled to stay out of the spotlight during Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. When it came time for Hillary to run for the White House in her own right, Bill Clinton tried not to take the spotlight from his wife’s campaign. Connie Schultz would be front and center in efforts to support her husband’s candidacy.

Traditionally the spouses of presidential candidates are conditioned to stay away from weighing in on policy issues and avoid controversy. Not Connie Schultz. That just isn’t who she is, and Sherrod Brown isn’t the type of man to ask her to be something that she is not. This is a campaign where the field of Democratic candidates will be more diverse and “modern” than ever before; up to four or five women could be in the running, two African Americans, one Chicano American, and potentially two bilingual English/Spanish speakers. Allowing his accomplished spouse with a career of her own to be unfiltered and serve as a co-equal partner on the campaign, as she does in their marriage, would go a long way towards giving Sherrod Brown the image of a “21st century candidate.” She is clearly capable of articulating her own beliefs in a compelling way and shares ideological views with her husband. While some traditional thinkers may look at this as a potential liability, giving Connie Schultz a megaphone could be Sherrod Brown’s ticket to success.

Notable Policy Positions

  • The boldest proposal put forth by Sherrod Brown is a plan to massively expand the Earned Income Tax Credit on a massive scale. It is a bit difficult to explain the proposal, since EITC is a fairly complex policy mechanism. EITC was enacted in 1979 and has quietly become one of the country’s largest anti-poverty programs in existence.
  • Although Sherrod Brown is a long-time supporter of single-payer healthcare, he notably did not sign on as a co-sponsor for the Bernie Sanders-backed bill that would create a “Medicare for All” system. As an alternative, he backed a plan that would allow individuals 55 or older to buy into Medicare. This is even less progressive than the plan backed by Tim Kaine, “Medicare X,” that would allow people of any age to buy Medicare coverage through insurance exchanges. When questioned about the his support for the proposal, Brown said “I don’t get into what’s next. Medicare for All is a question for another day.” To his credit, Brown supported the public option during the Affordable Care Act debate.
  • Brown opposed a state gay marriage ban in 2005, making him one of the few Democrats at the federal level to take a stand on this issue before President Barack Obama changed his position in 2012.
  • Sherrod Brown has previously called for breaking up the big banks, which would suggest support for reinstating the Glass-Steagall rule that was a frequent talking point for the Sanders 2016 campaign. Via his spokesman, he issued the following statement in 2017: “Separating Wall Street trading from banking that’s backstopped by taxpayers could make sense for a variety of reasons. It’s worth exploring, but any system needs to ensure that megabanks have adequate capital, liquidity, and leverage rules in place — and that the shadow banking system has sufficient rules as well.” Interestingly, he did not sign on as a co-sponsor of the Warren-backed 21st Century Glass-Steagall Act.
  • In a bipartisan effort with Republican Sen. David Vitter, Sherrod Brown introduced the “Terminating Bailouts for Taxpayer Fairness Act.” The legislation would have set thresholds for banks to hold a certain amount of capital to cover their assets, varying based on the size of the financial institution. It would have also prohibited investment banks from receiving federal deposit insurance. This bill did not gain any momentum in the Senate due to fierce opposition by Wall Street lobbyists.
  • As a former public school teacher, Sherrod Brown is a supporter of increased investment in education. In 2011 he sponsored the Fix America’s Schools Today (FAST) Act that would have invested $25 billion to renovate and repair public schools.
  • Long-time critic of free trade policies; he was one of the top Senate Democrats who broke with President Barack Obama’s push for the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. He had a very notable moment where he came to the defense of Elizabeth Warren, suggesting that Obama’s flippant dismissal of her criticism had a gendered aspect to it.
  • Sherrod Brown co-sponsored a bill with Kamala Harris to address a funding deficit for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Where Did You Go, Sherrod Brown?

Although Sherrod Brown is one of the original trailblazers in starting conversations about corporate responsibility and reckless financial policies, he has been conspicuously absent from recent efforts by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders in pushing legislation to address these issues. While other presidential hopefuls Cory Booker and Kamala Harris have been competing in the “progressive arms race” with bold policy proposals of their own, Sherrod Brown has done little in the way of pushing for substantive policy changes. Brown has not supported Sen. Sanders’ legislation to create debt-free college or a “Medicare for All” system, nor has he supported any of Sen. Warren’s bills designed to promote corporate accountability.

For someone with the reputation that Sherrod Brown enjoys, the way that he has faded into the background as progressive policy proposals increase in popularity and visibility is somewhat concerning. If he runs, you should expect Warren or Sanders to pointedly ask him during a debate about these ideas that he supports in principle but not in practice: “I introduced legislation in the Senate, where were you?” This dynamic has the potential to fracture the left-wing’s legislative coalition. Will the years-long friendship that Sherrod Brown and Bernie Sanders have enjoyed survive the rigors of competing presidential campaigns? Sherrod Brown came to Elizabeth Warren’s defense during the Trans-Pacific Partnership debate when things got heated between her and President Obama; a 2020 campaign would put him at odds with two of his closest political allies in the U.S. Senate. Is it really worth it to Sherrod Brown, someone who seems tepid about the idea of running for President in the first place?

Path to Victory

Sherrod Brown occupies an unenviable position in the 2020 presidential primary field; not only is he a dark horse candidate with little in the way of a national following, but he is also facing a crowded “left lane” with the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the race. In a way, Sherrod Brown represents the conflict between the establishment and progressive wings of the Democratic Party. He supports single-payer healthcare in principle, but he appears to hedge that bet for the sake of electability. Then again, perhaps Brown’s lack of a “radical” image will make him more palatable to the broader Democratic Party and the American public at-large? Sherrod Brown’s best chance at becoming the Democratic nominee is tied to his argument on how best to win back the Obama-Trump voters. If he looks and sounds like a viable candidate, he may in fact become a viable candidate.

But will the progressive wing be willing to enthusiastically support a nominee who is only with them in spirit? A “slow, incremental change” type of candidate may not receive the same outpouring of love that a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren will attract. His nomination strategy will focus on the same territory where Bernie Sanders performed well: the midwest and the industrial states. In a divided field, this might be enough to win. The biggest obstacle to Brown’s success, however, is the presence of his long-time friend in the race. If Sanders chooses not to run and endorses Brown, a bitter battle for the heart and soul of the young progressive movement will unfold between Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren. If Sanders opts out and endorses Warren, expect Brown to face a tough road to the nomination. Sherrod Brown would also have to dispatch with Joe Biden if the former Vice President campaigns for the nomination, since the two would have overlapping bases of support with the more traditional working class roots of the Democratic Party. Overall, his chances of ultimately securing the nomination seem slim. The stars would have to align perfectly in his favor; Sanders chooses not to run a second time, Joe Biden either stays home or succumbs to “foot-in-mouth syndrome,” and the other candidates vying for the progressive vote fail to gain any real momentum or flame out early on.

Brown’s ability to carry Ohio will be key to any general election strategy. An early poll showed Brown beating Trump in a head-to-head match-up: 48% to 42%. Sanders held a narrow 47% to 46% advantage, and Elizabeth Warren was losing the Trump in the same poll with 43% of the vote to Trump’s 49%. He would focus on winning back the long-time Democratic states that Clinton lost: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, plus his home state of Ohio. That would be enough to win the White House.

Trustee (Area 2) for the Woodland Joint Unified School District. Former Legislative Aide/Policy Analyst. Change is a process, not a conclusion.

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