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Opinion Sherrod Brown could have the winning strategy

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) in Washington on Tuesday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is a progressive’s progressive. That’s why his decision not to endorse two key progressive proposals — the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all — is turning heads. That choice nonetheless probably greatly helps him if, as rumored, he enters the presidential race.

Brown’s calling card has been his ability to win statewide elections in Ohio. That blue-collar state turned sharply toward President Trump in 2016 and surprised many observers by electing Republican Mike DeWine as governor in 2018 even though he trailed in every public poll in October. Brown nonetheless carried the Buckeye State for a third time, leading some Democrats to think he could be the person to win back the old “Blue Wall” that Trump shattered.

Brown’s longtime advocacy of progressive principles made many pundits think he would try to compete with other aspiring nominees to curry favor with the party’s energized left. Indeed, all of the other senators who have announced or might still run have signed on as a Green New Deal co-sponsor. They seem to be following the classic presidential strategy: run to the base during the primaries and tack to the center in the general.

Brown seems to be marching to the beat of a different drummer. He might be noticing that Democrats in recent polls have said they prefer someone who can beat Trump over someone who shares all of their values. By tacking to the center now, Brown can argue that he is better positioned to beat Trump because opponents can’t tar him with some of the charges Trump is already making.

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That more reasoned approach might also be a plus with the party’s still sizable moderate wing. While it’s true that majorities of Democrats now say they are liberal, nearly half of Democrats say they are not liberal. Owning that base early while the others carve themselves up competing for the left wing gives that candidate a great chance to win the early states of Iowa and New Hampshire, thereby giving that person crucial momentum.

That’s the strategy that each of the last three Republican nominees have pursued in the primaries. Trump, Mitt Romney and John McCain all dominated among the largest bloc of GOP primary voters — those who call themselves “somewhat conservatives” — and rode that dominance to victories in at least two early states. The Republicans in this bloc are not moderates and share many issue stances with their more ideologically conservative brethren. But they always favor candidates who have significant government and/or private-sector experience and eschew candidates defined by their strong, rigid ideologies or religious convictions. Gaining their backing enabled these three men to survive competition from the party’s right. Faced with a clear choice of “true blue” vs. “conservative enough,” the GOP picked the “good enough” candidate each time.

Democrats could make the same calculation, which makes the competition for that lane vitally important. So far it appears that, among the major candidates, former vice president Joe Biden and perhaps Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) could make a play for these voters. Now it appears Brown may be throwing his hat into that lane.

Moderate Democrats have been arguing for some time that this is the winning strategy. The centrist Third Way think tank has shown that Democrats endorsed by more moderate groups had a higher winning ratio within party primaries in 2018 than did candidates endorsed by the progressive group Our Revolution. The group also shows that none of the Democrats who flipped House seats last fall were endorsed by Our Revolution. Moderate liberalism seems to be a winning message in the primaries and the general elections.

It’s still very early, and we don’t know if Brown will even run, much less how he will conduct himself during the race if he does. But if this decision is any indication, Brown’s “progressive enough” approach could make him stand out from the pack and make him a more serious contender than anyone currently thinks.

Read more:

Jim Kessler and Lanae Erickson: Don’t let progressives fool you. Moderate Democrats can win.

George F. Will: This candidate may be the optimum challenger to Trump in 2020

Gary Abernathy: Sherrod Brown’s balancing act

Jennifer Rubin: Sherrod Brown prompts the question: Can a Democrat do nuance?

George F. Will: Amy Klobuchar may be best equipped to send the president packing