Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio announced Thursday that he will not seek the presidency, a decision he said came after a tour of early-primary states left him more confident that his party was focusing more on labor and workers than it had in 2016.
Brown, 66, is the second Democratic senator this week to pass on a White House bid; Oregon’s Jeff Merkley released a similar statement Monday. Both senators had hired staff in some early states and had begun to sketch out the argument that a populist Democrat with a record of winning the support of white, working-class voters could break the coalition that narrowly elected Donald Trump.
Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg also announced this week that he would not seek the Democratic nomination.
Brown said later that he always leaned toward staying the Senate, where he is the ranking Democrat on the Banking Committee, a powerful perch to pursue his passion for tighter regulation of Wall Street and greater worker rights. Six of his Senate colleagues have entered the race.
“The pull on me was always do my work here and fight for these issues,” Brown told reporters after a vote on an Ohio judicial nominee whom he vigorously opposed. As the announcement of his decision about 2020 went out, Brown was on the Senate floor delivering an impassioned speech, walking up and down the center aisle listing the judicial nominee’s alleged transgressions.
“This was a decision that I am very comfortable with,” he said.
Brown had clearly pondered a run, however, taking aim at the incumbent president in January as he began a “Dignity of Work” tour that took him to early-voting states.
“Donald Trump has used his phony populism to divide Americans and demonize immigrants,” Brown said then. “He uses phony populism to distract from the fact that he has used the White House to enrich people like himself. Real populism is not racist.”
But Brown, who had never seriously considered a presidential bid until urged to do so after the 2016 election, found that he did not have the same investment in a run as other Democrats. He was also encouraged on hearing several rival candidates adopt his “dignity of work” motto on the trail, seeing that as evidence that the party was not making the same blunders that it had ahead of Trump’s win.
Brown’s decision may open some breathing room for other Democrats who were making similar populist arguments and had overlapping allies in the labor movement and on the left. Allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) saw Brown as a potential threat to Sanders’s candidacy, offering Democrats a younger, fresher voice with a record of victories in the Midwest.
“I’d be the only Democrat on that stage who voted against the Iraq War,” Brown told reporters in Selma, Ala., last weekend. “I think I’d be the only Democrat on that stage that came out for marriage equality 20 years ago.”
Brown, like Trump and Sanders, had opposed trade agreements on the grounds that they slighted blue-collar workers in this country and contributed to broad job losses in a swath of states. He praised the president for imposing tariffs on imported steel, which he argued would make U.S. steel companies more competitive and rejuvenate employment in the industry.
Brown said that he had not discussed his plans with former vice president Joe Biden, another Democrat seen as attractive to many of the blue-collar workers who turned to Trump in 2016. Biden has not announced whether he will run.
Biden’s “getting in or out had zero impact,” Brown said.
On most other issues, Brown fell in line with the rest of his party and the rest of the presidential field. He stopped short of endorsing Medicare-for-all but supported greater access to national health insurance, a ban on assault weapons and a version of a Green New Deal. His competitive advantage, to some early-state Democrats, was that he had advanced these positions in an increasingly red Ohio.
“I’ve seen so many national Democrats look at this as either you speak to the progressive base or you speak to workers,” Brown said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “If we have to choose between the two, we lose.”
Brown defined “dignity of work” as ensuring that jobs paid enough for workers to live on; that every American could afford health care, education and housing; and that workers had enough control of their schedules to raise families — a nod toward improving paid-family-leave policies. He had also gotten some momentum in the Senate for a child-care subsidy, and he emphasized the need to pursue that Senate work in his decision not to run for president.
Democrats with an eye on control of the Senate may be relieved by Brown’s decision; had he run and won the presidency, Ohio’s Republican governor would have appointed his replacement. And while it did not become an issue during his exploratory tour, Brown faced Republican attacks in 2018 over his first marriage and subsequent messy divorce, an issue that could have emerged anew had he run for president.
Brown is now married to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Connie Schultz, who resigned from the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2011 because she felt her neutrality would be questioned because of their relationship. She now teaches journalism at Kent State University and campaigned with Brown in his visits to early states, citing her own blue-collar roots. Both of them, Brown said, would be active in the Democratic debate.
“We’ve seen candidates begin taking up the dignity of work fight, and we have seen voters across the country demanding it — because dignity of work is a value that unites all of us,” Brown said in his statement Thursday. “It is how we beat Trump, and it is how we should govern. That’s why I’m confident it will continue to be a focus for Democrats in 2020, and I plan on making sure that happens.”