Senator Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat and populist known for extolling the “dignity of work,” announced Thursday that he would not seek the Democratic nomination for president, ceding the primary field to other left-leaning candidates with broader national appeal.
His exit comes as better-known Democrats like former Vice President Joe Biden prepare to announce their own plans for 2020, and as the field itself has swelled to 14 candidates, including fellow liberal senators like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Allies of Brown said Thursday that his decision to forego a 2020 bid had nothing to do with the signs that Biden is preparing to enter the race. Rather, they said, Brown ultimately resolved that he was content in the Senate and lacked the consuming drive to become president. And there were obvious practical obstacles to the 2020 nomination for a 66-year-old white man with a mix of liberal and moderate views and a relatively modest donor base. Indeed, for Brown, the popularity and fundraising strength of Sanders, a fellow populist, were obstacles that were at least as big as any Biden might present.
“I will keep calling out Donald Trump and his phony populism. I will keep fighting for all workers across the country,” Brown said in a statement Thursday. “The best place for me to make that fight is in the United States Senate.”
Some Democrats had seen Brown as a compelling possibility, even in a packed Democratic contest, because he was the only major Democrat to win a statewide seat in Ohio. The bet was that his success in a Republican-leaning battleground state would translate to broad support.
In recent weeks, he had embarked on a listening tour of early primary states that included stops in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which had been widely viewed as an indication he was seriously leaning toward running.
But while Brown, with his signature gravelly voice and populist rhetoric, generated some initial excitement — especially among those Democrats who believe defeating President Trump depends largely on the party’s ability to win in the Midwest — his road to the nomination seemed almost hopelessly long. Neither well known outside of his home state nor particularly fiery, he likely would have struggled to stand out from a crowded field that included dynamic rising stars and more established politicians.
Still, Brown has long championed working-class issues that have resonated in Ohio’s conservative quarters while also supporting liberal social causes like women’s reproductive rights. Though he splits with Trump on almost every issue, he is often aligned with him on trade, with an openness to tariffs and other measures billed as protecting U.S. manufacturing jobs that are at odds with his own party.
But it was his nearly 7-point victory in November for his third term in the Senate that suggested to his supporters that he could be singularly positioned to win back not just Ohio but the key Midwestern and Rust Belt states that Trump flipped in 2016: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Brown ran roughly 10 percentage points better than Hillary Clinton did in Ohio two years earlier.
Brown told The Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio, that he “wrestled” with the decision of whether to run and added that “it’s not fear of any specific opponent” or fundraising challenges that led him to decide against a 2020 race. When asked if he would seek to be the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2020, Brown told The Vindicator that he doesn’t “aspire to be vice president.”
An Ohio state legislator who hung out at union halls in his free time, Brown was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1992. One of his first votes was against the North American Free Trade Agreement. He also voted against the Defense of Marriage Act and against the Iraq War.
Elected to the Senate in 2006, he has criticized Wall Street banks and defended the Affordable Care Act, refusing to accept congressional health care until it passed.
“I don’t buy the left or right,” he said after his victory in the midterms. “You have to be authentic about whom you fight for and what you fight against. That’s just who I am.”