Sherrod Brown looks to defy Trump trend in Ohio

Keren Carrion

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is a rarity among Democrats — a liberal considered to have a good shot at reelection in a state President Trump won by an overwhelming margin.

As Democrats try to pick up the pieces from a surprise electoral defeat in 2016, Brown’s swing-state politics offer one possible path for the party to win back the Midwestern voters in the white working class who ditched Democrats for Trump.

{mosads}Brown has emphasized his populist positions on trade, vowing that he’s willing to work with Trump to help Ohio’s steel and manufacturing sectors. He’s also hewed firmly to the left on a slew of other issues, including financial regulation, tax policy and labor rights. The senator was a rumored vice presidential choice for Hillary Clinton, who struggled in Ohio, though Brown denied the speculation as well as having any interest in the job.

The liberal-populist approach appears to be working for Brown in Ohio, which Trump won by 8 points. While his reelection race is expected to be competitive, forecasters say it leans slightly in his favor.

Brown told The Hill in an interview that Democrats could make political and policy gains with a stronger emphasis on progressive populism — one that avoids the divisive tactics that he says Trump used in the 2016 campaign.

“Maybe they win an election that way,” Brown said. “Donald Trump started his political career by questioning the legitimacy of the first black president and, knowing it was a lie, did it anyway.

“But if you fight for the little guy by excluding certain people because of their gender, other people because of their race, other people because of their occupation, it’s not real populism, and in the end it’s not going to work.”

Brown was first elected to the Senate in 2006, after 14 years representing Northeast Ohio in the House.

Like Trump, he’s a staunch critic of free-trade agreements. Brown has written a book criticizing trade deals, opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement in the House and bucked former President Barack Obama on the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Pacific Rim trade deal, stating it would siphon jobs away from the United States — a decision Brown cheered. 

But Brown has also been at the forefront of several battles against Trump and his Cabinet. He teamed up with Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee to block confirmation votes on Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price after media reports shed doubts on the accuracy of their testimony before the committee.

As the top Democrat on the Senate Banking Committee, Brown has promised to fight any efforts to repeal or roll back major portions of the Dodd-Frank banking regulations. He’s also spoken out against Trump’s reliance on Wall Street veterans in the upper echelons of his administration.

“The White House looks like a retreat for Goldman Sachs executives,” Brown said of the several bank alumni working for Trump. “I think he’s listening way more to the corporate Republican establishment than he is his voters.”

Trump’s agenda still poses some opportunities for bipartisan collaboration with Democrats. His skepticism of trade deals and interest in hundreds of billions in infrastructure spending both align with longstanding Democratic goals.

But much of the Democratic Party’s base is urging total resistance to Trump’s agenda. Some lawmakers have fallen in line, jamming committee hearings and legislation with calls for Trump’s tax returns and concerns about the influence of Russia in the 2016 presidential election.

Centrist Democrats in the Senate, some of whom face tough reelection fights in 2018, have been more willing to work with Trump.

Brown falls somewhere in between, insisting he’d work with Trump on enforcing trade laws and building infrastructure projects with American-made products — as long as Trump’s policies help Ohio.

Brown also has found common ground with Republicans on financial issues. He teamed with Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) on a Finance Committee working group mulling ways to help workers save for retirement. 

Crapo, chairman of the Banking Committee, and Brown frequently mention their strong working relationship despite major disagreements over the Dodd-Frank. Both have raised the possibility of working together on regulatory relief for community banks and credit unions. 

All the while, Brown has taken strong progressive stances on major financial issues, fiercely defending Dodd-Frank and Obama-era worker protections. He clashed with former Securities and Exchange Commission Chairwoman Mary Jo White, an Obama appointee who was seen as too close to the industry by progressives, and also spoke out against Lawrence Summers when he was considered by Obama to replace Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in 2013.

Brown has faced few close elections since joining Congress. After serving seven terms in the House, Brown cruised through the 2006 Democratic Senate primary and defeated incumbent Sen. Mike DeWine (R) 56 percent to 44 percent in the general election.

Brown was a top Republican target in 2012 but defeated Ohio atate Treasurer Josh Mandel, 51 percent to 45 percent, in one of the most expensive and spotlighted Senate races in the country. Obama won Ohio by 3 points against Mitt Romney in that election, half of Brown’s lead over Mandel.

Mandel, 39 years old and considered a top GOP prospect, is challenging Brown again and isn’t expect to face much Republican opposition. Rep. Pat Tiberi (R-Ohio), who had been considering a run, announced Tuesday that he won’t challenge Brown.

Brown’s race is one of few bright spots on a daunting 2018 Senate map for Democrats, who have to defend 10 seats in states Trump won.

Early polling indicates a tight race between Brown and Mandel. University of Virginia electoral analyst Larry Sabato rated the race as “leans Democratic.” Brown has led Mandel in fundraising, pulling in $2.4 million in the first quarter of 2017 compared to Mandel’s $1.5 million.

Some state Republicans say Brown’s enduring appeal in Ohio comes from his willingness to overlook political differences for common interests. Brown and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former U.S. trade representative, often work together on issues affecting the state’s exports.     

Rep. Dave Hobson (R-Ohio) served in Congress with Brown from 1993 to 2009 and said the senator’s open approach has made some of the state’s conservative groups more comfortable with a Democratic senator.

“He’s really trying to get things done to improve the quality of life in Ohio,” Hobson said. “I don’t think he’s given up any of his deep convictions in doing that, but he’s trying to be helpful wherever he can.”

Brown also gets high marks from the Ohio Farm Bureau, a right-leaning advocacy group for the state’s agriculture community.

Adam Sharp, the bureau’s president, said Brown and the group have built a strong working relationship despite their political differences.   

“They always have an open door with us,” Sharp said. “He’s hired very good staff over the years and he’s been a very real influential player in the Farm Bill policy making.”

As Democrats look to reverse electoral losses, Brown says that “real populism” could sustain the party.

“I don’t look at it as a strategy for or against Donald Trump,” he added. “I will work with [the administration] unless they go with their special interest friends in the end, and then all deals are off.”

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Mike Crapo Rob Portman Sherrod Brown
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