Sherrod Brown makes his pitch as Democrats' voice of the worker

Lauren Gambino in Brunswick, Ohio
Senator Sherrod Brown speaks at a rally in Brunswick, Ohio, before kicking off his multi-state tour of states that cast pivotal early votes in the 2020 presidential primary. Photograph: Tony Dejak/AP

Sherrod Brown may not have decided yet whether he’s running for the White House in 2020. But the Ohio Democrat certainly sounded like a candidate vying for a chance to take on Donald Trump.

On Wednesday night, the senator previewed his populist, pro-worker message to a hometown crowd in Brunswick, near Cleveland, Ohio – the official launch of his “Dignity of Work” tour that will wind through the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. In his remarks here, Brown laid out the themes that would likely shape a presidential campaign while drawing a sharp contrast with the president.

“Donald Trump doesn’t respect the dignity of work – he has betrayed workers,” Brown, 66, told the crowd of more than 200 longtime supporters, union workers and liberal activists who braved the sub-zero temperatures gripping the region to attend.

He accused Trump of peddling “phony populism to distract from the fact that he has used the White House to enrich billionaires like himself”.

“Real populism is not racist,” Brown said, his gravelly baritone rasping as he became more animated. “Real populism is never antisemitic. Real populists don’t engage in hate speech. And real populists don’t rip babies from their families at the border.”

While Brown draws clear distinctions between his brand from Trump-style populism, he has also set himself apart from the fiery liberalism embraced by some of his colleagues and potential challengers. He has so far not endorsed key progressive priorities such as Medicare for All or a Green New Deal.

“If he’s going to claim the mantle of working-class hero then he has to also embrace the economic populist policies that are popular with voters,” said Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, a political action committee that supports progressive candidates.

Still, his supporters believe the senator is uniquely positioned to be the party’s standard-bearer in 2020.

“An economic populist from the midwest? He’s a unicorn in this race,” said Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, and a co-chair of an effort to “draft” Brown into running.

She argued that Brown’s message – which is often cast as a cri de cœur for “white working-class” voters who abandoned Democrats for Trump in 2016 – has a far more universal appeal.

“The worker is women. The worker is folks of color. The worker is white guys,” she said, adding: “Sherrod isn’t choosing between them. He’s advocating for all of them.”

Whether Brown decides to run or not, his dignity of work themes could serve as a playbook for Democrats in the heartland, said David Pepper, the chairman of the Ohio Democratic party, which will remain neutral in the primary.

“He’s a reminder to people that Ohio is winnable,” Pepper said. “And if we turn Ohio blue, that’s the end of the Trump presidency.”

Brown was a champion of populist economic policies long before Trump captured Ohio – once the consummate battleground state – by eight percentage points in 2016. But he suddenly became a very serious contender in November, when the senator won re-election to a third term by six percentage points as every other major Democrat running statewide fell short.

He declared that his victory was a “blueprint for our nation in 2020”.

Over the next few weeks, Brown will road-test this theory, beginning in Iowa on Thursday.

Senator Sherrod Brown takes photos with supporters in Brunswick, Ohio, who braved sub-zero temperatures to attend his rally. Photograph: Tony Dejak/AP

Joining him for the ride is his wife, Connie Schultz, a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist who spent many years writing for the Cleveland Plain Dealer daily newspaper.

Schultz, introducing her husband to longtime supporters, told a story about the first time Brown met her father.

She said her father, a “proud member of Utility Workers Local 270”, thought he already knew what he needed to know about Brown, who was at the time a US congressman. But once introduced, Brown peppered him with questions about his union benefits and his pension.

Afterward, her father delivered his verdict: “He’s us, in a tie.”

Brown has cultivated a “rumpled” image, so much so that even a fresh haircut generated buzz about his presidential ambitions. (His wife offered an alternative: “You know, honey, you just don’t have the schedule for regular haircuts. Let’s ask Carlo to cut it short this Saturday.”

On the lapel of his suits – which, he is fond of reminding anyone in earshot, are made by union workers who live 10 miles from his home in Cleveland – he wears a canary pin, a symbol of what the coalminers used to carry with them into the mines to detect poisonous gas.

That everyman appeal and longstanding links to organized labor and blue-collar workers have helped him rise high – and remain - in Ohio politics.

He won his first race for state legislature months after he graduated from Yale, at just 22 years old. When the legislature was not in session, Brown spent his time in union halls, with the workers who would stand by him even as they steadily drifted from the Democratic party.

Brown was elected to the House of Representatives in 1992, where he began to distinguish himself as one of the more liberal members of his party. On Wednesday, he touted as proof of his longstanding commitment to workers’ rights and progressive causes his votes against Nafta, the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993, and against what he called the “wrongly named” Defense of Marriage Act, which barred same-sex couples from marrying, in 1996.

“Too often, people – Democratic activists and pundits – act like our party has to choose between advocating for strong progressive values that excite our base, which we do, or talking to working-class voters about their lives,” he said on Wednesday, speaking at a warehouse in Brunswick.

“For us, it’s not either/or,” he continued: “We will always do both.”

Should he run, Brown would jump into what will probably be a historically diverse primary field after a midterm season dominated by the success of Democratic women and candidates of color. He also enters as a virtual unknown to voters outside the state, especially by comparison with Senator Bernie Sanders and former vice-president Joe Biden, both of whom are mulling runs in 2020 and generate support among working-class voters.

In Brunswick, Brown recalled Trump’s promise to bring back manufacturing jobs. “Don’t move. Don’t sell your house,” Trump told people in Youngstown, Ohio, at a rally in 2017.

Now General Motors is threatening to close its Lordstown plant and Trump, the senator said, is not going to bat for the workers who helped deliver him the presidency.

“Now that jobs are on the line,” Brown said, “he’s not lifting a finger.”