Sherrod Brown, the popular Democratic senator from the crucial swing state of Ohio, has ruled himself out for a presidential run, saying that he would stay where he was and “do everything he can to elect a Democratic president and Democratic Senate”. He is uniquely well placed to do both – but there may be a difficult choice involved. Deciding to sit aside from the increasingly crowded Democratic primary field means that Brown is now even more attractive as a proposition for vice-president on the ticket of whoever emerges victorious from the primary.
It is probably not much of an exaggeration to say that Brown is the best candidate by miles with whom to anchor a presidential ticket as its vice-presidential nominee. In 2018, when many Ohio statewide elections swung Republican, Brown won reelection to his senate seat by a more-than-comfortable seven percentage points. (Trump won the state two years earlier by eight points.)
A progressive and a true blue-collar economic populist – as opposed to the more academic style of populism embodied by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders – Brown occasionally has found common ground with Trump in terms of his opposition to free trade. He is also incredibly well-liked across the Midwest, and is now perfectly positioned to be a power-broker – even kingmaker – within the party.
It will not have escaped the notice of any of the Democratic contenders that, if they ran with Brown, they could basically bank Ohio, plus expect a much easier campaign in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Nothing in American politics is ever certain, but that is undoubtedly the kind of ticket Republicans will fear most – a Midwest anchored by Brown would be an incredibly difficult electoral firewall for Trump to overcome.
Whoever is at the top of the ticket – whether it’s Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Beto O’Rourke, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren or anyone else – Brown makes for a much more favourable electoral map than the one they would face without him, even before you factor in the faltering economy, closing factories, and Trump’s dismal national approval-ratings.
Brown’s political positions are close to that of the rising progressive base in the Democratic party, and his blue-collar credentials and rousing speaking style make him an incredibly attractive vice-presidential pick; he is that rare figure who is just as much a draw for oldschool working-class union members, many of whom held their noses and voted for Trump in 2016, as he is for the party’s rising young progressives.
When he announced that he would not seek the presidency, Brown notably did not say that he would refuse the tap to join a presidential ticket, and it is very easy to see how any eventual Democratic nominee would see him as able to play a role similar to that which Joe Biden played for Barack Obama – an outrider who can reach out to blue-collar workers, leaving the job of higher oratory, inspiration, and glass-ceiling-breaking to the presidential pick at the top of the ticket.
There is one large problem, however, with picking Brown as a running-mate, and that problem is the Senate. If Brown steps down from his seat to become vice-president, he leaves the seat open for the rest of his term. That vacancy would be filled by appointment by the state’s governor – a Republican. In some states, a special election is then held – but Ohio is not among them, so the appointee would last until the seat comes up for reelection in 2024.
With the majority in the US upper house currently held by Republicans by a razor-thin majority, every seat is incredibly important for both sides; Brown’s seat could mean the difference between a new Democratic president having a Democratic or a Republican Senate for at least the first four years of their term, and perhaps longer if the Republican appointee goes on to win reelection when the seat come up again in 2024. (Unlike members of the House of Representatives, who must be reelected every two years, a senator only faces reelection every six years.)
Still, if the polling closer to the election suggests that other Senate seats might be in play which would mean Brown’s seat is not the lynchpin of the chamber, that might lessen the ‘Sophie’s Choice’ element of picking him. If that’s the case, the party might decide that one Senate seat is a price worth paying for a candidate who could put the presidency in the bag – as close as anyone can be said to do so in these uncertain times.