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In critical South Carolina, Sherrod Brown lost the race to form first impression with primary voters

South Carolina will be critical to the hopes of 2020 candidates, and Sherrod Brown didn't have a foothold.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) speaks at the Lovelady Brewing Company on February 23, 2019 in Henderson, Nevada. Brown, who announced Thursday he would not run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, met with voters as part of his Dignity of Work listening tour of early-voting primary states.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) speaks at the Lovelady Brewing Company on February 23, 2019 in Henderson, Nevada. Brown, who announced Thursday he would not run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, met with voters as part of his Dignity of Work listening tour of early-voting primary states. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Over the past few months, as one hopeful politician after another threw their hat into the 2020 race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, I’ve given special attention to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), watching his deliberations from afar and waiting to see if he would join the swelling cast of characters seeking the Oval Office.

On Thursday afternoon, Brown announced that he would not be running for president and as you might imagine, it was like a bolt of lightning in a clear sky. Citing the way in which his “Dignity of Work” tour had influenced the messaging of other Democratic presidential hopefuls, Brown’s brief statement on the matter indicated that he would continue that work from his seat in the U.S. Senate and work alongside the Democratic party faithful to defeat President Donald Trump in the 2020 general election.

“We’ve seen candidates begin taking up the dignity of work fight, and we have seen voters across the country demanding it – because the dignity of work is a value that unites all of us,” Brown said in a statement. “It is how we beat Trump, and it is how we should govern.”

I’ve known Brown for more than a decade, having previously worked as a columnist in Cleveland, Ohio. There, I shared an office with Brown’s wife, the Pulitzer-prize winning Connie Schultz, a fellow columnist at The Plain Dealer newspaper. Back in those days, I spent countless hours talking politics and more with the two of them; Connie lived next door to me and had a marvelous front-porch swing that was perfect for morning coffee or afternoon wine, and of course, political conversation. I spent enough time with Brown and Schultz to consider them friends.

I was convinced that he would be a candidate for the White House.

But I was equally aware that mounting a presidential campaign comes with a tremendous downside. In his entire political life, Brown has exhibited little enthusiasm to be president and therefore, did next to nothing to promote himself for the job. Though he’s served seven terms in the U.S. House, from 1993 to 2007, and is currently serving his third term in the U.S. Senate, Brown is relatively little-known outside of Ohio’s voting booths and Capitol Hill’s political circles. I had doubts that Brown’s brand of populist campaign messaging would be sufficient to overcome his severe lack of national name recognition or displace the specialized tastes of diverse groups within the Democratic Party.

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Quite frankly, it’s way, way too early to say with authority which of the announced and expected-to-announce Democrats will successfully navigate the maze of primaries and ultimately challenge Trump. But broadly speaking, Democratic primary voters sort themselves into a tradition-bound wing and an activist, hard-left wing — think announced candidates Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is expected to enter the race any day now, will be a dominant occupier of the centrist lane.

Brown’s deliberations over whether to run for the nation’s highest office in 2020 began in earnest during the 2016 presidential campaign. At the time, he was given serious consideration as a potential running mate for Hillary Clinton. Eschewing his close ties to Sanders, Brown was an early and enthusiastic Clinton supporter and in return, ended up the runner-up in the veep sweepstakes to Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA).

Clinton’s decision to tap Kaine instead of Brown was largely attributed to the fact that she was confident of winning the election and didn’t want to lose Brown’s safe Democratic seat in the Senate to a successor who would have been hand-picked by Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich. At the time, Kaine’s own Senate seat would have been filled by Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe.

As the fickle fate of politics would have it, Clinton and Kaine lost to Donald Trump in a shocking general election upset, in which they also lost Ohio, and its all-important electoral votes, by eight points. Brown, meanwhile, won re-election to a third Senate term last year, beating his GOP opponent by 7 points, and becoming the only statewide elected Democrat in Ohio.

“Until this November, we weren’t talking about running for president,” Brown said in a conversation on Wednesday, about the same time he was settling on his decision not to enter the race. “It wasn’t until I saw that the Democrats who were considering running for president weren’t talking to working families of all races about the issues that I thought were important that we began to think seriously about running.”

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Somewhere along the “Dignity of Work” tour, Brown saw the political traffic lights turn from cautionary yellow to stop-on-red. His recently-concluded foray took Brown across the four states that would host the Democrats’ early primaries and caucuses. During this journey to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and most importantly South Carolina, Brown road-tested his worker-friendly campaign mantra, and watched as it failed to ignite the sort of passion he needed to enter the race.

To be sure, Brown neither had a tremendously wide lane in which to run, nor a pathway all to himself that led to the nomination. His decision to bow out makes it all the more likely that Biden will fill the Democrats’ white male, working-class hero gap.

If — or when — Biden enters the race, he would do so as the unofficial favorite and poll-leading Democrat in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. What’s more, a recent Post and Courier poll, conducted by the Columbia, South Carolina newspaper, found that over two-thirds (36 percent) of South Carolina Democrats are waiting anxiously for Biden to announce and then climb on to his bandwagon. The former vice president has sheer popularity and intense name recognition to thank for that, since most voters have not yet focused on an election that won’t take place for nearly a year.

Elaine Poston, day manager at Bazen’s Family Restaurant in Florence, South Carolina, recalled having no idea who Brown was when his staff called and asked for permission for him to come through and talk to customers. “I didn’t have any contact with him when he came in,” Poston said, noting she was too busy to stop serving customers to chat with Brown. “He seemed nice enough and he was just mingling with the customers for about an hour. He was introducing himself and talking to them, and then he left.”

More than any time in the past, Democrats are grappling with how best as a progressive party to appeal to voters who demand attention across always-fraught lines of racial and identity politics. This awareness is exacerbated by the presence of several announced candidates who are women (Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii); two who are African American (Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Harris); one who is Latino (ex-San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro) and one who is Asian American (former tech executive Andrew Yang).

Central to Brown’s work-and-jobs message is the expectation that Democratic voters will subsume individual ideologies and identity issues to embrace an economic populist message.

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“Real populism is never racist,” Brown said in an NPR interview at the kickoff of his listening tour. “It’s never anti-Semitic. It doesn’t divide people. It doesn’t give tax cuts to rich people. It doesn’t do any of those things, real populism. And that’s what this fight is about.”

Brown repeated that message at stop after stop, in his trademark car-rumbling-down-a-gravel-road voice with which Ohioans have become so familiar. Wherever he went, he spoke of every American worker having, at the very least, a $15 an hour wage and affordable heath insurance. To Brown’s mind, an honest day’s work demanded a certain measure of respect. 

“In this society, we don’t value work the way we should,” Brown said during a brief meet-and-greet appearance at Fast Forward Community Technology Center in Columbia, South Carolina. “One job ought to be enough for every human being.”

George Newby, a professor of health administration at Clemson University, said in an interview that while he follows politics in the state fairly closely, he had little knowledge about Brown until he’d seen him on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

“There’s a certain realness about him,” Newby said, adding he wasn’t yet locked into supporting any Democrat this early in the primary season. “Of all these people running, I want to know more about [Brown] than all the rest, but that’s because I know more about Harris and Booker and some of the others who have announced.”

South Carolina is an especially critical state for Democratic hopefuls. The state’s primary, set for February 29, is the first with an electorate that more closely resembles the Democratic Party. While Iowa and New Hampshire, both among the whitest of the states in the nation, take top-billing in the early weeks of the primary season, it’s South Carolina’s electorate that features a whopping helping of black voters.

“Any candidate who does well in South Carolina has to appeal to a broader base than in any of the other early primary states,” said Jamie Lovegrove, a political reporter with the Post and Courier newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina. “It’s a completely different ballgame here because 61 percent of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016 was African-American. Given the anger with Trump, I expect it to be even larger in 2020.”

Indeed, black voters — especially black women, who have demonstrated increased political activity and energy — are a critical component of the Democratic base. As the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries roll through several southern states — including Alabama, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia — along with the delegate-rich California and Texas, black Democratic voters will play an outsized role in determining the party’s nominee.

Antjuan Seawright, president of Blueprint Strategy, a Columbia, South Carolina-based Democratic consulting firm, said black voters in the state are champing at the bit to vote for a candidate to defeat Trump, but haven’t settled yet on who that might be.

“It would be political malpractice for anyone to think they could win here without appealing to black voters,” Seawright said. “If you don’t have maximum participation from the African-American vote, you don’t stand a real chance of coming across the finish line first.”

Seawright liked what he heard from Brown, but suggested that he was facing an uphill battle to beat Harris and Booker, both of whom already had campaign staffs up and running in South Carolina by the time Brown got around to making his first visit to the state.

“I’m not going to count anybody out,” Seawright said days before Brown decided against running. “But Sherrod Brown has to break the speed limit to get South Carolina and he has to turn up the temperature to position himself to be in the game.”

Don Fowler, whose roots in South Carolina politics extend from his stint as a past chairman of the state’s Democratic Party to serving from 1995 to 1997 as national chair of the Democratic National Committee, cautioned that it’s too early to pick winners or losers in South Carolina.  Nevertheless, he observed that the black vote looks strong at this point for Booker and Harris; less so for Brown, whom he hosted at a well-attended, meet-and-greet party.

“Nothing is clear right now,” Fowler said. “But the bottom line question is, can anybody compete with Sen. Harris and Sen. Booker for the black vote in South Carolina? If so, they’re going to have to run a very good campaign and we won’t know the answer for another six months.”

Apparently, that was the message that Brown heard in South Carolina and elsewhere along his listening tour. It was enough to convince him that he couldn’t overcome the obstacles in his path to the White House.