CLEVELAND, OHIO — Sherrod Brown didn’t want to talk about strategy.
Asked by reporters Monday morning about his tactics as he faces reelection this fall, the two-term Democratic senator interrupted to say he wasn’t going to discuss it. But watching the scene as Brown interacted with constituents in a Cleveland community center after speaking at an event billed as “African Americans for Sherrod,” his strategy was clear.
Brown spoke for about 20 minutes and was immediately swarmed afterward. Roughly 100 people, mostly older and mostly African American, showed up to see him. Many sported Cavaliers gear after their local team, led by their local hero, went down 0-2 to the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals the night before.
They welcomed Brown, a middle-aged white senator, much like they’d probably welcome LeBron James himself. Brown couldn’t move three feet without being wrapped into a hug or wrangled for a selfie.
“To me, he’s consistent,” Ben Goldstein, a 79-year-old pastor, told ThinkProgress about why he came to support Brown Monday. “I understand that government is for the people, by the people, and of the people, and Sherrod seems to understand that. He’s put himself in the position to actually represent and serve the people.”
Another attendee, 71-year-old Virginia Talley, said Brown inspired her to take on the responsibility of making sure her friends and community members — many of whom she said don’t vote — get to the polls.
“I will make sure that changes,” Talley, who lives in Akron, said of her friends who don’t vote. “He reached out to me… [so] I’m going to make it my personal job to see that more people get to the polls, especially the young voters.”
This, it became clear, was Brown’s strategy: Show up. Talk about the things people care about — the policies that affect their real lives — and don’t give into the pressure for Democrats to slither to the middle.
As he runs for a third term, Brown has honed in on the same economic populist message that got him to the Senate in the first place. On Monday, he championed voting rights and railed against the recent tax overhaul signed into law by President Trump.
So far, it looks like it’s working.
Brown is one of 10 Democratic senators running for reelection in states Trump won in 2016 and widely considered one of the safest of the bunch. Monday’s event made clear that Brown’s approach, with a focus on economic populism and minority voters, is one many Democrats might do well to emulate.
“He reached out to me… [so] I’m going to make it my personal job to see that more people get to the polls, especially the young voters.”
The question of how Democrats can win in Trump country is perhaps the most central one facing the left today. Earlier this year, Rep. Conor Lamb’s (D-PA) victory in a Pennsylvania special election was heralded as proof that disavowing Nancy Pelosi, embracing guns, and walking a fine line on abortion was the way to win.
Others looked to Arizona, where in April, Hiral Tipirneni, a doctor, first-time candidate, and woman of color, handed the GOP what was considered by some their biggest special election embarrassment yet. Though Tipirneni lost and Republicans held the seat, her focus on health care and protecting Social Security and Medicare put the district Trump won by more than 20 points in contention.
But many in Brown’s position have taken a different path. In Indiana, Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) has taken to touting his Trump-supporting bonafides, as has Sen. Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota (D). In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) seems simply to be blessed with inexplicable good luck. All three races are considered toss-ups.
In Ohio, however, a recent poll had Brown leading his Republican opponent, Rep. Jim Renacci, by 14 points and most pollsters rate the race as leaning for Democrats.
Brown’s strategy has also proved itself to be a winning one in the Trump era. Last month in Georgia, former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, Stacey Abrams, scored a historic win in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, becoming the first black woman nominee for governor from any major party in the country.
“You know who the base of the Democratic party is? Isn’t it clear and obvious? It’s African American women.”
While Abrams’ primary challenger, Stacey Evans, tried to tap into rural support and flip moderate Republicans, Abrams, a progressive endorsed by the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), focused on tapping into minority support. Abrams won with 76.5 percent of the vote.
And it was black voters who saved America from Roy Moore last December. Moore, lest we forget, was credibly accused of child sex abuse during the race, and Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) was propelled to a historic upset after turnout in black counties for the special election was between 72 and 77 percent of the 2016 vote, compared to just 55 to 60 percent of the 2016 vote in rural white counties. In Russell County, which is 40 percent black, Jones beat the New York Times estimate by 14 points.
“You know who the base of the Democratic party is? Isn’t it clear and obvious?” Brown asked after taking the mic Monday. “It’s African American women.”
During the speech, Brown recalled Barack Obama, then a junior senator from Illinois, making a visit to Ohio during the 2008 campaign and got nostalgic remembering Obama’s message of hope and change. That hope can feel far away now, he admitted.
“It’s pretty amazing that even in the year 2018, we have to defend the affirmation that black lives matter. We have to say ‘black lives matter,’” Brown said. “We acknowledge the disparities between black men and black women and their white counterparts.”
Brown, who’s made his name in Ohio and inside the beltway as a died-in-the-wool economic populist, also hit the recent tax overhaul signed into law by Trump.
“The tax bill… serves wall street and not the middle class,” Brown told the crowd Monday, vowing to fight back and adding that the stakes of this election “could not be higher.”
The tax law is the administration’s crowning — and sole — major legislative achievement heading into the midterms. Ultimately, the law raises taxes on middle class people making between $40,000 and $50,000 a year by more than $5 billion while cutting taxes by more than $5.5 billion for people making more than $1 million a year. It punishes wage-earning employees, creates a litany of loopholes for corporations, and repeals the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, a move that will — conservatively — kill 10,000 people every year.
“If that’s their biggest accomplishment, they’ve got a problem,” the senator told ThinkProgress following his remarks. “I hear almost no support for it. I hear fear that because they blew a hole in the deficit they’re going to come back and raise the eligibility age of Medicaid and Social Security.”
“If that’s their biggest accomplishment, they’ve got a problem.”
Brown went on, saying, “They proposed cuts to all kinds of things that help middle class people and working class people that aspire to the middle class, and this tax bill is a loser for them.”
That message, voters told ThinkProgress Monday, is one they wish they’d hear more often.
“I think the Democrats would do well to take and really become conscious of the real issues that face our community rather than party platforms,” Goldstein, the pastor said.
Avery McCauley, 60, a Cleveland voter, echoed that sentiment.
“It should be more cohesive,” McCauley said of the Democratic Party’s relationship with black voters. “It should be more of a more cohesive working relationship amongst us all in order to get the proper leaders in place where they can enhance our quality of life.”
She added, “What I believe is sometimes politicians forget that you gotta have constant contact with their base. If you don’t have constant contact with your base, it may seem as though that base is disenfranchised.”