TOLEDO, Ohio — Sherrod Brown sat down to talk trade at a union hall this week, in the city that makes the Jeep he drives, wearing a suit stitched 10 miles from his Cleveland house, and looked right at home.
But one reminder of the pressure he faces stood right outside the door: a tracker from the conservative PAC America Rising, who follows the Ohio Democrat “every place I go” as he runs for a third Senate term in what may be one of the most competitive 2018 contests. Another reminder of his challenge came in remarks by the union official introducing him to a dozen or so United Auto Workers members.
“When I think of the name Sherrod Brown, I think about fair trade. … And it’s nice to finally have a president who’s saying the same thing,” Bruce Baumhower said, in a nod to the pitch that won Donald Trump Ohio by 8 percentage points en route to the White House.
“Whether he does the same thing," Baumhower added, "we’ll find out."
Brown is also waiting to see if Trump will make good on campaign promises to toughen up trade enforcement and renegotiate NAFTA. Ohio’s only statewide elected Democrat who boasts his own penchant for populism, Brown will have to capture some Trump voters if he wants to win reelection. His easiest path to victory may be working with the president on trade as well as infrastructure, two issues where — at least rhetorically — they align.
To that end, Brown is building relationships with a Trump administration that most fellow Democrats have turned on, and with the kind of steps a restive liberal base might view as treachery by another member of their party.
Just eight days after Hillary Clinton’s loss sent Democrats into a tailspin, Brown wrote to Trump offering to partner on trade and got one of the president’s famous hand-written replies scrawled at the top.
During a two-month stretch when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) had no personal contact with Trump, Brown talked to the president in a bid to stop the closure of a 3M plant that put 150 Ohio jobs at risk.
Brown also talked infrastructure with top White House economic adviser Gary Cohn this month and joined Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) in introducing Trump nominee Robert Lighthizer at his confirmation hearing to become U.S. trade representative. Brown calls Lighthizer, who shares the same Ohio hometown as Brown’s wife, “maybe the best pick in the whole administration.”
That doesn’t mean Brown is turning into a Trump cheerleader. The 64-year-old liberal stalwart also reminded the autoworkers that many other Trump nominees want to overturn Obama-era policies designed to protect their lives and livelihoods.
“The people he’s appointing to the Cabinet and sub-Cabinet are people whose life’s goal is what they call a ‘deregulatory, pro-growth agenda’,” Brown told the union members. “But it really is a rollback of protections for workers.”
It’s a fine line to walk, staying open to dealing with Trump on some fronts while sharply opposing the White House agenda on most others. But Brown sees his task simply: keep pushing for the same beliefs he’s had since his first election to the House in 1992.
“I’ll work with him when he’s right for Ohio, and I’ll oppose him when he’s wrong for Ohio,” Brown told POLITICO after his union meeting. “It’s pretty clear what I think on these issues.”
Brown’s alignment with a few of Trump’s goals marks a stark contrast from the last time he faced voters with an unpopular Republican president in office. Brown strenuously opposed President George W. Bush’s agenda on his way to toppling then-Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) in 2006, the year that Schumer helped take back the Senate as the Democrats’ campaign chief.
The Bush years remain a source of encouragement for Brown. Asked how he can stay motivated given the yawning gap between his goals and the White House’s, Brown recalled Democrats’ victory in halting Bush’s bid to privatize Social Security as well as the escalating public opposition to the Iraq War.
Meanwhile, his resolute liberalism in a swing state, epitomized by the canary lapel pin he wears to represent government support for coal miners and other workers, has helped Brown reach across the aisle while staying a darling of the left.
For example, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren took so much flak from progressives for backing Ben Carson’s bid for secretary of housing and urban development that she switched her vote, Brown stayed in the yes camp for Carson. He’s supported nine other top Trump nominees this year — more than double the number of yes votes cast by other Senate Democratic stars such as Bernie Sanders and Cory Booker.
Brown said he hasn’t faced significant blowback from the left for diverging from party orthodoxy at times.
“I got some people mad at me because I voted for Carson,” Brown said. “But I voted for Carson because Carson knows one thing about housing — and that is, there’s too much lead in too many homes and it affects kids’ brain development.”
Brown is expected to face Ohio state Treasurer Josh Mandel next year, a rematch of their 2012 contest that Brown won by 6 percentage points. As Mandel racks up support from conservative groups, making a competitive primary less likely, the 39-year-old Republican’s campaign is already hitting Brown hard for being too liberal for a state where Trump won 80 of 88 counties in November.
“It took Sherrod Brown all of 11 minutes to come out against [Supreme Court Justice] Neil Gorsuch and he votes in lockstep with Elizabeth Warren 97% of the time,” Axiom Strategies vice president Ethan Zorfas, whose firm is advising Mandel’s campaign, wrote in an email.
"Brown led the charge to elect Hillary Clinton in Ohio and called Trump’s movement ‘a counterfeit campaign’," added Zorfas, who also works under former Ted Cruz’s presidential strategist Jeff Roe. "As Senator Brown moves into desperation mode, he will go back into the old Washington playbook of saying anything to get reelected."
Trump won an estimated one-third of the votes of UAW members, at least partly on the strength of his vow to reopen NAFTA and negotiate a better deal for manufacturers in the industrial Midwest that have hemorrhaged jobs in recent years. Winning a third term will require Brown to remind those same working-class voters — many of whom shunned Clinton — about all he’s done for them. His warm welcome at the union hall this week suggests he has a real opening.
"I’m not arguing that Trump didn’t get a lot of working-class voters that I’m going to get in ’18, or got in ’12, or maybe a few Obama got," Brown said. "But I think it’s overstated, particularly from industrial unions, how Trump did."
Brown, whose campaign recently announced a $2.4 million first quarter fundraising haul, is likely to get significant help from the labor movement he’s championed throughout his career. (Mandel’s campaign has yet to release its fundraising figures.)
“Sherrod Brown has always put the economic well-being of Ohio first,” Tim Burga, president of the state’s AFL-CIO chapter, said through a spokesman. “He has worked on these issues for decades, no matter which party was in control of the White House, because he puts what is right for Ohio jobs ahead of party politics.”
Winning next year also may require Brown to play up his ability to work with Trump and Senate Republicans, providing an incentive for him to keep the door open to bipartisan cooperation on trade and infrastructure.
But as he prepared to shift from the union hall to a meeting with anti-hunger advocates, Brown may have unintentionally revealed how hard it will be to find common ground with Trump.
"I hold hope that on some things, like infrastructure, maybe he’ll do it right," Brown said, before admitting that so far, "There’s no sign of doing it right on infrastructure."
Trump’s campaign-trail plan for infrastructure was crafted by two of the administration officials Brown has praised: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and White House trade adviser Peter Navarro. But Democrats, including Brown, have uniformly panned the plan because it aims to spur investment through tax credits, as opposed to providing direct spending.
"They’re talking about Wall Street kinds of financing," Brown told reporters. "Is it just giving incentives for things like pipelines or the electric grid that private-sector companies are going to build anyway?"