WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Ohio’s Sherrod Brown faces a vexing question: In a 2020 Democratic presidential race already crowded with some of the party’s biggest progressive stars, is there room for his perpetually rumpled brand of blue-collar populism?
Brown, one of the U.S. Senate’s staunchest liberals, kicked off a tour of early primary states on Wednesday to try to find out.
His allies say his support for liberal social causes and his proven appeal to blue-collar workers make him a uniting force in a party debating whether to focus on winning back working class voters who favored Republican Donald Trump in 2016 or rally the suburban, women and minority voters who fueled the party’s gains in last November’s congressional elections.
But Brown also is a 66-year-old white male in a party considering a new generation of leadership and driven by the diversity that propelled record numbers of women, and many minority candidates, into the U.S. House of Representatives.
David Betras, the Democratic Party chairman of Ohio’s heavily blue-collar Mahoning County, said Brown “is genuinely wrestling” with whether to launch a White House bid.
“He’s the perfect antidote for Donald Trump,” said Betras, who had lunch with Brown recently. “Sherrod Brown was running on economic populism before Donald Trump knew what it meant.”
In a Democratic race featuring progressive leaders with far bigger national profiles such as Senators Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and possibly Bernie Sanders, Brown remains relatively unknown and untested outside Ohio despite more than two decades as one of the most liberal voices in Congress.
He relishes his disheveled image, letting people know he drives a Jeep Cherokee made in Toledo, Ohio, and wears suits made within 10 miles of his Cleveland home.
He caught the attention of national Democrats in November, when he easily won a third U.S. Senate term even though Republicans swept every other statewide contest. Trump won the state by 8 percentage points in 2016.
Brown said in his victory speech that the result proved “progressives can win - and win decisively - in the heartland” and provided a blueprint for Democrats in 2020.
“He’s the right messenger with the right message, and I don’t see anybody else out there offering that approach,” said Dayton’s Democratic mayor, Nan Whaley, who started a “Draft Sherrod Brown” group to urge him to run.
Brown says he is still weeks away from a decision about running, and he wants to talk to people in early voting states before he decides.
He kicked off his “Dignity of Work” listening tour outside Cleveland on Wednesday before heading to the crucial kickoff state of Iowa. Trips to New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada will follow.
“Too often 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,” Brown said in Brunswick, which is located south of Cleveland. “It’s not an either/or ... we will always do both.”
Labor and progressive leaders said there was plenty of time and interest for Brown to make his case for the White House against better-known competitors. Most groups do not plan endorsements until later in the year.
Brown has demonstrated a strong ability to raise campaign cash, bringing in more than $28 million for his Senate re-election last year. That included more than 162,000 individual donors with an average contribution of approximately $43, his campaign said.
While a proponent of the goal of universal healthcare, he has refused to back a “Medicare for all” bill supported by many other Democrats considering a White House bid. He prefers a buy-in for Medicare - the healthcare program for seniors that kicks in at age 65 - for those 55 and older, calling it a more realistic step.
A longtime opponent of free trade agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement, Brown has supported Trump’s trade views and blocked a bipartisan Senate effort to limit the president’s power to impose tariffs. Brown believes national policies have not always represented the best interests of auto and other manufacturing workers in his state.
Ohio Republicans questioned Brown’s growing national reputation for electability in the industrial Midwest, noting he beat a weak Republican challenger in U.S. Representative Jim Renacci.
“He’s a good communicator, but what is he communicating?” asked Jon Stainbrook, a former Republican chairman in Lucas County, a big automaking center. “He comes across as the friend of the working man, but he’s just another Democratic liberal.”
But Leo Connelly, 71, a disabled Vietnam veteran and Trump supporter from Youngstown, Ohio, who voted for Brown last year, said he was convinced of Brown’s sincerity.
“I would go in a foxhole with him any day, I really believe he is there for us,” Connelly said.
Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Grant McCool and Leslie Adler