CLEVELAND — Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio said Thursday that he will not run for president in 2020, a decision that comes after months of preparations for the Democratic primaries and just days after he appeared to be leaning toward a launch later this month.
Brown, who revealed his plans in a conference call with reporters from his home state, said he could be more effective in the Senate, where he just won a third term.
"I am just letting you know: I will not run for president in 2020," Brown said on the call, which BuzzFeed News was invited to join. "You’ve heard me say many times that when you love this country, you fight for the people who make it work. I fight best when I bring joy to the battle. I find that joy fighting for Ohio in the Senate."
Brown, 66, said he made the decision Wednesday, a few days after he concluded a "Dignity of Work" tour of the first four caucus and primary states. The tour was intended to advance Brown's labor-friendly populism while planting seeds for a national campaign. In an interview Saturday with BuzzFeed News, he acknowledged that his would-be Democratic rivals had begun to echo his "Dignity of Work" theme, but he still believed he was the best messenger for such issues. Brown also said his family was fully on board with a run and that he had lined up staff.
All of that made Thursday's announcement a surprise.
"I’m confident some of these — one or a number of these candidates, whom I know are generally in the right place in their politics, will pick this up," Brown said on the call when pressed on how his thought process had changed since last weekend.
He added that he was not so much encouraged by the candidates amplifying his "Dignity of Work" themes as he was by the voters "demanding a candidate" who would talk about them. He has no plans to endorse a candidate right away and instead hopes to keep pushing Democrats to run on issues such as higher wages and the earned income tax credit, which he has championed in the Senate.
Brown believes he can serve as a party elder for 2020. "I want to counsel them and mentor them and help them," he said of younger Democrats.
A progressive fixture of the labor movement with one of the most reliably liberal voting records in Congress, Brown used his tour to position himself slightly more toward the center than some of the other Democratic hopefuls. A past proponent of single-payer health care, he did not embrace Medicare for All, instead favoring a more incremental approach: Medicare at 50. He also resisted calls to endorse the Green New Deal environmental agenda, dismissing it as sloganeering while still calling climate change "the greatest moral issue" facing Americans.
Brown is one of four Democrats to rule out a presidential campaign this week. His decision was the most unexpected, though, given that he had just completed the tour and that he and his wife, nationally syndicated columnist Connie Schultz, had submitted themselves repeatedly to the kinds of national profiles that help introduce a new candidate to voters. He and Schultz also appeared to be enjoying their travels and relishing the signs of encouragement. (Last week in Florence, South Carolina, for example, Brown scored an enthusiastic endorsement from the mayor.)
But Brown also is an older white man who would have joined a race where diversity could be a selling point for candidates eager to run against President Donald Trump. Two of the other three Democrats to pass on the race this week — Sen. Jeff Merkley and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg — are also older white men.
On Thursday, Brown didn't rule out accepting next year's vice presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton considered him for her running mate in 2016, a missed opportunity that disappointed Brown, he told BuzzFeed News last year.
"I’m not thinking about that," he said. "This is a discussion far away from that. It's just not a concern of mine right now. I want to stay in the arena and fight. I don't aspire to be vice president, and I don't think a presidential candidate would want to give up a Senate seat to choose me anyway."
But Brown said that same consideration — a Republican governor choosing his successor in the Senate — did not factor into his decision not to run for president: "Most Democrats would trade a Senate seat for the presidency. I think that’s a pretty good trade for our side."
There also had been speculation that Brown's decision could hinge on the 2020 plans of former vice president Joe Biden, who is 10 years older. Brown rejected that thinking during his tour and said Thursday that he was not standing down out of "fear of any specific opponent." He also said he was not worried about "process" or about raising money.
But despite all the encouragement Brown received in his six weeks on the national tour, there were plenty of signs of what a challenge a campaign would be. He never registered above low single digits in polls that included his name. In Florence, at the same event where he received the mayor's endorsement, half of his audience was an out-of-state boys tennis team stranded at the hotel because of a canceled match. The following afternoon, he attended an oyster roast in Summerville, South Carolina, sharing a forum with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, an announced candidate.
After their speeches, dozens of oyster roast attendees mobbed Booker for selfies. Brown and Schultz stood nearby, a more modest crowd gathered around them.