WATERLOO, Iowa — Sen. Sherrod Brown’s pitch to be president is that he’s the right kind of populist.
He found plenty of encouragement during his first trip to Iowa, where the first caucuses of 2020 are now less than a year away. But the Ohioan also left a few Democrats pondering whether, in a large and liberal field, Brown is populist enough.
Brown’s pro-worker message and progressive politics would be at the heart of his campaign if he officially runs for president. (He said Friday that he and his wife, nationally syndicated columnist Connie Schultz, will decide in March.) But there were moments on his three-day Iowa tour that ended this weekend that show that, if he runs, he’ll have to sell Democrats on a strand of populism that is more pragmatic and restrained than many favor.
“His nuanced answer surprised me, because he has come across as populist and progressive,” Steve Drahozal, the Dubuque County Democratic chair, told BuzzFeed News on Saturday at a hip coffee shop where Brown had just tackled a question about Medicare for All. “I think it may appeal to people who are more centrist, more moderate.”
Pragmatic populism could be risky at time when many on the left want instant gratification and candidates who will pledge unequivocal support for progressive policies — like Medicare for All — that have energized their base. Brown was asked about the universal health care cause several times over the start of his Dignity of Work tour, by both the reporters chronicling his travels and the curious activists who came to meet him.
Each time, he talked about how for years he refused congressional health insurance while pushing for universal coverage. He also preached an incremental solution that starts by moving up Medicare eligibility to age 55. Ruth Walker, a 78-year-old retiree from Cedar Falls, was having none of it.
“Advocating partway measures,” she lectured Brown during a Friday night house party in nearby Waterloo, “is not going to work.”
Brown was polite, but unbending, in disagreement.
“My ideology says universal coverage today, just like yours does,” he told Walker. “But I want to see people’s lives better, and we’ll keep having this debate. People will say, ‘Medicare for All, Medicare for All,’ and nothing will change. And I think if we can make that change of Medicare at 55, or Medicare at 50, it will make all the difference in the world for millions of people and then we get to the next step. Otherwise it’s this sort of tilting at windmills, where everybody feels good saying, ‘I’m for Medicare for All, I’m for Medicare for All,’ but nothing changes.”
Brown called this first trip to Iowa a listening tour. He got quite an earful — and not only from the Medicare for All crowd.
There also was the millennial in Mason City who scolded Brown and J.D. Scholten, the Democrat who nearly unseated Rep. Steve King last fall, for the earned income tax credit event they staged in the middle of a workday. (“I mean, dude, it’s 10 a.m. on a Friday.”)
And there was the farmer in Perry who advised Brown to not spend too much time qualifying his support for trade tariffs. It’s a touchy subject in this agriculture-dominant state — and one where Brown initially sided with Trump but now is questioning the long-term implications of the sanctions.
But there also were moments when Brown was able to establish a deeper populist bond — moments that can help launch a campaign.
A roundtable in Clinton gave him a chance to hear from labor leaders, a cohort that has long been allied with Brown. At the coffee shop in Dubuque, Bill Stumpf introduced his son with an intellectual disability, Kyle, who was celebrating a birthday. Brown led the crowd in singing “Happy Birthday” and then turned Stumpf’s question about support for workers with disabilities into an opportunity to highlight his friendship with Tom Harkin, the “prairie populist” former Iowa senator who ran for president in 1992. The Dubuque crowd roared with cheers at Harkin’s name: “Our hero,” Stumpf replied.
Brown mentioned Harkin at other stops and said he spoke to him before arriving in Iowa. Brown also repeatedly introduced activists to his Senate chief of staff, Sarah Benzing, an Iowa native who is an experienced Democratic operative in the state. At the house party in Waterloo, he confirmed she will be his national campaign manager if he runs for president, showing Iowans how important their caucuses would be to his 2020 strategy.
As he left his final event Saturday in Clinton — the labor roundtable, on an old college campus converted into an academy for international students — Brown, who will travel to New Hampshire this week and has plans to visit other early-voting states, sounded eager for more.
“We did have a blast,” Brown told BuzzFeed News. “If I do this, there’s going to be a happy warrior. There’s going to be the joy of talking to people. I like this stuff.”
Brown’s tour skipped Iowa’s two most populous cities, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids. Instead, Brown favored smaller places and counties where Democrats lost ground in 2016. His first stop was Cresco, a tiny manufacturing town near the Minnesota border in Howard County, where Barack Obama and Trump both won by more than 20 points. Several activists said Brown was the highest-profile 2020 prospect they’ve seen come through their communities so far; they’re more used to the likes of lower-tier hopefuls such as John Delaney and Andrew Yang.
The tour also marked Schultz's debut on a national campaign trail. The Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, an equal partner in Brown's political career, sometimes was able to frame her husband's political attributes in a way he could not. Her stump speech came off more polished, and at times outshone his. She earned some of the loudest applause, particularly in Waterloo, at the home of Black Hawk County Supervisor Chris Schwartz. (Schwartz unwittingly introduced Schultz to his guests as Brown’s “lovely wife” — a greeting she hates so much that she ironically made it the title of a book.)
While acknowledging Communications Workers of America union members at the house party, she asked if any of the reporters watching belonged to the affiliated NewsGuild. (None did.) Later, when an activist complained to Brown that news coverage has little substance, Schultz jumped in.
“We have all these journalists in this room,” she said. “We won’t like everything that’s covered, but the reason they’re here is because they are covering issues. I understand the frustration.”
And then, with an attack sure to endear her to their fellow liberals, she picked on Fox News, which had a camera rolling a few feet away: “I hate Fox so-called News. I don’t think that’s journalism, and I think it hurts all of us at times. But if you care about journalism — if you care about democracy — I hope we will continue to support journalists.”
Schultz introduced Brown at most events, offering a backstory that her husband, an Ivy League graduate and son of a doctor, can’t match. Progressives and populists can be an overlapping lot, but Schultz had something for everyone. She talked of being a longtime single mom who only agreed to a first date after researching Brown’s voting record on women’s rights and gay rights. She had activists laughing along with her when she told them how her independence kicked in and she balked the first time Brown offered to make her coffee: “You will not lose your right to vote or your right to own property,” she recalled him saying, “if you let me make your coffee.”
“So I married him,” Schultz said.
The punchline line drew a deadpan response from her husband in Waterloo: “It was that easy.”
Schultz also channeled past columns to talk about her late father, a lunch pail-carrying utility worker, and how she was the first in her family to go to college. She recalled the time Brown first met her father and spent an entire lunch asking questions about his union retirement benefits. Afterward, “as we were walking out to the car,” Schultz said in Cresco, “my dad tugged on my sleeve and he said, ‘He’s us in a tie.’”
Workers, Brown emphasized everywhere he went — at one point even correcting a reporter who asked about his appeal to blue-collar workers — can be blue- or white-collar. His message applies to you whether you “swipe a badge or punch a clock” or “shower before work or after work.” And Brown never donned a tie in Iowa, instead favoring casual sweaters (a quarter-zip pullover, a mock-neck cable-knit, and a polo collar), khakis, and sneakers. He also wore his trademark canary pin, explaining how it symbolizes the fight for workers’ rights.
“He brings out Bernie Sanders without being Bernie Sanders. The hair, the talking with his arms folded. He’s just a regular guy.”
“Look at him,” Mark Suby, a retired parks superintendent in Mason City, said after listening to Brown during his event with Scholten at a Hy-Vee grocery store. “He looks just like me.”
Laura Hubka, the Democratic chair in Howard County, had a similar thought after Brown’s event in Cresco: “He looks like your everyday worker. He brings out Bernie Sanders without being Bernie Sanders. The hair, the talking with his arms folded. He’s just a regular guy.”
This is the message Brown has pushed in the many national profiles and television interviews he’s had since announcing he is considering a run for president. The media interest in Brown’s preparations continued in Iowa. More than a dozen journalists — including local and national reporters, and reporters following Brown from Ohio — were on the trip. At a few of the early events, they appeared to outnumber activists and voters.
Suby, like several others who spoke to BuzzFeed News, said he liked what he heard from Brown but also is interested in the women running or maybe running for president: Sens. Kamala Harris of California, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. Few showed excitement when asked about Sanders, who nearly won the caucuses in 2016, and former vice president Joe Biden. Both could be early frontrunners if they decide to run. Scholten and several county chairs said they have yet to hear much from Biden or his allies.
Brown also played up his success in Ohio, which like Iowa is a Midwest battleground state where Trump won decisively after Obama won both states twice. He jokingly reminded Iowa Democrats that their states have more in common than four-letter names with three vowels.
“He’s obviously well positioned to win back the states that we as Democrats are going to need if we are to defeat the forces of evil,” said Kurt Meyer, chair of the Mitchell County Democrats in northern Iowa. “That’s a good position to be in. Not everyone can make that claim. If you’re from California or if you're from Massachusetts, OK, that’s great. And that’s not to say you can’t win here. But it is to say you know he’s done it. He’s got a record of winning in Ohio!”
Brown would need Democrats to think that pragmatically, if not on universal health care, then at least on the broader implications of nominating a candidate who can win tough states. (While in Iowa, he emphasized his votes against NAFTA, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the Iraq War to flex his progressive bona fides. When a reporter asked him if Medicare for All backers were expecting too much, too fast, Brown replied: “That’s your judgment call.”)
And by Saturday, when he visited Dubuque and Clinton along the Mississippi River, there were reasons for optimism. His crowds were larger, and even his Medicare for All answer drew cheers.
“It sounds like a good start,” said Terry Stewart, a retired firefighter who heard Brown speak in Dubuque. “Democratic caucusgoers want to find success. They want to get out of this horrible situation we’re in with Trump. I don’t think Iowans are going to be purists.”
Bernie Sanders came second in the 2016 Iowa caucuses. A previous version of this story misstated the result.