FLORENCE, South Carolina — Sen. Sherrod Brown is not impressed with his potential 2020 rivals’ efforts to amplify a pro-worker message and said Saturday that he’s been identifying staff in early-voting states to help him scale up quickly if he launches a presidential campaign later this month.
The Ohio Democrat, completing his Dignity of Work listening tour in the state that holds the first primary in the South, also told BuzzFeed News his family is “absolutely on board” with a run.
“There’s no hold-up,” said Brown, who set a March deadline for deciding. “There’s just sort of crossing every ‘t’ and dotting every ‘i’ and deciding, are we willing to do all this in this race?”
Brown had said previously that his decision would hinge in part on whether other Democrats were making proper overtures to working-class voters. In recent weeks, at least three announced candidates — Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — have echoed Brown’s dignity of work message.
“It has surprised us that this many people, including Republicans — that this many people have begun to talk about the dignity of work,” Brown told BuzzFeed News in an interview. “I don’t think they flesh it out well enough yet or extensively enough. I think they mean it. I don’t mean there’s any insincerity in it. But I think we can’t do it enough.”
So does he still believe he’s the best messenger on those issues?
“I think, yes, I carry it better than anybody else because it’s who I am,” Brown added, “and it’s my career, and nobody can question my authenticity or my genuine feel for this.”
The two-day South Carolina trip was the last on his initial foray into the first four primary and caucus states. As during previous visits to Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada, a social media team closely circled the senator and the people he met, gathering footage that works not only for Twitter and Instagram but, theoretically, would fit seamlessly into any campaign announcement video. (“I’m Teresa Harper, and I believe in the dignity of work.”)
Brown confirmed to BuzzFeed News that he has been recruiting staff nationally and in these early states. He wouldn’t disclose names of prospective hires but said he’s “totally confident” he’d be able to activate a professional operation on day one, between his existing team of longtime loyalists and new people.
“We knew that if we decided yes that we’d have to have people in place or about to be in place from organizing to fundraising to field to communications,” he said.
He announced previously that Sarah Benzing, his Senate chief of staff, would be his national campaign manager and mentioned how his 2018 reelection campaign manager — Justin Barasky, a veteran of Priorities USA, an organization that backed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign — will remain close to the political operation.
“If we get in,” Brown said, “we’ll run the best campaign.”
South Carolina is a state that could be pivotal to Joe Biden’s chances if the former vice president decides to run. He remains well-liked in the state, and many activists here compare him to Brown because of their similar appeal to working-class voters. Asked by a reporter Friday evening if Biden’s plans had any impact on his own, Brown replied bluntly.
“Zero,” he said, before lightening the mood.
“Between slim and none and slim left town, I don’t know? That’s not my original line.”
His latest trip offered Brown encouragement, but also evidence of a mid- to lower-tier candidate who will need some breaks to break out in a large field of Democrats. An event Friday evening at a hotel in downtown Florence had both. The city’s mayor, Stephen Wukela, enthusiastically endorsed Brown. But about half the crowd was a boys tennis team from North Carolina that had its match rained out and had nothing else better to do. (Some of their teammates were trapped in a malfunctioning hotel elevator while Brown held his meet-and-greet.)
“Listen, I support Sen. Brown,” said Wukela — whose father, like Brown — grew up in Mansfield, Ohio. “I hope he decides to run for president, and I know if he does, he’ll be elected. Sherrod’s my favorite. He is a product of the same kind of politics that I’m a part of, which is Midwest liberalism. It’s a liberalism that is founded in economic issues rather than, frankly, issues of identity.”
Saturday’s agenda brought a breakfast stop at a crowded Florence diner — “Who’s the man in the suit? Is he running for president?” — and a Women’s History Month luncheon speech to the Democratic Women’s Council of Darlington County in Hartsville. Later Saturday, Brown and Booker both spoke at an oyster roast put on by the Dorchester County Democrats in Summerville.
There are signs that Brown is making inroads with the Democratic organizers he meets. Earlier Friday, he attended a house party in Columbia hosted by prominent Democratic activists Don and Carol Fowler. Their home was packed during a torrential afternoon downpour. Don Fowler, a former state party chair and Democratic National Committee national chair, said afterward that he and his wife also have hosted Klobuchar, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, but that Brown had the best connection with his guests.
“This crowd in this weather in the middle of the day is really something,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin, who is evaluating all of the candidates in anticipation of issuing a potentially influential endorsement, told BuzzFeed News outside the Fowler home. “This is a strong crowd.”
Benjamin said he was impressed with Brown and his wife, nationally syndicated columnist Connie Schultz, as a team.
“He and his wife are a power couple,” the mayor said. “They connect well. A policy wonk with good working-class roots and connections and just has the ability to communicate with every man and woman.”
Schultz continues to show she’s ready to play a big part in a presidential campaign. She introduced her husband at several events this weekend, sticking to a stump speech she has honed carefully over the last month. Brown on Saturday laughed when recalling how his wife used to joke how much she loved being married to the only senator who didn’t look into the mirror every morning and see a president smiling back.
“She said we got to get rid of the mirrors now.”