The single most striking result in any of last week's midterm elections came out of Ohio, where Mike DeWine, the Republican candidate endorsed by President Trump, won the governor's race handily. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a two-term Democratic incumbent, was re-elected again, carrying nine counties won by Trump in 2016.
If I were asked to guess the Democratic politician most likely to win a presidential election in two years, I would name Brown without hesitation. He has been an articulate critic of free trade for decades; his 2006 book on the subject is still the best primer on the North and Central American Free Trade Agreements ever written. Unlike many progressives he has openly praised Trump's tariffs on Chinese goods, which are popular in Ohio and with private sector union voters everywhere. He has been extraordinarily consistent on this all-important issue over the years: In 2012, he even wrote the Pentagon to express his disgust with Air Force troops deployed to Afghanistan being outfitted with Chinese-made boots. Meanwhile he has opposed comprehensive immigration reform and guest worker programs and supported the construction of a border wall.
Brown's amiable, folksy style and practical, bread-and-butter approach to issues make him an ideal candidate for reversing Trump's narrow but all-important 2016 margins in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and his home state. The MAGA hat-wearing Trump voter familiar from media caricatures is either a representative of what Hunter S. Thompson used to call the "fun-hog vote," people who are not regular voters but will show up on Election Day to support a bizarre candidate or cause, or lifelong Republicans who enjoy the president's punchy style. These people did not elect Trump for the simple reason that there are not enough of them in the Midwest, and for many in the former group voting for the funny orange racist cartoon character once was enough. Trump's success in 2016 came down to his ability to persuade enough reliable Democrats to vote for the GOP, in some cases for the first time since Ronald Reagan's re-election, in others for the first time ever. How large this group actually was in 2016 is an open question, but it cannot number more than a few hundred thousand scattered across a handful of states.
The fact that many Democratic voters in places like California and New York might prefer someone with more woke credentials than Brown is of no consequence, at least if one assumes that the party exists to win elections. What are those states going to do — flip to Donald Trump if a handful of excitable 20-somethings decide to stay home? All that matters is winning the states that will actually be in play. Never mind the pipe dreams about turning Georgia or Tennessee blue. Flipping Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio back to the Democrats would earn Brown 271 electoral votes to Trump's 260; adding Pennsylvania would bring the total to 291. Other likely toss-up states like Nevada and Florida, where there are different political dynamics at work and Brown's advantages play less well, would just be icing on the cake — though Andrew Gillum's too-close-to-call result in the 2018 Florida governor's race should be an encouraging sign for a progressive populist like Brown.
But the qualities that make Brown the Democrats' best shot candidate in a general election will be liabilities at best in a primary. He does not bang on about "impeachment" or Russian collusion. He rarely mentions the so-called social issues, which is actually the best approach with voters outside typical red and blue states, despite what it seems to have cost Bernie Sanders with liberals in the 2016 primaries. The current party line is that Trump's trade war is a disaster because it is hurting the profits of the same corporations whose taxes Democrats apparently did not want to cut, not, as Brown would argue, that it has not gone far enough.
The Democratic donor class is spoiling for a fight, but not the sort of anti-corporate trench warfare of which Brown has been a veteran since the days when he sparred with Tom DeLay over the Central American Free Trade Agreement. If my exhaustive reading of The Washington Post's letters section is any indication, they want someone who will go on television in a pink hat and call the president a traitor and a Russian spy. This is not Brown's style. His pitch to the American people would be the same one he has been offering his constituents in Ohio during his last 12 years in the Senate and in the House of Representatives before that: My policies are better than the other guy's and if you vote for me I will help your family.
Who will decide who gets to be the Democratic presidential nominee in 2020? Will it be the #Resistance or serious labor and environmental activists? Do unions actually have a say anymore? Does the Democratic Party exist to protect the rights of workers and shore up the fortunes of our rapidly disappearing middle class, or to secure the privileges and appease the feckless consciences of the nation's most comfortable suburbanites?
Whether a candidate like Sherrod Brown can win a Democratic nomination in two years will answer this question. Whether someone like him can beat Donald Trump in two years is not a question.