New Hampshire Democrats have a word to describe Sherrod Brown: electable

Seth Richardson – February 8, 2019

HAMPTON, N.H. – There’s a common word that people keep using to describe Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat considering running for president, as he continues his swing through the early states: electable.

Brown kicked off the second leg of his “Dignity of Work” listening tour through the 2020 early primary states Friday at a roundtable on paid family leave in Hampton, New Hampshire. Reminiscent of his trip to Iowa last week, attendees seemed intrigued at a Democrat who they thought could seriously challenge Republican President Donald Trump.

“He is kind of nicely centered in his position on the political spectrum,” said Gary Patton, an 81-year-old retiree and co-chair of the New Hampshire Democrats senior caucus who attended the event. “He’s liberal enough for people on the left and conservative enough for people in the center. It’s very logical that he would run, because it almost calls to him and says, ‘You ought to be running because you’ve got all these positives next to your name.’”

How Brown is finding a way to occupy both a liberal-populist and moderate lane is a strange phenomenon. He’s often rated one of the most liberal senators and a longtime supporter of abortion rights for women, increasing the minimum wage and Wall Street reform.

But moderate, populist or whatever label, Democrats at Brown’s Hampton event, like Mark Mitchell, a 69-year-old retired state police detective from nearby Barrington, seemed more interested in winning than in a litmus test.

“There’s a purity test with the Democrats for some reason,” Mitchell said. “They eat their own a lot of times. I hope we learned our lesson.”

Brown’s profile has also grown some since he’s started teasing a presidential run after his November 2018 Senate re-election victory. He’s made the rounds on national news programs, including a Sunday appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press” where he called Trump a racist.

“We’ve seen him countless times on television,” Mitchell said. “I admire him from a stance that he seems to be able to speak the truth to power, which was sorely lacking for a long time.”

That’s all a good sign for Brown as he continues to mull his 2020 prospects. Many Democrats have increasingly called for a “true liberal” to run in the election, fed up with the incremental approach of some politicians in their party and with other higher-profile names in the race.

The warm reception Friday in New Hampshire will likely embolden Brown, who has four stops in the state on Saturday.

Similar to Iowa, Brown is starting out with smaller towns before his biggest event as the keynote speaker for the New Hampshire Young Democrats in Manchester.

Unlike in Iowa, he started in solid Trump country.

Hampton is in Rockingham County, an older, wealthier community that includes the state’s entire seacoast. It’s about 40 minutes away from Manchester and an hour away from Boston – the tenth largest metropolitan area in the country.

With a population of more than 300,000, it’s growing (Hampton itself has a population of about 15,400). The median household income is just more than $85,000 while the poverty rate is at 5.1 percent.

Only three Democratic presidential candidates have won the county in the past 100 years – Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, Bill Clinton in 1996 and Barack Obama in 2008. There are liberal enclaves in the county like Portsmouth, but Republicans have generally dominated local elections as well.

Compare that with Cresco, Iowa, Brown’s first stop during his trip last week. Howard County in rural Northern Iowa has a population of just 9,228 (Cresco itself has a population of 3,776). The closest top-100 metropolitan area is Des Moines at more than three hours away. The median household income was around $51,000 and the poverty rate is almost double at 10.1 percent.

Hampton is a different type of economy than Brown typically preaches to. The town swells in the summer months when tourists flock to nearby Hampton Beach. Roadside motels, restaurants with folksy small-town signs and small independent businesses dot the main strip. There is some industry with nearby Foss Performance Materials, a synthetic fiber manufacturer that employs about 420 people.

The closest Ohio comparison is probably Vermilion, a quaint Lake Erie community 45 minutes outside Cleveland with a maritime vibe.

Whether Brown can raise his profile enough in a state like New Hampshire — especially with regionally popular Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont likely entering the race — is still the biggest question. People spoke with around Hampton before the event mostly had no idea who he was.

But the whole thesis of Brown’s “dignity of work” message is that it works anywhere, whether it is rural Iowa or seaside New Hampshire, and his playbook, for now, seems to be working: visiting smaller towns and generating buzz as the Democrat who won in Trump country by being his liberal self instead of moderating his stances. Four of the five counties he’s visiting voted for Trump, including Laconia in Belknap County, which swung for the president by almost 17 percentage points.

“He’s done well in Ohio, and Ohio is not a blue state,” said state Sen. Scott Sherman, who was on the panel with Brown. “New Hampshire is a state that really values people who have an independent mind who advocate for personal responsibility, but we also take care of each other and I think he seemed to get that.”

Along the way, Brown is courting New Hampshire power brokers. Former House Speaker Terie Norelli and her husband, Allen, are holding an invitation-only house party Friday night for the senator with the help of former state Sen. Burt Cohen, per WMUR Channel 9 in Manchester.

Norelli served as 2008 New Hampshire campaign co-chair and 2008 Democratic National Committee Delegate for then-Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. In 2016, she served as a senior adviser on the Clinton presidential campaign and was elected a presidential elector.

Cohen, a longtime activist in the state who supported Sanders in 2016, said in an interview with that Brown was one of the only candidates who could resonate with Democrats in both the coastal areas and the heartland, adding he hopes the Ohio senator will officially jump in the race.

Asked about some Democrats’ refusal to back a primary candidate who doesn’t support certain issues like Medicare-for-all, Cohen said winning the presidency was more important.

“We’ve got to connect with the majority and we’re not going to get perfection, but we can get good,” Cohen said. “We can get good.”

Even the few in the Hampton crowd who were interested in some of the deal-breakers were receptive to Brown. Liliana Margan, a 19-year-old student at the University of New Hampshire, asked about the “Green New Deal” – a proposed series of reforms from the liberal wing of the party to combat climate change.

“I want to spend more time looking at this bill,” Brown told her. “Like I said earlier, aggressive climate change is one of the most important issues of our time. We’ve got to get way more aggressive on it.”

Unlike Brown’s interaction with an activist in Iowa, who chastised him over his support for a Medicare-at-55 system as opposed to a Medicare-for-all style health care system, Margan said she was happy with Brown’s response, though she did want a little more.

“I think that I would like if he was a bit more solid on it because it’s important to me and the people I know,” she added.

Most importantly, she said she’d consider voting for him.

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