The Clinton Veepwatch, Vol. 5: Sherrod Brown

In which Unconventional examines the likely Democratic nominee’s possible — and not-so-possible — vice presidential picks. Previous installments: Elizabeth Warren, Tim Kaine, Mark Cuban, Julián Castro.

Name: Sherrod Campbell Brown

Age: 63

Résumé: U.S. senator from Ohio; former U.S. congressman from Ohio’s 13th District, Ohio secretary of state, and member of the Ohio House of Representatives

Source of speculation: The Great Mentioner has been mentioning the rumpled, froggy voiced Brown as a possible Clinton running mate for a while. But with the publication Sunday of a career-spanning 3,000-word profile in USA Today — and many otherGannett papers — the buzz about Brown is getting louder.

“A partisan brawler who’s as obsessed with baseball as he is with politics, Brown is Ohio’s senior senator and — perhaps — the next Democratic nominee for vice president of the United States,” writes Gannett Washington Correspondent Deirdre Shesgreen. “With his unabashed progressive politics suddenly in vogue and his home state of Ohio a pivotal presidential battleground, Brown is among Democrats being touted for the No. 2 slot on a Clinton ticket.”

Shesgreen goes on to say that, according to his supporters, “Brown would be a great pick — a salt-of-the-earth candidate whose mix of progressive politics and Midwestern pragmatism could appeal to a broad swath of voters.”

Then she quotes two of the most prominent Democrats in the country all but endorsing the idea of a Clinton-Brown ticket.

“He was a populist before being populist was cool,” says Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.

“He’d be a great choice,” adds Joe Biden — who happens to know a little something about the job.

Expect more stories like Shesgreen’s to pop up in the press as the Democratic nominating contest draws to a close next Tuesday in Washington, D.C. — and as Clinton begins to turn her attention toward picking a second-in-command.

Backstory: Beltway types were chattering about Brown’s veep chances before Clinton even announced her candidacy. In a January 2015 Washington Post profile, Ben Terris asked why “progressives” weren’t “begging [Brown] to run for president” — then touted the senator as a smart pick for Hillary’s (hypothetical) ticket instead.

“If Clinton gets the nomination and wants to allay the [Elizabeth] Warren wing of the party, maybe she can pick the progressive senator from a state she will need to win?” Terris speculated.

The notion continued to pick up steam once the 2016 campaign got underway.

In October 2015, Brown surprised many observers by endorsing Clinton over left-wing kindred spirit Bernie Sanders, who was trailing the former secretary of state by 40 percentage points in the polls at the time. “From opposing unfair trade deals to fighting for a fair financial system, Hillary Clinton has shown she puts working families first,” Brown said in a statement. “She knows as president that her first job will be creating jobs for the middle class.”

The somewhat uncharacteristic move — Brown refused to endorse either Obama or Clinton during the heat of the 2008 Democratic primary — prompted another round of speculation about his VP prospects.

“Some liberals have floated Brown as a possible vice presidential pick,” wroteMSNBC’s Alex Seitz-Wald, “noting he could help deliver votes in Ohio, perhaps the single most important general election swing state.”

But Brown’s stock really began to rise after Donald Trump emerged in March as the likely Republican nominee. The Clinton camp (and Bill Clinton in particular) long assumed that Hillary would be facing off against Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in November. In that scenario, picking a running mate like, say, Julián Castro could help keep Latino voters from defecting to the GOP. That’s no longer necessary, however, with a man who calls Mexican immigrants “rapists” atop the GOP ticket. Instead, Clinton is now more concerned with losing white working-class voters from Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to Trump — and with uniting her own party in the wake of Sanders’ spirited challenge.

As an unapologetic liberal and a union champion, Brown is uniquely suited to both missions — or so the thinking goes.

“With Donald Trump increasingly likely to win the Republican nomination, some Democrats say Clinton needs to consider picking a running mate who can counter his populist appeal,” The Hill wrote in March. “Progressives view [Brown] as in line with Warren on most issues and believe he could help propel Clinton to critical Rust Belt wins in the general election.”

From the beginning, Brown’s answer to the VP question has been the same.

“I have zero interest in being vice president,” Brown told the Washington Post last year.

“I do not want to be vice president,” Brown informed the Hill five months later. “I love working for the people of Ohio, and I have a lot more work to do as their senator.”
But in the new Gannett profile, the senator’s tone seems to have softened.

“We like where we live,” Brown says. “We like the life we have.”
“There’s no point in getting worked up about it until I see what happens,” adds Brown’s wife, the journalist Connie Schultz — before admitting that she won’t say no if Clinton comes calling. “I would never dream of stepping in his way. We are very supportive of each other.”

Odds: Depends what happens Tuesday in California.

Although Schultz says that “we have no idea if he’s being vetted at all,” Brown is, according to the New York Times, “among the names under discussion by Mrs. Clinton.”

If Hillary loses the Golden State primary — an outcome that would encourage Sanders to keep battering her from the left all the way to the convention in Philadelphia — Brown could shoot to the top of her shortlist. The most important thing for Clinton at that point would be persuading progressives to trust her and to turn out in November. Tapping Brown would be the quickest way to do it. The fact that he also has some serious anti-Trump assets — Ohio address, blue-collar cred, attack-dog chops — would only heighten his appeal.

If Clinton wins California, however, then all bets are off. In that case, Sanders would probably bow out shortly after the final Democratic primary in Washington, D.C., on June 14, and Clinton may start to pivot toward the center. Picking someone like Sen. Mark Warner or Sen. Tim Kaine, both of Virginia, would hit some of the same notes as picking Brown — white, working-class, swing state, and so on — without yanking the ticket to the left just in time for the general.

It would also help Clinton avoid the main drawback of plucking Brown from the Senate: the fact that Ohio’s GOP governor, John Kasich, would almost certainly imperil the Democrats’ potential majority by appointing a Republican to replace him. (Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is a Democrat.)

“If we have a Republican governor in any of those states, the answer is not only no, but hell no,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told MSNBC’s Joy Reid last month when asked about the prospect of Brown (among others) joining Clinton’s ticket. “I would yell and scream to stop that.”