CRESCO, Iowa — Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio sounded an awful lot at home Thursday in rural Howard County, Iowa, on his first stop in the politically influential state Friday.
“We chose here because we grew up in communities that so often get ignored,” Brown told about 30 Democratic activists in tiny Cresco. “Wall Street totally ignores communities like this and so too often does state and national government.”
Brown was opening his three-day trip to the state that hosts the first 2020 presidential caucuses in the one county in the nation both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Donald Trump won by at least 20 percentage points.
Brown argued, taking a very public step in his consideration of a 2020 presidential campaign, that working-class voters who backed Trump have been betrayed, notably by the Republican-signed tax bill that benefited wealthy Americans more.
“It's not just the middle class, it's the broad spectrum of people who work hard and just simply don't get a break these days,” Brown told the audience who turned out in sub-zero weather in the town of 3,800 where manufacturing jobs have sharply waned over the past decade.
Like Ohio, where Trump won in 2016 on the strength of working-class voters, Brown's other stops on his three-day Iowa itinerary underscore his central argument as a potential 2020 presidential contender: That he understands economically challenged Midwestern voters who helped make Trump president.
In Cresco, fewer than 20 miles from the Minnesota state line, the largest employer is a non-union trailer manufacturer that shed a third of its workforce a decade ago.
“Blue collar voters and moderate Democrats haven't had anyone to put their faith in lately,” said Howard County Democratic Party Chairwoman Laura Hupka, who attended Brown's gathering at Cresco's small welcome center office. “But Sherrod speaks to them. He speaks like a normal guy, unassuming, but thoughtful.”
Brown has said some Democrats wrongly divide the party into its liberal base and working-class voters, chiefly those non-college-educated white voters who lifted Trump not just in Ohio, but also in swing states Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
During more than 25 years in Congress, Brown has championed worker-friendly trade and tax policies. He is also a close ally of labor unions, and has also supported liberal causes such as abortion rights, same-sex marriage and opposition to the Iraq war.
Brown attributes his re-election to a third Senate term last year to the resonance of a message to workers who feel left behind, while also embracing his party's liberal base, including its growing racial and ethnic diversity.
Several of Brown's planned Iowa stops are in counties carried by Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016, and all of them in places that have shed thousands of manufacturing jobs in recent decades.
“He's making a statement with where he's going,” veteran Iowa Democratic strategist John Norris said of Brown's plans. “It plays right to his strength — that rural, populist, labor thing — you can weave that together in all those towns.”
Brown will also visit Perry, where once-unionized meatpacking plants are now staffed largely by immigrant workers willing to accept lower wages.
He plans to bypass the well-worn path of presidential hopefuls through the metropolitan capital city of Des Moines, where would-be rivals and Senate colleagues Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren have held big events this month.
Instead, he will continue to northeastern Iowa cities Clinton, Dubuque and Waterloo, where John Deere remains an important union employer but has shrunk its local workforce by more than 10,000 jobs in the past 40 years.
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