Having wrapped up a convincing re-election win in last week’s midterms , Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown said on Monday that he is considering a run for president in 2020. Brown is an intriguing candidate for Democrats who are determined to retake the Rust Belt states that vaulted Donald Trump to the White House two years ago. He’s an old-school, pro-labor liberal with a gravelly voice and rumpled demeanor who’s backed some ambitious expansions of the welfare state. More importantly, at least from a mercenary electoral politics standpoint, he appears to be the only Democrat still capable of competing in the Buckeye State, which went to Trump by more than 7 percentage points, and elected a Republican in every other major statewide race this month.
Unfortunately for Brown, his most obvious strength as a candidate is simultaneously one of his most obvious weaknesses: If he were to win the presidency, it would also cost the party his Senate seat, and maybe the ability to meaningfully govern.
In many ways, the race for the Senate will be as important in 2020 as the race for the presidency, since winning the White House without also taking the upper chamber would make it difficult, if not impossible, for a Democratic administration to run the country effectively. President Brown or Harris or Sanders certainly would not be able to pass any major progressive legislation. The ability to nominate Supreme Court justices would be severely hampered, and potentially blocked altogether. Republicans might also try to block all of their appeals court judges, or stonewall Cabinet picks. Imagine the grinding, final years of the Obama presidency, but with a new administration that hasn’t had a chance to put in place any key political appointees. It’s not a pretty thought.
As Slate’s Jim Newell has written, taking back the Senate is also going to be a very challenging task for Democrats two years from now. Assuming Krysten Sinema wins in Arizona, as now seems likely, and Sen. Bill Nelson falls short in the Florida recount, the party and the independents who caucus with it will control 47 Senate seats. One of those belongs to Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who is almost certainly toast, unless he finds himself running against yet another opponent who was banned from the local mall. Given that, Democrats will likely need to pick up four seats to hit the magic number of 50, which gives them a majority if their vice president casts the deciding vote. There will only be two Republicans up for re-election in states Hillary Clinton carried during 2016—Cory Gardner of Colorado and Susan Collins of Maine. Other than that, the party is going to have to fight for Senate pickups in potential battlegrounds like North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Montana, and Texas, while trying to hold seats in Michigan (which Trump won), and New Hampshire (which Trump nearly won). It’s a tall order, but not impossible.
If Brown were to win the presidency, the state’s newly elected GOP governor, Mike DeWine, would get to fill his Senate seat with a Republican until the next statewide election. That means Democrats would need five total flips just to claim a bare majority capable of governing in the initial years of their new administration. And given that, once again, Brown’s main appeal is that he’s the only Democrat seemingly capable of winning in Ohio, his seat could be lost for the foreseeable future.
Brown isn’t the only candidate who needs to make this sort of tough calculation. Instead of running for president, Beto O’Rourke could try to go after Texas Sen. John Cornyn’s seat in 2020. Montana Governor Steve Bullock might be interested in the Oval Office. But he might be more useful taking on on Republican Sen. Steve Daines. West Virginia’s Richard Ojeda, who went so far as to announce his presidential bid on Monday after losing his House bid last week, might do better to try to knock off Sen. Shelley Moore Capito. But with Brown, the tension is a bit more clear, both because he’s such a compelling presidential candidate on paper, and because winning the presidency would actually guarantee that his Senate seat flipped, rather than simply remain in Republican hands.
There are also other reasons why Brown might not be an ideal Democratic standard bearer. He’s loudly sided with Trump on trade issues, which may be a big part of his secret to winning in Ohio, but might not play well with progressive primary voters who loathe pretty much all things about the administration. And while his Republican opponent failed to make much of an old domestic abuse allegation, that issue could play awkwardly on the national stage. (The issue involve some nonspecific accusations made by Brown’s ex-wife during their divorce in the 1980s. She has since become one of his most vocal political supporters, and cut a TV ad for him this year after Republicans tried to revive abuse claim during the campaign).
But ultimately, the question hanging over Brown isn’t whether he’s a good candidate, or even a great one. It’s whether he’s so much better than the other 2020 contenders that it would be worth waving his Senate seat goodbye.