ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's been less than two weeks since the midterm elections. In fact, some races have yet to be decided. But chatter about who the Democrats will put up against President Trump two years from now has already begun.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
One name getting a lot of attention this week - Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. Brown, who was re-elected last week, was the only major Democrat to win a statewide seat in Ohio. President Trump won Ohio by more than 8 points in 2016. Brown has one of the most liberal voting records in the Senate but supports President Trump on tariffs. When I spoke with Senator Brown earlier this afternoon, he said his victory could be used as a blueprint for Democrats in 2020. Whether or not he'll run for president is something he's still thinking about.
SHERROD BROWN: I didn't grow up aspiring to be president of the United States. My dream was to play centerfield for the Cleveland Indians, and I think that door is closed. So right after the election, my wife, Connie, and I just had an overwhelming number of people saying, with what you did in Ohio, with your message in Ohio, with your fight for workers ongoing - that you should think about doing this. And I - it's a very personal decision. I don't know yet what we're going to do. But I - most importantly, I want people around the country who are thinking of running for president to look at what we did to win Ohio, talking about the dignity of work, which appeals to Democrats and Republicans in rural and urban states all over the country.
CORNISH: Let me jump in here because you have senators such as Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota - they lost, right? They were Democrats in red states, and they lost. And then you look at Beto O'Rourke and Andrew Gillum in Florida. These are very progressive, young, dynamic candidates who weren't able to win. So what is the lesson people should be taking away?
BROWN: Well, I think the lesson that a progressive can win decisively in a state. Donald Trump won my state. He won by almost double digits. You do it by fighting for workers. You do it by...
CORNISH: But is the example just you (laughter)?
BROWN: Well, I don't think - I think it's...
CORNISH: When you look at that scorecard, are you saying the examples won?
BROWN: It's a career of fighting for workers whether you swipe a badge or punch a clock, whether you work for tips, whether you're on a salary, whether you're caring for an aging parent or raising children. But the focus on work - you do it without compromising on women's rights or civil rights. When you love your country, you fight for those people who make it work. And I've had a career in the Senate devoted to that. I think that a campaign that reinforced that can win just about anywhere.
CORNISH: How does a message like yours play for coastal Democrats who may agree with you in terms of your support for liberal issues but may not be able to vote for someone who has a platform where they're in line with the president on something like tariffs?
BROWN: Well, I take a back seat to nobody in fighting for my progressive values. And I've supported marriage equality for 20 years in Congress from my votes. And I will never compromise on women's rights or LGBTQ rights or civil rights. I do it without caving to Wall Street or the gun lobby or to Donald Trump. But a message of work and the dignity of work affects everybody. I mean, it's whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or independent, whether you live in Boston or LA or Mansfield, Ohio. People respond to your honoring the dignity of work. I mean, fundamentally it's this. If you get up every day and work hard and play by the rules, you ought to be able to get ahead.
CORNISH: It sounds like what you're saying is no matter where you are in the country as a Democrat, you can be for whatever you're going to be for that works for your constituents as long as you put a worker-first message at the top of that agenda. Is that your idea for how people can replicate your success?
BROWN: Well, I think the dignity of work is the foundation for all the issues we care about - the dignity of work for workers of all races, the dignity of work that - in standing for health care that if you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to have decent health care, you ought to have a decent pension. So the Democratic Party's always been the party of I have your back as workers.
CORNISH: Senator Brown, are Democrats on the same page when it comes to trying to court voters who supported President Trump? Is everyone in an agreement that that is a necessity?
BROWN: Well, I don't buy into the construct that you either play to the base or you go after Trump voters. I think...
CORNISH: So it sounds like no. It sounds like you're saying you're witnessing a debate right now.
BROWN: Well, I don't really think there's that much of a debate. I mean, we - there is the phony populism of Donald Trump which pushes people down, which divides people, which calls people names. Real populism isn't racist. Real populism isn't anti-Semitic. Real populism doesn't push some people down to lift other people up. Real populism honors workers. That's where Democrats...
CORNISH: But the question is whether Democrats agree on...
BROWN: I think Democrats...
CORNISH: ...Whether you should be going after those voters and what it takes to do that.
BROWN: I think the message of the dignity of work - it works with a Democratic base, but it also works with Trump voters. And, you know, we're not going to get 50 percent of Trump voters, but we're going to get some of them because their home should be with a candidate and inside a party that advocates for them as workers, advocates for their health care, advocates for their pensions, advocates that when they put in a hard day's work, they ought to get something out of it. Contrast that with the phony populism that you see in a White House that looks like a retreat for Wall Street executives, and in a nutshell, you see the difference between the two parties and, frankly, how a Democrat beats Donald Trump in 2020.
CORNISH: Senator Brown, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BROWN: Of course, thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.