DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Democrat Sherrod Brown's first stop in politically influential Iowa might feel a lot like home for the Ohio senator.
His visit to the state that hosts the first 2020 presidential caucuses begins Thursday evening in small-town Cresco, in the one county in the nation both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Donald Trump won by at least 20 percentage points.
Like Ohio, where Donald Trump won in 2016 on the strength of working-class voters, Brown's 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.
"When work has dignity, our country has a strong middle class," Brown said in Brunswick, Ohio, Wednesday. "Donald Trump has used his phony populism to divide Americans."
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."
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.
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.
Associated Press writer Elana Schor contributed from Washington