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Sherrod Brown

Sen. Sherrod Brown has been calling high-profile Democrats in early primary states, including an extensive recent conversation with former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack about campaigning in the first caucus state. | John Minchillo/AP Photo

2020 Elections

The Ohio senator’s chief of staff is also leading a hunt for staffers in Iowa and other key states.

Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown is preparing the biggest step yet toward a potential presidential campaign: a trip to Iowa in the coming weeks, which is in the final stages of planning and will soon be announced, according to four people with knowledge of the trip.

Going to Iowa would be the latest signal from Brown and his wife, Connie Schultz, that he is considering a White House run organized around the “dignity of work,” the theme of his reelection campaign last year. But preparations go beyond public statements as Brown’s longtime aide and current chief of staff, Sarah Benzing works backstage to set up a campaign — with a particular focus on Iowa, where she grew up and worked on a series of congressional, Senate and presidential efforts earlier in her career.

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Benzing, who was the top staffer on Brown’s 2012 Senate campaign, is in line to manage Brown’s presidential campaign, should he pull the trigger, according to people with knowledge of the planning. And she has spent the weeks since Brown’s reelection to the Senate — casting his win as a “blueprint for America for 2020” before supporters in Ohio — calling her Iowa network, seeking advice and operatives to staff a Brown presidential bid.

Benzing’s calls range from prospecting for field and digital organizers who worked for Fred Hubbell, the just-defeated Democratic candidate for governor of Iowa, to sounding out veteran operatives and friends like former Rep. Dave Nagle and Jessica Vanden Berg, a longtime friend who is also an experienced House and Senate campaign manager and a state director on past Democratic presidential campaigns. The outreach has extended to other early presidential states, including Nevada.

The process is the best indicator yet of Brown’s presidential ambitions. And the combination of his political success in the swing state of Ohio, Schultz’s dynamism and eagerness to hit the trail, and Benzing’s experience in Iowa and deep ties to donors, activists and local officials could make up for Brown’s relatively late start preparing for 2020.

“Groundwork for Sherrod is just working through it with his family, first and foremost, and deciding whether this is a good fit and they want to go through it,” Benzing told POLITICO in an interview. “For us, because we’re less than a year out from the Iowa caucuses and when Iowa starts their early vote, I see my responsibility as helping to get an infrastructure ready should he decide that he wants to run. It’s calling people, checking in, making sure the fundraising apparatus is there — those sort of nuts and bolts of things.”

As Benzing collects resumes from potential staffers, Brown himself has been calling high-profile Democrats in early primary states, including an extensive recent conversation with former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack about campaigning in the first caucus state.

If Brown does decide to run, he will face numerous obstacles. Brown’s potential rivals inside the Senate all started 2019 with more money in their campaign accounts, while former Vice President Joe Biden would try to tap some of the same populist and Midwestern themes. But veteran Democratic operatives point to Benzing as a notably powerful asset for the Ohio senator, given her overall campaign experience and her Iowa ties.

“She’s from Iowa and has a real understanding of Iowa, which will be key to the senator’s race,” said Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, a Brown ally who has launched a group to draft him into the 2020 race. “She has these political operatives that she’s worked with for the past 20 years.”

The first state on the 2020 calendar would hold particular importance for Brown for several reasons. It has often been a springboard for campaigns that have to fight from the back of the pack in past years. But Brown has also staked his political ambitions on the prospect that as a battleground-state Midwesterner, he is uniquely suited to appeal to the types of voters and places, like Iowa, that drifted away from the Democratic Party in the 2016 presidential election and other recent contests.

“I’m from there and some of my best friends still live there, so it’s a natural network,” Benzing said of her calls in Iowa.

A native of Neola, Iowa, Benzing worked as an Iowa caucus director for Al Gore’s campaign in 1999 and later was a field and caucus director for the Iowa Democratic Party. She was former Rep. Bruce Braley’s campaign manager when he won his House seat and lost a 2014 Senate run, and she also served as Braley’s chief of staff.

Benzing also became a sought-after Senate strategist around the country, running successful campaigns for Brown and Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — a potential 2020 rival — and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

“If you look at the race she ran for Sherrod in 2012, it was heavy on fundamentals,” said Anne Caprara, a former political director at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee who is now chief of staff to Illinois Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker. “You can go down the boxes of fundraising, field, TV, mail — it had all of that and it was good, competent stuff.”

Benzing said her past campaigns taught her to focus more on internal campaign goals rather than keeping track of what others are doing. That would be key in a 2020 setting, Benzing said — especially, she left unsaid, for a campaign that would start as an underdog, competing against the likes of Biden and Elizabeth Warren for key groups of supporters.

“My metrics inside are: Are we meeting our internal goals? Are all the internal objectives that we sit down, are we marching toward them? And if the answer is yes, then we’ve got to keep on keeping on, and anything else is white noise,” Benzing said. “In a setting like this where you have many people running, the temptation to be concerned about what everybody else is doing will be great.”

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