As he tests the waters, Brown is urgently playing catch-up: his two main rivals in the older, white, progressive lane are Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who are far better known and better funded. So Brown has spent the days since his re-election win aggressively chatting up national media outlets and Democratic primary influencers, from the Voices for Progress PAC to the Rev. Al Sharpton. Working in Brown’s favor is that he is not as polarizing as Sanders and Warren. “The conventional-wisdom debate about rallying the Democratic base versus finding a nominee with crossover appeal is overly simplistic,” Psaki says. “The mistake in that analysis is that it can be both. But having an intangible, authentic inspirational quality is vital for whomever the Democrats nominate, because we’re never going to out-Trump Trump. We’ve got to find somebody who is going to be an antidote to that. It has to be somebody who’s going to lift people up.”

Indeed, Brown’s greatest appeal may be his candor. He’s quick to admit what he doesn’t know, including whether he’ll officially commit to running in 2020. “I don’t know what my re-election race said about midterm races across the country,” Brown says. “I do know what my race can be, prescriptively, across the country, and especially across the industrial Midwest. The message of the dignity of work, and fighting for workers—whether you punch the clock or swipe a badge, or whether you work for tips or whether you’re on salary or whether you’re raising kids—that message works everywhere, not just Democrats or Republicans, but independents in every region of my state and every region of the country.” So he’s running? “I don’t know yet,” Brown says. “I don’t know what this would mean in the lives of my kids, my grandkids, my wife. We’re having a lot of those conversations. This is not something I dreamed about as a kid. I dreamed about playing centerfield for the Cleveland Indians, and I think that window is effectively closed.” The 2020 Democratic presidential contest, however, is wide open.