In 2016, the Midwest lifted Donald Trump to his upset in the presidential race. Two years later, many Democrats believe this region will be the site of their greatest success on Nov. 6.
From the Senate and House to the gubernatorial and state legislative level, Democrats are sensing widespread opportunity to make significant gains in an area of the country that until this year they feared shifted decisively to the Republicans.
The comeback is fueled not just by energized liberals and college-educated suburbanites who have recoiled at the president. It’s being driven by some white working-class women who voted for Trump too. It’s a coalition that Democrats hope will lift them to victory this year, and guide their efforts into 2020.
“It’s kind of amazing how fast things have moved,” said Democratic pollster John Anzalone, who is working on several races across the Midwest. “Looking at the map, it’s going to hopefully be the big signal. It’s going to be the heart of our success.”
At the Senate level, Democratic incumbents in states Trump carried in 2016 -- Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- all hold double-digit leads in the polls, which has allowed the party to focus on members running in even redder states.
That advantage has extended to other statewide offices. Democrats appear likely to hold onto governor’s mansions in Pennsylvania and Minnesota (a state Trump narrowly lost) while flipping Michigan’s. They also are running even or holding small leads in races for three other GOP-controlled seats: Ohio, Wisconsin and Iowa, a state Trump won by nine points.
Republicans in those states said they have struggled to energize some of Trump’s core supporters in an election where his name does not appear on the ballot.
“Trump has been an anomaly as a candidate,” said Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman. “The people that voted for him are not traditional Republicans. They’re Trump Republicans.”
“The cultural divide is getting them closer to our side, but we haven’t figured out how to get them down-ticket,” he said.
In the battle for the House, Democrats are aiming to flip close to a dozen seats across Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Some of those districts were carried by Trump but went in the Democrats’ direction in prior elections.
“There’s a Democratic DNA to these districts,” said Charlie Kelly, the executive director of House Majority PAC, the main House Democratic super PAC. “They’re working class. They’ve supported Democrats at the House level.”
Democrat Celinda Lake, who’s done extensive polling in the Midwest, said two groups of voters are in play in the region: college-educated suburban voters and women without college degrees. She said the blue-collar women haven’t come to the Democratic side the way more affluent voters have, but that the party has been able to make inroads by making populist economic and health care pitches in these states.
“As goes the Midwest, so goes the nation. The Midwest is really a battleground on the economy,” said Celinda Lake, a leading Democratic pollster. “If we have a good night in the Midwest, then we’re going to have a good night all around.”
In Wisconsin, for instance, a recent Marquette University Law School poll found Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin leading by 17 points among women without college degrees, while Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tony Evers was running even against Gov. Scott Walker with that group of voters. Trump won them by 16 points in 2016, according to exit polls. White men without a college degree, meanwhile, have stuck with the GOP.
Republicans had hoped that a dipping unemployment rate, a rising stock market, and the tax bill Congress passed late last year would provide them with a boost across the country.
But former GOP Rep. Reid Ribble of Wisconsin said the strong economy isn’t giving GOP candidates in the Midwest an edge because many working-class voters still don’t feel like they’re better off, a phenomenon he said may drive those who cast ballots for President Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 back to the Democratic side.
“I think they’re shifting back,” Ribble said of Obama-Trump voters. “I think the promises the president has made … have come very slow. There’s going to be a bit of payback that comes this election.”
Democrats hope that will also serve as a boon to their efforts farther down ballot, where Republicans have dominated in the Midwest over the past decade. Democrats need to flip just one seat to win the Minnesota state Senate and two seats to win the Wisconsin state Senate, and nine seats to take control of the Michigan state House.
“We’ve seen a complete renewal of interest in the Democratic Party brand in response to single-party Republican rule in the state and Trump… not addressing economic concerns,” said Jessica Post, the executive director of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.
Flipping governorships and state legislative chambers would give Democrats control over the redistricting process come 2020. But some Democrats also pointed out that victories in those races would provide the party’s next presidential nominee with the benefit of a sitting governor’s built-in political apparatus in several battleground states.
“When you lose, it just cannibalizes so much of that operation,” said Thad Nation, a Wisconsin-based Democratic operative. “It fundamentally alters the calculus of the 2020 presidential race.”
Democrats acknowledge that any success they have in the Midwest this year won’t necessarily repeat itself two years down the road when Trump faces re-election. But they are hopeful the winning candidates can provide a reliable playbook for the next presidential contest.
“It’s part of a comeback,” Lake said. “It’s a roadmap for 2020.”