Is the Midwest the Next South for the Democratic Party?

When President Trump presided over a business roundtable in Cleveland last weekend, it was one of several events he has hosted in the Midwest since Election Day. Trump held a raucous victory rally in Ohio just a few weeks after he won the presidency, and has since made frequent trips to Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan: He will visit Elkhart, Indiana on Thursday.

Trump skipped the White House Correspondents’ Dinner last month and instead campaigned in central Michigan.

“I love this state and I love the people of this state,” Trump told the enthusiastic crowd. “You may have heard I was invited to another event tonight, but I’d much rather be in Washington, Michigan than in Washington, D.C. right now, that I can tell you.” (As a lifelong Midwesterner, I have to say that the lifelong Manhattanite knows how to speak to my people.)

The president’s courting of voters in the Heartland is a shrewd political calculation by Team Trump. More than half of the 206 so-called “pivot” counties—areas that twice voted for Obama then switched to Trump in 2016—are located in the Midwest, as are four “pivot” states: Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. Hillary Clinton won Minnesota by fewer than 50,000 votes; Barack Obama won it by 225,000 votes in 2012.

Over the past decade, Midwestern states have been bleeding blue votes and politicians. With the exception of Minnesota, every single Midwestern state has a Republican governor (even my home state, the basket case Illinois) and Republicans control state houses throughout the Midwest except for Illinois. This once-reliably Democratic region is turning red faster than Elon Musk’s investors and Trump is only part of the reason why.

Democrats have been counting on the Great Lakes to deliver a Big Blue Wave this November to help win back control of Congress, but the current outlook portends a possible riptide that threatens to carry Democrats even further out to political sea. With no compelling message aside from impeachment, no policy agenda for the economy or national security, and no tactical strategy to lure swing voters back, Democrats might reverse the historical trend of the out-of-power party gaining more power in the midterm election. Republicans have a legitimate chance to expand their majority in the U.S. Senate and curtail losses in the House to less than a dozen seats.

Is the Midwest the next South for the Democratic Party?

Consider these dismal numbers for Democrats in four key Midwestern states:

Ohio:  In 2008, Democrats held 65 state legislative seats compared to 67 for Republicans. In 2018, Democrats hold 42 seats and Republicans hold 90. Ten Ohio congressmen were Democrats in 2008. Today, only four Democrats represent Ohio in the U.S. Congress.

Wisconsin: Democrats held 65 state legislative seats and Republicans held 67 state legislative seats in the Badger State in 2008. By 2018, Democrats were down to 49 seats and Republicans were up to 81 seats. Congressional representation has flipped from three Republicans and five Democrats in 2008 to five Republicans and three Democrats today.

Michigan: Democrats held 84 state legislative seats in 2008; Republicans held 70. In 2018, Democrats only hold 57 seats versus 90 for Republicans. Eight Democrats and seven Republicans represented Michigan in Congress in 2008. Today, Michigan’s delegation has four Democrats and nine Republicans.

Minnesota: Although Clinton won this state by a slim margin, two of the most vulnerable House seats for Democrats are in Minnesota. The political landscape has shifted dramatically: Democrats had an almost two-to-one advantage over Republicans in the state legislature in 2008, with Democrats controlling 131 seats and Republicans controlling only 68 seats. Today, Republicans control 111 seats and Democrats hold 89 seats.

Congressional representation is the same now as it was in 2008—five Democrats and three Republicans. If the Democrats lose both toss-up seats to Republicans, that would be an ominous sign for the Democratic presidential candidate in the must-win North Star State in 2020.

Sixty-three pivot counties and 10 congressional districts that saw a drop of at least 15 percent in Democratic turnout between 2012 and 2016 are in those four states. Each state has a Democratic incumbent running for re-election; Minnesota voters will also elect a new senator to fill the seat vacated by Democrat Al Franken. Democratic incumbent senators are at risk in Indiana and Missouri.

Recent poll numbers are not encouraging for Democrats. According to daily tracking by Reuters, registered voters in the Great Lakes region are evenly split when asked about their preferred candidate for Congress in 2018. Nearly 90 percent of Trump voters in the Midwest plan to vote for a Republican congressional candidate.

The latest Economist/YouGov poll has lots of bad news for Democrats about Midwestern voters. A majority—53 percent—of Midwesterners have an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic Party, the highest of any region. Forty-four percent of Midwesterners think the Democratic Party is too liberal, again the highest ranking of any geographic group. They are equally displeased with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and Nancy Pelosi is the least popular in the Midwest.

But Trump’s charm offensive in the Midwest seems to be working. The president is the most popular in the Midwest, where 46 percent approve of the job he’s doing and 44 percent view him favorably. Midwesterners give Trump the highest grades for being strong, patriotic, effective, inspiring, steady, and caring about them. They are the most optimistic about the next few years of Trump’s presidency and the least worried about losing their job. In other words, they like the guy.

Overall, according to a new CNN poll this week, Trump’s numbers are rising in every category regardless of geography; 57 percent say things are going well in the country now, the highest rating since 2007. The upbeat mood of the electorate is astonishing considering the unrelenting assault the president has been under since November 2016.

This could explain why Democrats, especially in the Midwest, are getting nervous. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently warned his party to quit talking about impeachment and focus on issues. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), one of the most endangered incumbents this year, is admonishing party leaders to stop bad-mouthing Trump voters. Nancy Pelosi even showed up in Iowa this week, just as some Democrats are strategizing how to replace her with a leader more appealing to traditional, Midwestern voters if she doesn’t reclaim the speaker’s gavel next year.

Midterm elections are still six months away, but with the economy thriving, international foes on their heels, and the Mueller probe imploding, the election prospects for once-confident Democrats are shrinking fast. If the party loses even more ground in the Midwest in November, the Blue Wave could instead turn out to be a bloodbath that will haunt the party for a generation.

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Photo credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

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