Tim Alberta, chief political correspondent at Politico Magazine, has authored a piece on Trump’s Grand Old Party (GOP) bracing for Midwest Massacre that is reproduced here without any sort of editing.
In the predawn hours of Nov. 9, 2016, CNN’s chief national correspondent John King posed the question that would come to define the mechanics of Donald Trump’s victory. It had been 28 years since a Republican had won Wisconsin, Michigan or Pennsylvania—states belonging to a much-hyped “blue wall” that narrowed the GOP’s path to 270 electoral votes. As it became clear, however, that Trump would carry all three states, and secure blowouts in the traditional battleground of Ohio and Iowa, a new reality took hold. Whereas Republicans once believed they could only win the presidency using the George W. Bush playbook—appealing to affluent, suburban populations in diverse states such as Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico—Trump proved the truer route to the White House went through working-class whites in the industrial Midwest.
The narrative of a sweeping realignment was irresistible. Analysts branded the Rust Belt as “Trump Country.” Streaming into greasy spoons, shot-and-a-beer bars and Wal-marts across the Midwest, reporters pumped out anecdotal insights into the forgotten masses in middle America. And Republican officials, almost instantaneously, shifted their outlook. It didn’t matter that Trump had won Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania by fewer than 78,000 votes combined—not enough people to fill a popular Big Ten football stadium—or that his path through those states was necessitated by his defeat in once-purple areas of the country. Trump had redrawn the Electoral College map, they insisted, and Midwestern Democrats were becoming an endangered species.
Now, on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans are bracing for a massacre in the Midwest.
“When we woke up after the 2016 election, there was a real possibility that we were seeing a realignment among white-working class voters in the Midwest—and that they could go the way that white-working class voters have gone in the south over the past generation,” said Matt Grossman, a political scientist at Michigan State University. “But two years later, there’s no sign that those gains are holding or being extended. Instead, there are a lot of campaigns in that region where Republicans are struggling to be competitive.”
Trump bears much of the responsibility. His approval rating has plunged, by double digits, in most Midwestern states. His presidency has energized the Democratic base in ways Hillary Clinton never could. His party’s rewrite of the tax code was disproportionately beneficial to wealthy people and corporations; to the extent the law is popular with voters, he barely tries to promote it. And his trade warring has been particularly burdensome to farmers, manufacturers and blue-collar workers in the Rust Belt, with numerous Republicans from affected states, including Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Steve Stivers of Ohio, pleading privately with Trump and his aides to find resolution.
And yet, blaming Trump ignores some fundamental realities on the ground. For one thing, Republicans failed to recruit—or cultivate—top-tier candidates in many high-profile races. Democratic challengers outraised GOP incumbents across the region, and the country. Complacency has beset portions of the conservative base, with a combination of tax cuts, judicial nominees and regulatory reforms leaving some Republicans fat and happy. Above all, not everyone voting against the Republican Party on Tuesday is voting against Trump; the president persuaded lots of Democratic voters in 2016 without durably changing their party affiliations.
Still, Trump says his name is on the ballot, and the electorate appears to be behaving accordingly. In visits this fall to Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa and Minnesota, and conversations with Republican voters and officials, I found signs of alarm relating to 2018—and a sense of foreboding related to the repercussions beyond.
In Michigan, which Trump carried by 10,704 votes, Democrats are expected to take over numerous state legislative seats, win back the governorship and hold onto Debbie Stabenow’s Senate seat despite a spirited challenge from blue-chip Republican nominee John James. Meanwhile, Democrats are threatening to win a pair of congressional districts, the 8th and 11th, that are anchored in traditionally Republican suburbs. Democrats are also poised to win the race for attorney general—and perhaps most significant of all, the secretary of state’s office, giving the party considerable power to ease voting laws before the 2020 election.
“Democrats could make it structurally harder for Trump,” said Rob Steele, the Republican National Committeeman from Michigan. “If the secretary of state is a Democrat, then you’ll see a significant change in how people are looking at voting laws and ballot integrity. My message is, if you want to help Trump, you have to elect these other Republicans.” Steele knows that demographics are working against the GOP; even in predominantly white Michigan, the state is growing increasingly urban and college-educated, which explains the competitiveness of the 8th and 11th districts. “The more money in those areas,” he said, “the more Democratic they get.”
In Wisconsin, which Trump carried by 22,748 votes, Democrats have already begun flipping state legislative seats—prompting warnings of a “Blue Wave” from Governor Scott Walker, which irritated Trump and the White House political operation. Walker himself is in trouble: After two terms in office (and three elections, given the 2012 recount), many Republicans believe the governor will lose to Democrat Tony Evers. In the other prominent statewide race, incumbent Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin—who, like Stabenow in Michigan, is steady but hardly imposing—is cruising to a comfortable victory over Republican challenger Leah Vukmir. Wisconsin Republicans also worry they could lose the attorney general’s office, though one thing the party isn’t sweating is congressional seats: The only competitive race is in the 1st District to replace Speaker Paul Ryan, and Democrats likely made a fatal mistake in nominating Randy Bryce, a union member with personality but tons of political baggage, instead of Cathy Myers, whom Republicans feared would have flipped the seat.
“This political climate is one that I’ve never seen in my lifetime,” says Chris Goebel, chairman of the GOP in Walworth County, one of Wisconsin’s conservative strongholds. “In the past, you voted with your pocketbooks. But people get thrown out of office when voters are this angry.” At a party unity event in late September, the longtime stars of the state GOP—Walker, Ryan and Reince Priebus—celebrated past victories in tones befitting a memorial. Walker told me this political environment was harsher than in cycles past, and argued that Trump’s success in the Midwest owed to strong state parties. Without them, he implied, it’s tough to imagine the president running the table in the Rust Belt again. “I would argue the reason [Trump] was able to do that was because Republicans had made the case in those states and showed we could actually get things done,” Walker said.
In Pennsylvania, which Trump carried by 44,292 votes, Republicans are staring into the abyss. Due in large measure to a court-executed redistricting of the state’s gerrymandered congressional districts, Democrats could flip a half-dozen seats in the state; at worst, they should win four. Meanwhile, the state’s top Democratic incumbents, Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey, are both coasting to reelection. And, as in Michigan and Pennsylvania, Democrats are expected to win back a healthy number of Republican-held state legislative seats.
One reason is that wayward Democrats are simply coming home. “Pennsylvania does have many sons and daughters of what we could call Reagan Democrats, particularly in the central and western part of the state. They went for Donald Trump in big numbers—they put him over the top,” said John Brabender, the preeminent GOP strategist in the state. “But there was this wild assumption that because they voted for Trump in 2016, that they would vote for Republicans in 2018. But these people are still Democrats. They’re still going to vote for Democrats. And what we forget is that it wasn’t a vote on Donald Trump up-or-down in 2016; it was Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton. If Hillary Clinton was on the ballot against some of these Republicans, we’d be doing a lot better.”
Even in those Midwestern states won handily by Trump, there are red flags galore.
In Ohio, which Trump won by 447,000 votes—a whopping 8 percentage points—Republicans are expected to lose seats in the legislature for the first time in a decade. They are in danger of losing a deep-red congressional seat, in the 12th district, that they just spent millions to defend in a summertime special election. Republicans are also likely to lose the majority of statewide elections. In the U.S. Senate race, incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown will likely win by double digits over the challenger, Republican congressman Jim Renacci. And in the governor’s race, despite incumbent Republican John Kasich leaving office with approval ratings in the 50s, the race is a tossup between Democrat Richard Cordroy and Republican Mike DeWine.
In Iowa, which Trump won by 147,000 votes—or 9.5 percentage points—Democrats are poised for gains across the state. Republicans control three of Iowa’s four congressional seats, and all of them are being contested. Rod Blum, the incumbent in the 1st district, is likely a goner, and David Young in the 3rd district is hanging on for dear life. Even Steve King, the immigration hardliner who represents the ultra-conservative 4th district, faces a legitimate challenge from Democrat J.D. Scholten. Democrats are likely to pick up numerous legislative seats and could even retake control of the state House. And statewide, among other races Republicans are worried about, Governor Kim Reynolds is in deep trouble against Democrat challenger Fred Hubbell.
And in Minnesota, which Trump lost by 45,000 votes, the only good news for Republicans is a likely pick-up in the vacated 8th congressional district. The state is otherwise looking bleak: Democrats appear certain to flip two Republican-held congressional seats, in the 2nd and 3rd districts, while holding onto the governorship and both U.S. Senate seats. Even the attorney general’s race—in which Democrat Keith Ellison, the former congressman, has been dogged by allegations of sexual assault—is thought to be slipping away from Republicans.
This has been a volatile election cycle, and Trump’s victory in 2016 demonstrated that polling can be unreliable. Still, in the final weeks before the midterm elections, Republicans in the Rust Belt were in agreement that Nov. 6 would be a rough night at best—and a disaster at worst.
The three states of greatest concern for the GOP continue to be Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. This isn’t simply because Democrats are poised to run the table in the highest-profile races there, but because without their combined 46 electoral votes, Trump would have lost the presidency. His 306 electoral votes (304 in final, due to defections of two electors) looks comfortable on paper—until you consider the threadbare margins in those three Midwestern states.
It’s true that Trump was close to winning elsewhere, including losing New Hampshire by less than one point, Minnesota by less than two points and Nevada by less than three points. But it’s also true that Trump won Florida and its 29 electoral votes by barely more than one point. He also won the rapidly diversifying states of Arizona and North Carolina by less than four points each.
All of which ensures that Trump’s path to reelection will once again run through the Midwest; that if he cedes any other parts of his winning 2016 map, most essentially Florida, the president will likely have to run the table in Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
“I think that he pulled an inside straight in 2016, and he hasn’t done that much to change his cards, so he may have to pull another inside straight,” David Axelrod, chief strategist to the Obama campaigns, said in a recent podcast interview for POLITICO’s Off Message. “If the results are what they look to be, I think it’s an important harbinger for him that Republicans just didn’t do well in those states that delivered the presidency to him.”
Tuesday’s elections mark the beginning of the 2020 campaign. And for all the focus on suburbanites fleeing the GOP, a blue wave in the Midwest would be indicative of Trump’s base turning against his Republican Party.
“There’s a lot of talk about these swing House districts that are disproportionately suburban, but the polls are showing similar movement among the white-working class,” said Grossman, the MSU political scientist. “When you have states like Ohio and Iowa that swung very strongly toward Trump, and this year they are seeing Democratic voters returning to the fold, those Democratic gains would be disproportionately among the white working class.”