Dems rebuild blue wall in Midwest

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The Midwestern states that handed President Trump the White House two years ago now appear poised to deliver a sharply negative verdict against his party, thanks in no small part to voters’ dissatisfaction with the way Trump has handled his job.

Trump won Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016, two of the “blue wall” states that had voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992. He cruised to victory in Iowa and Ohio, swing states Barack Obama won twice. And he came within 45,000 votes of winning Minnesota, a state that last voted Republican when Richard Nixon was on the ballot.

{mosads}His wins added to a rightward drift that has happened in the Midwest in recent years. Republicans control both chambers of the state legislature in all five of those states, and the party owns most of the U.S. House seats in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Indiana and Ohio.

“The Midwest used to be what was referred to as the blue wall, with working-class and middle-class communities” voting Democratic, said Jim Ananich, the Democratic minority leader in the Michigan state Senate. “Obviously, that fell apart in 2016.”

Now, five weeks before Election Day, public polls show Democrats surging in races up and down the ballot in those Midwestern states, and even in less competitive states like conservative Kansas and liberal Illinois.

The contrast between the Republican dominance of the last decade and Democrats’ apparent advantage this year is most notable in gubernatorial contests. 

Democrats hold just one governorship in the Midwest this year, in Minnesota. But public polls show Democratic candidates leading races for governor in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and even Iowa, where Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) trailed businessman Fred Hubbell in a recent poll conducted for the Des Moines Register.

If a Democratic wave crests over the Midwest this year, even Ohio and Kansas are in play. Public polls show former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Director Richard Cordray (D) running neck and neck with Attorney General Mike DeWine (R). A recent survey in Kansas found Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), an arch-conservative, running even with state Sen. Laura Kelly (D).

The situation is so grim in some states that Republican strategists believe weak gubernatorial candidates may cost the party down-ballot, in races for U.S. House seats. 

Last week, the largest Republican super PAC cut off advertising aimed at boosting Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Mich.), who represents suburban Detroit. On Saturday, House Republicans canceled advertising they had planned on behalf of Rep. Kevin Yoder (R-Kan.), who represents the Kansas City metro area.

Republicans watching the Midwest with growing alarm say their candidates are being dragged down by Trump, whose approval ratings in Midwestern states is lower than in other regions. Recent polling has pegged Trump’s approval rating below 40 percent in Iowa, Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota, and only in the low to mid-40s in Ohio and Wisconsin.

“The Republican gubernatorial class of 2014, which ran anti-Obama campaigns, are now in a box that’s sinking,” said David Yepsen, the host of Iowa Press and a former director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “They can’t run anti-Trump campaigns without losing base voters, so they’re wed to an unpopular president.”

Trump so dominates the news cycle that some Republicans say they have trouble communicating their own messages to voters.

“It’s really hard to break through. There’s so much news at the federal level that anything you try to put out there is eclipsed,” said Scott Fitzgerald, the Republican majority leader in the Wisconsin state Senate. “We’ve gotten a lot accomplished, we’ve done a bunch of things, but they’re controversial.”

Two of Trump’s most consequential priorities have had a disproportionate impact on the Midwestern political mood. 

Tariffs imposed in the course of Trump’s trade war with China and the European Union have raised concerns among agricultural industries that dominate the Midwest. 

“Washington, the White House, the president kind of across the board have not successfully articulated what the game plan is on tariffs, how long they are going to be a part of your business,” said one Republican strategist who asked for anonymity to offer a candid assessment.

And the GOP’s failed efforts to roll back the Affordable Care Act have become a rallying cry for Democratic candidates, who warn that Republicans would end protections for those with pre-existing conditions. Democratic candidates or outside groups in Ohio, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are all using the threat to the health-care law against Republicans in paid advertising.

“Health care absolutely is still at the top of all the polling I’ve seen,” Fitzgerald said. “All you have to do is watch the 60 second ads that are running right now to know that health care” is the top issue.

Democrats say their party is ascendent at just the right moment, in a region they need to reclaim in order to win back the White House in 2020 — in part because their voters were so surprised they lost key blue wall states in 2016.

“Democrats are enthused at a level we haven’t seen in a long time, and independents are breaking hard against Republicans. They don’t like Trump and they’re embarrassed by the way he behaves himself,” Ananich said. “There’s Republican fatigue in these states for the things they’ve done over the last eight years, and there’s Trump fatigue which motivates our base and drives the independents against him.”

Tags Barack Obama Donald Trump Illinois Indiana Kansas Kevin Yoder Michigan midterm elections Midwest Minnesota Ohio Richard Cordray Wisconsin

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