Midwest Dems hinge 2020 runs on winning back Rust Belt

A number of Midwestern Democratic presidential hopefuls are hinging their candidacies on winning back the working-class voters in the Rust Belt region, who were widely seen as delivering the White House to President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans aim to avoid war with White House over impeachment strategy New York Times editorial board calls for Trump's impeachment Trump rips Michigan Rep. Dingell after Fox News appearance: 'Really pathetic!' MORE in 2016.

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute Senate gears up for battle over witnesses in impeachment trial MORE (Minn.), the most recent Democrat to announce a 2020 run, is the latest example of how the party is looking to rebound among voters who flipped from former President Obama to Trump after the party some early success in the 2018 midterms.


She said Wisconsin will be her first campaign stop, a pointed reference to 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonNo, the polls aren't wrong — but you have to know what to look for How to shut down fake Republican outrage over 'spying' on Trump More than 200,000 Wisconsin voters will be removed from the rolls MORE’s lack of campaigning in a state Trump narrowly won.

Declared and potential candidates like South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownSunday Talk Shows: Lawmakers look ahead to House vote on articles of impeachment, Senate trial Sherrod Brown backs new North American trade deal: 'This will be the first trade agreement I've ever voted for' Trump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field MORE (Ohio) have been emphasizing their Midwest appeal, which they believe could give them an edge among a crowded pack of 2020 Democrats who hail mainly from coastal states.

Still, Democrats warn the Midwest alone won’t deliver the White House; they say candidates can take a two-pronged approach by also aggressively courting minority voters who make up a substantial part of the party’s base.

“I think it’s appealing for people around the country who are looking for somebody who can win votes of people in the middle — not just middle of the country, but middle of the political spectrum who voted for Obama then Trump in 2016,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa-based strategist who worked on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

“We have to do better with independents than we did in 2016,” Link continued. “That’s why Klobuchar and Brown are generating some attention and interest, but a lot of candidates can make credible arguments to those voters.”

Democrats are hoping to capitalize on their 2018 midterm success in the Rust Belt since the electoral map to the White House runs through that region.

Last year the party made gains in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — all of which went narrowly for Trump in 2016 — recapturing two governor’s mansions and taking over the House after flipping a handful of seats in the region.

But Ohio, a perennial and critical swing state, remains more of an obstacle for Democrats, even after 2018.

Trump carried the state by 8 points in 2016 and Democrats fell short in the hotly contested governor’s race and a few targeted House seats, with some saying the party didn’t boost turnout enough in the cities last year.

“Ohio didn’t follow the pattern of other states,” said Jim Ruvolo, a former chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party. “I think we’ve got a challenge here to figure out what went wrong in 2018.”

Still, Brown easily secured reelection to a third term last year; the popular, long-time lawmaker who was able to win even as Republican Mike DeWine won the governor’s mansion.

Brown, who’s still considering a 2020 bid, has been traversing the four early primary and caucus states on his “Dignity of Work” tour, talking to voters about expanding economic opportunities for all working Americans.

Many Democrats see the crossover appeal for Brown, and his progressive populism tends to overlap with Trump, particularly on the issue of trade and opposition to trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Brown recently told a crowd that he initially backed the president imposing tariffs but doesn’t agree with the approach as a “long-term trade strategy.” And he’s raised concerns about the NAFTA replacement Trump negotiated with Mexico and Canada, arguing that it needs stronger labor provisions.

As he makes his pitch in the early states, Brown trumpeted that the party can rebound in middle America — with a progressive candidate.

“Democrats learned a lot of lessons, but the most important lesson is we write off no place in the country,” Brown said in an interview with CNN at his first Iowa stop. “I’m weary of Democrats that say you only talk to progressives to win and excite the base.”

But Brown added, “An outspoken progressive can win — and win decisively — in the heartland.”

Meanwhile, Klobuchar also romped to victory for a third Senate term in Minnesota in 2018, despite Trump coming within a few points of winning the state just two years earlier.

Like Brown, Klobuchar is popular lawmaker, though Minnesota is a much bluer state.

Following her announcement speech in blizzard-like conditions, Klobuchar told reporters that she’ll start her campaign in Iowa and Wisconsin, making an apparent dig at Clinton for not visiting the Badger State after winning the Democratic nomination in 2016.

“We’re starting in Wisconsin because, as you remember, there wasn’t a lot of campaigning in Wisconsin in 2016. With me, that changes,” Klobuchar said. “I’m going to be there a lot.”

Klobuchar plans to campaign on a message that includes promises to lower prescription drug costs and increase education opportunities.

She’s also stood out for her overtures promising to take on tech giants, with a vow to push for net neutrality and also expand rural broadband — which could play well in the heartland.

And like many of her Democratic opponents, Klobuchar said she won’t accept donations from corporate political action committees, touting that she doesn’t have a “political machine” but instead has “grit.”

Though Brown and Klobuchar have wider name recognition as sitting U.S. senators, Buttigieg, who’s formed a presidential exploratory committee, is also highlighting his industrial Midwest roots as a two-term mayor of a small city.

Buttigieg, a Navy Reserve veteran who’s been deployed to Afghanistan, has argued that he can help Democrats understand the middle of the country. He recently told reporters that he’ll spend a lot of his time campaigning in Iowa given the similarities between the early caucus state and Indiana.

Some Democrats, however, question if every Democrat can have a wide appeal in states like Ohio.

“If Sherrod is the nominee, he certainly puts Ohio in play,” Ruvolo said. “If someone else is the nominee, I’m not so sure.”

“Ohio does like pragmatism, though Trump kind of overturned that.”

Meanwhile, some of the other Democratic candidates are largely playing to the left-leaning base and heavily spending time in the traditional early states.

Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenTrump executive order aimed at combating anti-Semitism stirs up controversy Booker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Democrats threaten to skip next debate over labor dispute MORE (D-Mass.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandAdvocacy groups decry Trump's 'anti-family policies' ahead of White House summit This bipartisan plan is the most progressive approach to paid parental leave Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' MORE (D-N.Y.), Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate Booker cancels NH activities, campaign says he has the flu MORE (D-N.J.) and Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBooker leads other 2020 Dems in petition urging DNC to change debate qualifications Sanders revokes congressional endorsement for Young Turks founder Cenk Uygur The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 Democrats trading jabs ahead of Los Angeles debate MORE (D-Calif.) have all made stops in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. And Warren has visited Nevada, which has a significant Hispanic population.

Democrats are cautioning that the party’s 2020 strategy can’t have an either/or approach and say the candidate who prevails in the primary needs to show the ability to build coalitions of key constituencies, including working-class white voters in the Midwest and black voters in the South.

Jamie Harrison, the former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party, noted the importance of having a “very motivated” base in presidential races. African-Americans make up about a third of South Carolina’s population — and they make up about 60 percent of the Democratic primary electorate.

“I would say that it’s important to do both — that you spend some time in regions that feel neglected, that haven’t gotten enough attention, but you sure as hell also focus on the base of your party,” Harrison said.

“You win an election from the base up. If you have a shaky foundation, then your house is going to fall down.”

Max Greenwood contributed.