Democrats, Trump battle over 75 'pivot' counties in Midwest

Democrats, Trump battle over 75 'pivot' counties in Midwest
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For half a century, Democrats owned Dubuque, Iowa, where blue-collar union workers built middle-class lives along the Mississippi River. Then, in 2016, Donald Trump became the first Republican to win Dubuque County since Dwight Eisenhower.

Two years later, those voters turned on Trump’s party, choosing Democrat Abby FinkenauerAbby Lea FinkenauerSecond-tier Democrats face do-or-die phase Freshman Iowa lawmaker engaged to Warren staffer Iowa Democrat tops Ernst in third-quarter fundraising for Senate race MORE over Rep. Rod Blum (R).

In 2016, “people just wanted to shake things up. That’s their answer to it. Electing Trump was to shake things up,” said Mario Ruiz, the Iowa vice president of the Quad City Federation of Labor.


Now, Ruiz said, those same voters are asking: “What’s he done for the labor people? He hasn’t done anything.”

Dubuque is one of 206 counties across the country that voted for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Memo: Centrists change tone of Democratic race Political purity tests are for losers Deportations lower under Trump administration than Obama: report MORE twice, and Trump in 2016. These so-called pivot counties are spread across the country, from timber country in the Pacific Northwest to the North Woods of Maine.

But they are particularly concentrated along the borders of Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin, four states that are home to 75 pivot counties.

Taken together, those 75 counties illustrate the contours of a new political battleground, on which Democrats and Republicans are fighting to win white working-class voters who handed Trump the White House — and then handed Democrats the Speaker’s gavel two years later.

In the midterm elections, Democratic candidates for Congress won back 44 of the 75 pivot counties in the four Midwestern states.


Nationwide, Democrats won 113 of the 206 pivot counties. In those counties, the Democrat improved on Clinton’s vote share in the 2016 election by an average of 21 percent.

Even in pivot counties that stuck with the Republican candidate, that candidate underperformed President TrumpDonald John TrumpMost Americans break with Trump on Ukraine, but just 45 percent think he should be removed: poll Judge orders Democrats to give notice if they request Trump's NY tax returns Trump's doctor issues letter addressing 'speculation' about visit to Walter Reed MORE’s 2016 margins by nearly 7 percentage points, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan website Ballotpedia, suggesting either that those voters have soured on Trump or that some of Trump’s core base decided not to show up if his name wasn’t on the ballot.

The midterm election results give Democrats a road map to win back the White House and illustrate the importance of those same regions to Trump’s own chances of a second term.

Both sides must appeal, party strategists said, to voters who backed both Trump and Finkenauer.

“We as candidates, or as members of Congress, can’t go coastal on people. Where we as Democrats have struggled is when there have been more of these coastal-type ideas that do not resonate in towns of 1,000 people,” said Rep. Cheri BustosCheryl (Cheri) Lea BustosThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Pelosi accuses Trump of 'bribery' in Ukraine dealings DCCC adds senior staffers after summer departures DCCC raises more than M in October MORE (D), who represents an Illinois district that borders Finkenauer’s.

In 2018, Bustos, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, won all nine of the counties in her district that backed Trump.

Some pivot counties flipped back to the Democratic column on the strength of tough incumbents like Bustos, or Reps. Ron KindRonald (Ron) James KindAlcohol industry races to save tax break by year-end deadline Democrats ramp up oversight efforts over 'opportunity zone' incentive Treasury, IRS propose form to collect data about investments in opportunity zones MORE (D-Wis.) and Collin PetersonCollin Clark PetersonHow centrist Dems learned to stop worrying and love impeachment GOP lawmaker says House impeachment rules vote 'doesn't change anything for me' Majority of Americans see impeachment inquiry as fair: poll MORE (D-Minn.).

Others, like Rice County, Minn., Rensselaer County, N.Y., and Hidalgo County, N.M., gaveDemocratic candidates like Reps. Angie Craig (Minn.), Anthony Delgado (N.Y.) and Xochitl Torres Small (N.M.) the margins they needed to flip Republican-held seats.

And some of those counties that stayed with the GOP gave Republicans their only two pickups of the midterm cycle: Three of the four Minnesota counties on the Iowa border that backed both Obama and Trump helped elect Rep. Jim HagedornJames Lee HagedornLawmakers toast Greta Van Susteren's new show Minnesota Democrat sets up rematch in competitive House race Overnight Health Care: CDC pushes for expanding HIV testing, treatment | Dem group launches ads attacking Trump on Medicare, Medicaid cuts | Hospitals, insurers spar over surprise bills | O'Rourke under pressure from left on Medicare for all MORE (R), and two Iron Range counties helped send Rep. Pete StauberPeter (Pete) Allen StauberGOP lawmakers offer new election security measure Hold off on anti-mining hysteria until the facts are in Overnight Health Care: Lawmakers get deal to advance long-stalled drug pricing bill | House votes to condemn Trump's anti-ObamaCare push | Eight House Republicans join with Dems | Trump officials approve Medicaid expansion in Maine MORE (R) to Congress.

The tumult in the four Midwestern states, where a total of eight House seats changed party control in 2018, shows the evolving geography of blue-collar swing politics.

For generations, the battle for the blue-collars was centered on the Ohio River Valley, stretching from Pennsylvania to Missouri’s border with Kentucky.

Where Democrats once held a majority of the 17 congressional districts along the Ohio River, today they hold just two, in Pittsburgh and Louisville, Ky.

“The Upper Mississippi Valley is ground zero in blue-collar American politics now. It is no longer the Ohio Valley, which has reliably flipped to Republican,” said Brad Todd, a Republican strategist and co-author of “The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics.”

“From Quincy, Ill., all the way up to Duluth, on both sides of the river, every county is up for grabs.”

Those counties are crucial to both Democratic and Republican hopes of winning the 270 electoral votes necessary to take the White House in 2020.

Trump cannot afford to lose ground in the Upper Midwest, where he smashed through the Democratic blue wall to win Wisconsin and Michigan. If Democrats cannot rebuild that blue wall, their path to 270 narrows to longer-shot states like Arizona, Georgia and Texas.

That almost certainly means that Trump, and the eventual Democratic nominee, will make the industrial Midwest a cornerstone of their 2020 strategy.

“People who work hard every day, the folks who shower after work, the people who felt like they’ve been left out in the cold and nobody’s fighting for them, we’ve got to punch our way back into the hearts of working people. And we can’t just do that with words, we have to do that by showing up, by listening,” Bustos said.