RACINE, WI — As he campaigned for GOP Senate candidate Leah Vukmir on Monday, retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) took a moment to bask in his party’s years-long streak of dominance.
“We have grown a lot. We have done really well here in Wisconsin. Remember when we didn’t have the assembly, or the Senate, or the Supreme Court, or a U.S. Senate seat, or the governor’s mansion, or the attorney general? We’ve won all those things since 2010,” he said, before turning to Vukmir. “We have one more hill to climb.”
But that hill’s looking much steeper this year in Ryan’s backyard than it has in nearly a decade. And Democrats, for the first time since President Obama ascended to the White House in 2008, are feeling like they’re running downhill in Wisconsin and other nearby Midwestern states that have shifted hard away from them in recent years.
Midwestern Democrats seem poised to roar back in the Midwest, riding a wave of suburban fury at President Trump, sky-high base enthusiasm, conservative-leaning and rural voters’ worry about Trump’s trade wars, and local dissatisfaction with GOP leadership over a number of bread-and-butter issues.
That’s especially true in the four Midwestern states where low Democratic enthusiasm helped Trump flip from Obama last election, handing him the White House: Iowa, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin.
In all four states, Democrats see a real shot at winning back the governor’s mansions that have eluded them for the past two cycles. Their three senators who face the voters this year — Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) — appear likely to cruise to reelection. Four of the 27 House seats the Cook Political Report rates as GOP-held tossup races are in these states.
Voters in the very states that have moved right the hardest and powered Trump to the White House appear ready to punish his party, amidst signs that Democrats are getting off the mat and ready to make them look purple once more.
“This is the toughest election I’ve ever faced as governor,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) told TPM after a campaign stop Monday in Platteville, a small town in the state’s far southwest corner.
To take advantage of the national and regional mood, Democrats have nominated four gubernatorial candidates who inspire descriptions like “solid” and “steady” from various strategists and voters but don’t exactly light the world on fire. They’re focusing heavily on bread-and-butter issues like infrastructure, education and health care to go after their GOP foes.
Wisconsin state Superintendent of Education Tony Evers (D), who won his party’s nomination on Tuesday, has taken to calling the state’s many potholes “Scott-holes,” and has largely focused on Walker’s cuts to schools. Michigan gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign slogan is “Fix the damn roads.” The brand of economic populism Democrats’ Ohio gubernatorial nominee, former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau head Richard Cordray, sounds a lot less fierce coming from him than like-minded Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Iowa gubernatorial nominee Fred Hubbell (D), an older, white businessman, lists education as his top priority as a candidate.
They may not be the most fiery candidates — but Democratic primary voters, who turned out in droves for these candidates (many of them winning over more vocal populists), seem fine with that if it means they can win and stop the conservative onslaught that has led to gutted unions, voter access crackdowns, and other hardline policies in the once-purple states.
“If you look across the map, what you’re seeing in the upper Midwest, with Cordray in Ohio, Whitmer in Michigan, Evers in Wisconsin, you’re going to see a lot of these states nominating relatively tame contenders,” said John Nichols, a Madison-based progressive journalist who writes for The Nation. “People really do feel beaten down by these last eight years in most of these states, and they didn’t just get beat by the other party, they faced what felt to an awful lot of them like structural assaults.”
Eight Years In The Desert
It’s hard to understate how bad the Obama years were for down-ballot Democrats in the Midwest — and how much of a psychic toll that took on his party. When Obama was elected in 2008, Democrats held the governor’s mansions in all four states. That ended in 2010, when Republicans flipped all four. They held them in 2014.
Heading into the 2010 midterms, Democrats held 26 House seats in the four states to just 20 for the GOP — 56 percent of the seats in the region. Today, they have just 13 seats to 29 for the GOP, 31 percent.
That’s partly because Republicans, suddenly in control of the states after 2010, gerrymandered all of those states but Iowa to make sure they’d hold lopsided margins in their congressional delegations and state legislatures. But that’s not the only reason: Most Democrats simply haven’t connected well with voters in these states, or have gotten caught up in bad national waves.
Iowa Democrats can’t blame gerrymandering: When the nonpartisan commission drew its congressional map, many predicted they had a strong chance at winning three of the state’s four House seats. Today, they hold just one.
Democrats had six of the states’ eight Senate seats after the 2008 elections. Now they have four. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) is the only Democrat who won a Senate race during this stretch without Obama’s coattails.
The final blow came in 2016, when Trump carried all four states, pulling off surprises in Michigan and Wisconsin to put him in the White House. His late surge helped carry Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) to a surprise reelection over former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI).
Those ghosts still haunt local Democrats, who warn against getting too complacent.
That includes Baldwin, who worries that national Democrats will assume she’ll be fine and not invest the resources necessary to help her survive an onslaught of outside money, much like what happened to Feingold.
“We’ve banned the phrase ‘blue wave’ in our campaign. I feel like people begin to take things for granted,” Baldwin told TPM during a primary-day campaign stop in northwest Milwaukee on Tuesday.
She instead warned of the “green wave” of cash from the conservative billionaires who’ve long fueled Wisconsin’s GOP operation.
The Pendulum Swings Back
Other Democrats who saw how hard it is not to drown in a wave are feeling confident that the undertow will claim their opponents this time.
All four states have a long history that predates Obama of backing whichever party doesn’t hold the White House. Democrats hope that longstanding pattern will continue.
Former Rep. Mark Schauer (D-MI) lost in the GOP wave in 2010, then fell short in his bid to defeat Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) in 2014, another Republican wave year.
He joked that he had “cycle envy.”
“It’s a significantly different political environment,” Schauer said, pointing to a huge Democratic surge in primary voters, a sign of lopsided base enthusiasm that also played out in Ohio and Wisconsin this year.
Democrats have seen plenty of other encouraging signs in those states. They flipped a pair of state Senate seats in Wisconsin special elections, and won a state Supreme Court race in a rout. In Iowa, they held onto a state legislative seat that Trump had won by a 21-point margin in 2016. Last week in Ohio, they just missed flipping a heavily Republican open House seat outside of Columbus.
“We know this is tough,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Iowa Republican Party, who warned there was a good chance his party would lose the governorship and two of their three House seats in the state. “There’s going to be a reaction to the Trump presidency and it makes life much more difficult.”
These aren’t the only Midwestern states that matter this year where Democrats are hoping a strong environment can help them hold their current seats and pick up some new ones. In a similar vein is nearby Minnesota, which Trump almost carried in 2016. Democrats look like they’ll hold the governor’s seat and both Senate seats, and are defending two House seats and looking to pick up three more. In Illinois, Democrats expect to retake the governor’s mansion and seriously contest three or four GOP-held House seats. In GOP-leaning Missouri and Indiana, Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) are staying competitive in tough races that the party likely must win to keep alive Democrats’ slim hopes of capturing the Senate.
These states and their neighbors play an obvious role in Democrats’ push for congressional control, and seizing at least one lever of power is crucial for Democrats to be able to block more policies that are anathema to their views. They might even be able to push through Medicaid expansion in Wisconsin if they do well enough in state legislative races.
The governor’s mansions make a big difference for congressional control as well: If Democrats win them, they’ll be able to block GOP House gerrymanders for the next decade.
And of course, these are the states Democrats need to figure out how to win again if they’re going to keep Trump from getting reelected.
“For the blue wave to catch, it needs to wash across the Great Lakes states, not just the coasts,” longtime Michigan Democratic strategist Jill Alper told TPM.