Against the Grain

The GOP’s Rapid Retreat in the Midwest

Republicans have abandoned Senate races in states Trump carried, and could lose several key governorships as well. Trump’s boasting of crashing the blue wall is rapidly becoming ancient history.

Ohio Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine addresses supporters after winning the primary election, in Columbus, Ohio on May 8.
AP Photo/Bryan Woolston
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
June 17, 2018, 6 a.m.

One of the biggest red flags for President Trump’s reelection emerged this week from a region that he can never stop talking about: the Rust Belt. The president still frequently likes to remind reporters about his conventional-wisdom-busting victories in the blue-wall states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, but he isn’t paying attention to how much they’ve reverted to Democratic form lately.

Senate Republicans are all but conceding that Democratic senators will be coasting to reelection in Midwestern states that Trump narrowly carried. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, notably, has left off Democratic seats in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio when he listed off the most competitive races for this year’s midterms. The Democrats’ leading Senate super PAC, so confident of its prospects in the region, isn’t reserving any time for Sens. Tammy Baldwin, Bob Casey, Debbie Stabenow, or Sherrod Brown.

Meanwhile, Ohio is becoming a major warning sign for the GOP’s fortunes in the upcoming midterms—and beyond. The state backed Trump by a healthy 8-point margin in 2016, fueled by dramatic swings towards Republicans along the blue-collar eastern spine of the state. Trump’s winning margin in bellwether Ohio was nearly identical to his winning margin in ruby-red Texas. Given the promising political trends from Trump’s election, Republicans were hopeful that they could upset Brown and hold the governorship with an established figure like Attorney General Mike DeWine. Early polling showed the Senate race competitive and DeWine holding a healthy lead over the opposition.

But the political movement in Ohio is headed in the opposite direction, even with Trump’s recent uptick in popularity. Trump’s job approval in the state is at 43 percent with 54 percent disapproving, according to a new Quinnipiac survey. Nearly half of respondents to a Suffolk University poll of Ohio voters said their midterm vote would be a check on the president, compared to 28 percent saying their vote would be to support Trump’s agenda. And Brown now holds a commanding double-digit lead over Rep. Jim Renacci in the latest public polls, with Democrat Richard Cordray inching ahead of DeWine.

Governor races in the other Trump states aren’t looking much better. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has watched his party lose numerous downballot elections on Trump turf and is openly concerned about the GOP’s standing in the state, despite a lackluster Democratic field against him. Democrats will be aggressively contesting the open Michigan governor’s seat, eager to litigate the record of a Trump-friendly attorney general (Bill Schuette) in a traditionally blue state. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is coasting to a second term, with The Cook Political Report changing its rating of the race to Likely Democratic. Cook has also shifted Iowa GOP Gov. Kim Reynolds’s race against businessman Fred Hubbell for a full term from Likely Republican to Toss-Up.

These results should be alarming for Republicans, who were hoping to hang on to Trump’s unconventional coalition for the presidency over the long haul. These Midwestern states feature a disproportionate share of those famed Obama-Trump voters, whom many Democrats feared would move permanently into the Republican column. Even as Trump is shamelessly trying to win them over by implementing tariffs on steel and aluminum and fighting polarizing culture wars, many are defecting back towards the Democrats for this year’s midterms. The growing economy and shrinking unemployment rate simply aren’t enough to keep them in the fold.

It also is a blow to congressional Republicans, hoping to limit their losses to the Republicans representing diverse, suburban constituencies where Trump is particularly unpopular. Democrats can win back the House simply by winning the lion’s share of affluent districts near major metropolitan areas. But if members representing small-town Midwestern turf are endangered—like Reps. Mike Bost of Illinois and Mike Bishop of Michigan—the odds of a bigger wave grow. It’s why Conor Lamb’s upset special election victory outside Pittsburgh in March was so alarming for Republicans—it was taking place on working-class turf that should be as favorable for Trump as it gets.

There’s a reason Democrats are encouraging their candidates to focus on the economic anxieties many Americans still feel despite the macro-economic boom. Health care is now polling as the top issue among voters, driven by middle-class Americans worried about rising expenses for medical care. Trump may be shattering traditional Republican economic dogma, but his blunt-force approach to politics isn’t convincing his newfound fans to vote for his adopted party.

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