Trump country turnaround: Why the president's faux-populism could return the Rust Belt to its Democratic roots

Trump country turnaround: Why the president's faux-populism could return the Rust Belt to its Democratic roots

Politically, the Rust Belt has been one of the most volatile parts of the United States. While New England and the West Coast lean Democrat and many of the southern states have been reliably Republican, the Rust Belt has generally had a mixture of blue states and swing states (with Indiana being the most GOP state in the Rust Belt). But in 2016, President Donald Trump’s faux-populism not only resulted in a victory in the swing state Ohio—Trump also flipped three states that usually go Democrat in presidential races: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) is still fuming over the fact that Hillary Clinton was the first Democrat to lose Wisconsin in a presidential election since Walter Mondale in 1984. 


The 2018 midterms, however, found Democrats regaining a lot of ground in parts of the Rust Belt—and between now and 2020, the DNC will no doubt be spending considerable time trying to figure out ways to avoid another Rust Belt debacle like the one two years ago.

In 2019, this is what the political environment will look like in four Rust Belt states that were carried by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but by Trump in 2016.

1. Michigan

Saying that Michigan is a blue state does not mean that Michigan residents vote Democrat exclusively in major races—only that they are, on the whole, more likely to vote Democrat. During the Obama years, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder campaigned as a self-described “pro-life, pro-2nd Amendment, pro-family” Republican and won in both 2010 and 2014. It was under Snyder’s watch that the appalling Flynt water crisis occurred, but even that tragedy didn’t prevent Trump from carrying Michigan in 2016 (making him the first GOP presidential candidate to do so George H.W. Bush in 1988). 

In 2018, however, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer defeated Republican Bill Schuette by 10% in Michigan’s gubernatorial race. Incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow was reelected, defeating Republican John James by 7%—and Michigan Democrats flipped two GOP-held seats in the U.S. House of Representatives when Elissa Slotkin defeated incumbent Rep. Mike Bishop and Haley Stevens defeated Lena Epstein in the 11th Congressional District. Meanwhile,

Democrats didn’t obtain a majority in Michigan’s state legislature in 2018, although they decreased the GOP majority in the Michigan House and the Michigan Senate.  

2. Pennsylvania

Although Pennsylvania and Ohio are both Rust Belt swing states, Pennsylvania has been more favorable to Democrats in presidential elections—especially when there is a heavy voter turnout in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. But in 2016, Trump managed to flip Pennsylvania with a strong turnout in the central part of the state (which Democratic strategist James Carville famously described as “Alabama in between”). Altoona, Johnstown and other areas of Central Pennsylvania that Pennsylvanians jokingly refer to as “Pennsyltucky” or “Pennsissippi” came out for Trump in droves, making him the first Republican to carry Pennsylvania in a presidential race since 1988. 

Democrats, however, enjoyed double-digit victories in the 2018 midterms when Gov. Tom Wolf and Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. were reelected. In Pennsylvania, Democrats flipped three GOP-held seats in the U.S. House of Representatives; of the 18 House seats in Pennsylvania, there will be nine held by Democrats in 2019 and nine by Republicans. However, Republicans still control Pennsylvania’s state legislature (110-92 in the Pennsylvania House, 29-21 in the Pennsylvania Senate).

3. Ohio

Some elections were very easy to predict in 2018. Republican Mitt Romney’s chances of losing the Utah Senate race were slim and none, as were House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s changes of not being reelected in the San Francisco Bay Area. And in New York City, Congresswoman-Elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez enjoyed so much support that voters hardly knew anything about her Republican challenger Anthony Pappas. But countless races in the 2018 midterms were major nail biters, from Texas to Florida to Virginia—and Ohio had its share of nail-biters this year. 

Ohio is a swing state where Democrats can perform well (Obama carried Ohio in both 2008 and 2012) but have to work extra hard, as Hillary Clinton was reminded when she lost to Trump in the Buckeye State in 2016. And this year, Democrats were disappointed in Ohio once again when Democrat Richard Cordray lost to Republican Mike DeWine by 4% in the state’s gubernatorial race—although Sen. Sherrod Brown was reelected, defeating Republican challenger Jim Renacci by 7%. 

Republicans maintained a strong majority in Ohio’s state legislature (both the Ohio House and the Ohio Senate) this year, and 12 of Ohio’s 16 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be held by Republicans in 2019. As Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley asserted in a November 23 piece for the New York Times, Ohio has not turned into a red state but is a state where Democrats will need to find their “path out of the wilderness.”

4. Wisconsin

When President George H.W. Bush enjoyed an electoral landslide over Democrat Mike Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election, Wisconsin was one of the states Dukakis managed to win. Wisconsin, all things considered, is still a blue state, but far-right Republicans enjoyed some important victories in Wisconsin during the Obama years. House Speaker Paul Ryan was elected via Wisconsin, and Gov. Scott Walker won two terms. Ryan and Walker became stars of the far-right. But Ryan opted to resign from the House, claiming that he wanted to spend more time with his family (which is nonsense—Ryan was worried about a blue wave). And Republicans suffered a painful loss in Wisconsin when Walker failed to win a third term in 2018 and was defeated by Democrat Tony Evers, who Obama had campaigned for aggressively. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, defeating Republican Leah Vukmir, was reelected by 11%. Those were important wins for Democrats, although Republicans will still control five of Wisconsin’s eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019.

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