This year was barely two weeks old when Scott Walker started trying to convince the rest of his party it was in trouble. “WAKE UP CALL,” the second-term Wisconsin governor tweeted after a surprise Democratic victory there in a state senate special election. “Can’t presume that voters know we are getting positive things done in Wisconsin. Help us share the good news.” Three months later, he was back at it, an eye on his own reelection campaign, his urgency ratcheted up a tick. “Tonight’s results show we are at risk of a #BlueWave in WI,” he warned after his Republicans lost a State Supreme Court election. “The Far Left is driven by anger & hatred — we must counter it with optimism & organization. Let’s share our positive story with voters & win in November.”
None of this worked. So there Walker stood last month in northern Wisconsin as Donald Trump — calling his onetime presidential campaign rival a “great friend” — warned Walker’s constituents, “This will be the election of the caravan, Kavanaugh, law and order, tax cuts, and common sense.”
For Walker, the question of how to handle Trump has been a tricky one. Trump, after all, is deeply unpopular among Wisconsin independents, making it harder for Walker to win over the swing voters he desperately needs. And the president has dreadful ratings among the highly educated white suburban voters who stack the counties surrounding Milwaukee — the customary key to Walker’s three close victories. So Walker has appeared with the president, but he rarely talks about him on the trail. Instead, Walker is trying to focus on Wisconsin’s humming economy and avoiding national issues like immigration while he barnstorms the state in the closing days.
And yet, with just hours left before he finds out whether he’ll earn another term, Walker narrowly trails Democrat Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction, in public polling. Walker “will win — if he wins — based on his record on taxes and the economy,” said Charlie Sykes, the longtime conservative Milwaukee radio host who rose to national prominence in 2016 as a Trump skeptic after a long career that helped vault Walker to his own fame. But “if he loses, given how strong the economy is here, I don’t know if there’s any other explanation other than Trump.”
If the polling has been accurate, Walker’s path to victory is vanishingly slim. And in 2018, Wisconsin may be something of a best-case scenario for Republicans as the check comes due for their two-year-old deal with Trump across the upper Midwest.
The distance between today’s state-of-play and Democrats’ post-2016 fears for the region — not to mention GOP predictions — could hardly be more dramatic. These, after all, are the states that gave the presidency to Trump in 2016 — home to millions of the working-class white men who became the face of a supposed generational political realignment.
But two years later, Republicans seem to have lost their grip on the region from Pennsylvania to Iowa. Democrats seem poised to easily retain Senate seats in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio — which Trump won in 2016 — as well as two in Minnesota, where the president fell short by under two points. They’re just as confident about gubernatorial contests in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois, and they see opportunities to either win or come close to electing Democratic governors in Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, South Dakota, and Kansas. The parties are still battling over brutal Senate contests for Democratic-held seats in North Dakota, Indiana, and Missouri — states Trump won by 36, 19, and 19 points, respectively. Republicans have gotten the message: While Trump visited Wisconsin for Walker in October, the state didn’t even make the list for his final-days sprint around the country. Neither did Pennsylvania or Michigan. His time, figured the White House, was better spent elsewhere.
There’s no shortage of explanations for the shift, none of which rely entirely on pure animus toward Trump. Justin Myers, the CEO of For Our Future, a Democratic group funded by billionaire Tom Steyer and a constellation of labor unions that’s been organizing in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, said that while anti-Trump sentiment is often a top-five issue among voters who speak with the group’s door-knockers, it’s not always number one. In Wisconsin, for one, voters’ top issue has been education funding — Walker has tried softening his image on the topic, pointing to his latest budget instead of his years of warfare with local teachers — and then health care — the anti-Obamacare crusader is now talking up protections for those with preexisting conditions. In Michigan, it’s been clean water. And in large swaths of the region, Trump’s broadly unpopular tariffs have led to significant alterations of the local economy. Walker has tried to avoid talk of the tariffs altogether, except to promote their usefulness for the state’s dairy industry.
The potential sea change isn’t just at the statewide level. Republicans are now openly concerned that weak top-of-the-ticket performance in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania could pave the path for down-ballot destruction: Across the Midwest, House of Representatives GOP incumbents are struggling to hang on in the final hours of campaigning. Priorities USA Action, the massive Democratic super-PAC playing in 16 such races, found in a recent analysis shared with New York that, within the universe of contests the group is tracking, the average forecasted swing toward Democratic candidates in the Midwest is three points higher than elsewhere.
A wide range of Pennsylvania House races are thought to be up for grabs on Tuesday thanks largely to the huge margins separating Democratic governor Tom Wolf and senator Bob Casey from their Trump-allied challengers, Republicans Scott Wagner and Lou Barletta. No state was more important to Trump in 2016, yet the national GOP essentially wrote it off early in 2018: Barely any outside groups came in for Wagner, who recently made news for threatening to shove his golf spikes into Wolf’s face, or Barletta, an illegal immigration hardliner. In Michigan, the Republican challenging Democratic senator Debbie Stabenow has been reduced to tweeting at Trump and appearing on Fox News to plead with him to stop by for an Election Eve rally, like in 2016. He doesn’t mention he’s a Republican in his television ads. And even in Iowa, the state that shifted hardest from Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016 — a 15-point swing — Democrats are bullish about their chances to win two, and maybe all three, of the state’s Republican-held House seats.
Many Democrats have, over the last two years, put a premium on organizing in parts of these states where they were less present in 2016, aiming to keep their loss margins low in rural or industrial areas dissatisfied with D.C., especially among voters who sided with Obama before flipping to Trump. “If those people are still looking around saying, ‘Oh, it’s not working for me what they’re doing in Washington now, they’re attacking my health care, they’re not getting anything done, didn’t do infrastructure,’ that person could easily flip back,” said Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper, speaking as he drove from Cincinnati to meet up with the state party’s new bus — plastered with a “PEOPLE FIRST” slogan — in Toledo. In Pepper’s state, which Trump won by eight points, Democratic senator Sherrod Brown seems assured of getting a third term, while Democrat Richard Cordray narrowly leads Republican Mike DeWine in the gubernatorial race. “Those voters aren’t fundamentally changed,” he said. “They don’t like what they’re getting, and they’re more eager to vote for whoever will break from the status quo.”
None of this is a huge surprise to anyone who watched closely when, in March, Democrat Conor Lamb won a special election for a Pittsburgh-area House seat that had been in Republican hands. The results didn’t show a flood of blue-collar men coming back to the Democratic fold, but rather a crumbling of GOP support in the suburbs matched by a lack of energy among the much-analyzed, first-time Republican-voting Trump supporters.
“We’re seeing voters really say, ‘Well, maybe I like Trump, but he’s not on the ballot, and just because he shows up somewhere and tells me to vote for somebody doesn’t mean I’m gonna vote for them,’” explained Tim Waters, the Pittsburgh-based national political director of the United Steelworkers union. Waters pointed to a pair of Republican-held House seats — in industrial northern Indiana and northwest Pennsylvania — that could be Democratic pickup opportunities if a sizable wave crashes on Election Day. If the once-safe GOP districts currently represented by Jackie Walorski and Mike Kelly actually look like they’re in danger of flipping, he said, “It doesn’t mean the people there don’t support Trump. If Trump ran there tomorrow, he might win by 20 points. But they’re weighing, seriously, the issues.”
The long-term shift of blue-collar white men from Democrats to Republicans is ongoing, in other words, but it wasn’t dramatically or permanently accelerated by Trump. “There is a [tendency] to make broad generalizations after one party has a successful election year, [but] there is no permanence to this,” said Mike DeVanney, a veteran Republican strategist in Pennsylvania.
And, much like in the rest of the country, it may be relatively highly educated suburban voters who ultimately make the difference in this region, too. The Priorities USA analysis revealed that in the districts they examined, the larger the proportion of voters with bachelor’s degrees, the larger the forecasted swing toward the Democratic candidate.
And those are the voters that someone like Walker will need on his side, in order to stay afloat.
“There was a fairly strong contingent of suburban Republican voters who were willing to at least give him a try, who did not want Hillary. There was a lot of talk at the time of his election that, ‘If he wins, he’ll change, if he wins, he’ll do things differently,’” said Matt Borges, a John Kasich ally who was ousted as Ohio’s Republican Party chairman after Trump’s victory. He didn’t change. And those voters, Borges said, now look to be gone from the GOP fold. “We are picking up a lot of these blue-collar former Democrats, but that seems to be the trade we’re making right now. And I’m not sure it’s smart.”