Why you should care
Evidence suggests Donald Trump’s 2016 gains in the Midwest region weren’t a fluke.
The prime-time analysis of Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 was clear — she had ignored states like Michigan and Wisconsin, and had paid the price. They voted for Donald Trump. But on a pleasantly cool evening this June, President Trump flipped that narrative in the neighboring Midwestern state of Minnesota, where he had lost to Clinton. “We came this close to winning the state of Minnesota,” Trump told the 8,000-plus supporters packed into AMSOIL Arena, in gritty Duluth. “I needed one more visit, one more speech.”
Trump had a point. In 2016, he fell just 1.5 points short of Clinton in once bright-blue Minnesota, which hasn’t backed a Republican presidential candidate since 1972. In Minnesota’s 8th Congressional District, which includes Duluth, Republican challenger Stewart Mills missed defeating Democratic-Farmer-Labor U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan by just 0.6 points. Long a union-dominated bastion of mining and industry, the district has been in Democratic hands for all but two of the past 71 years. Now, Nolan is running for Minnesota’s open lieutenant governorship in November — with current Minnesota attorney general Lori Swanson as his running mate — leaving behind one of the country’s most vulnerable Democratic House seats. But Minnesota’s 8th District isn’t alone.
This open seat is the No. 1 pickup [opportunity] for Republicans nationally.
Caroline Tarwid, press secretary for Pete Stauber, presumptive GOP nominee for Minnesota’s 8th District
Even as Democratic Party prospects improve statewide in Sun Belt states like Georgia, Texas and Arizona, they’re contending with a stiff pushback in the Upper Midwest. This is where Great Lakes Republicans are looking to buck the “blue wave” expected to crash across America later this year. And while in 2016, Michigan and Wisconsin backed the Republican presidential candidate for the first time in three decades, the GOP’s hopes are pinned on a much deeper transformation underway in the region. Republicans already occupy governor’s mansions in both states. They hope to flip Minnesota this year, with two-term former GOP governor Tim Pawlenty running again. The GOP holds a majority of U.S. House seats in Michigan and Wisconsin, and majorities or supermajorities in all three states’ legislatures. Democratic U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin, of Wisconsin, looks surprisingly vulnerable, as national GOP-aligned groups pour millions into attack ads. Two Dem-held U.S. House seats in Minnesota could turn red this year; a third teeters. Among them is the 8th District.
“This open seat is the No. 1 pickup [opportunity] for Republicans nationally,” says Caroline Tarwid, press secretary for Pete Stauber, the presumptive GOP nominee in the contest.
The rising fortunes of the GOP in this region are rooted in part in factors like factory automation, which has led to declining union rolls. But effective conservative policymaking has been critical too. “Right-to-work” laws, for instance, rob organized labor of funding and new recruits, and Democrats of a once-formidable source of political clout — and votes. In Michigan and Wisconsin, Republican gerrymanders stoke political polarization and voter apathy. And Wisconsin’s strict voter ID law kept at least 16,800 voters from the polls, according to a study by University of Wisconsin professor Kenneth Mayer. In 2016, that accounted for more than 80 percent of Trump’s winning vote share.
“Anything that affects voters could affect election outcomes” when statewide electorates are so evenly split, says Barry Burden, another University of Wisconsin politics expert.
Long-running cultural and political trends help Upper Midwestern Republicans too. Outside minority-dominated cities like Detroit and immigrant-infused factory towns like Wausau, Wisconsin, the Upper Midwest remains whiter than America as a whole. Issues like opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion drive a wedge between diverse metropolitan voters and the largely white rural electorate, putting out of Democrats’ reach the agrarian areas that birthed the populist movement.
“The Upper Midwest is changing [demographically],” says Joe DiSano, a veteran Democratic political consultant in Michigan. “In some places, it’s becoming more diverse, leading to social friction. In others, it’s bleaching and depopulating.”
But the region’s Republicans know that all it needs is the curveballer-in-chief — Trump — to throw a wrench into their plans, and Democrats will sense a new lease on life. The first signs of such a threat to the Republican strategy are already emerging.
For the moment, two-term Republican Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s efforts to win a third time appear to be paying off. Walker is reintroducing himself to voters after jilted Wisconsinites punished him for his short-lived presidential run in 2015. “Walker’s image really hardened on the presidential campaign trail, and now he’s pressing the flesh in school gyms and shop floors to soften it,” says Burden. Walker’s approval ratings are now above water.
But Walker’s travails show that conservative politicians can’t rely too much on favorable long-term trends. Even with a sympathetic electorate, Walker’s record leaves him vulnerable to Democratic attacks. Despite low unemployment, Walker failed to deliver on a promise to create 250,000 jobs in his first term. Now, Trump’s making his task — and that of other Upper Midwestern Republicans — harder.
It’s sad to see an American company [like Harley-Davidson] going overseas.
Julia Savel, spokesperson for Democrat Randy Bryce, running for Wisconsin’s 1st District seat
The president’s brewing trade war has prompted Harley-Davidson, the iconic Wisconsin motorcycle manufacturer, to offshore some production capacity. Electronics manufacturer Foxconn is scaling back the first stage of a much-touted production hub in suburban Milwaukee, though it insists it remains committed to making the investment it had promised for the project.
Wisconsin Democrats are eager to localize trade issues. “It’s sad to see an American company [like Harley-Davidson] going overseas,” says Julia Savel, spokesperson for Democrat Randy Bryce, who’s running for retiring U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan’s GOP-leaning 1st District seat.
Across Lake Michigan, the Michigan GOP feels good about its prospects as the prolonged economic malaise of the 2000s and early 2010s fades from memory. After years of population declines, Michigan has added residents for the past seven years — key for the state economy and voter morale. And once-dry state coffers are filling up, with nearly $900 million banked for the next “rainy day.”
But tariffs aren’t playing well there either. Reciprocal agriculture tariffs threaten thousands of small corn, soybean, cranberry and hog farmers across the region. In March, a Reuters-Ipsos poll of Michigan and four other Rust Belt states found just 40 percent approval for Trump’s trade policies. Since then, General Motors and other major Michigan manufacturing employers have warned of tariff-related production cuts in the state.
No one knows just how much any of the multiple — economic, cultural or social — factors at play will influence voters at the hustings in 2018. “I’d caution against trying to fit every data point into a narrative,” says Kenneth Mayer, the University of Wisconsin study author.
After all, these forces are only as strong as the people driving them. In recent years, key officeholders in all three states have pushed forward — or held back — the red tide. This cycle, how well individual candidates can connect with voters and market their identities may again matter more than their stated policy positions.
Back in Minnesota’s 8th District, candidate Stauber laments that Washington has turned its back on “Main Street Minnesota.” A retired police officer and longtime union member whose wife served in Iraq, Stauber has a story that’s familiar in a blue-collar district where most voters know someone in a union, the military or both. In attack ads the past two cycles, Nolan successfully portrayed challenger Mills as an out-of-touch millionaire.
“People are rallying behind Pete because he is one of them; he lives his message,” says Tarwid, the Stauber spokesperson.
Just how important individual personalities are is exemplified by Minnesota’s 7th Congressional District, a mostly agricultural swath that voted heavily for Trump. Here, longtime DFL incumbent Collin Peterson is an exception to the rural rule. As the powerful ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture, Peterson has his finger on rural America’s pulse — and is in prime position to deliver for farmers and ranchers. Even so, his winning margin has collapsed in recent years, from routine 20-point wins to a 5-point squeaker in 2016. A formidable challenger could unseat him. “If Republicans turn out, Peterson is vulnerable,” says University of Minnesota political studies chair Larry Jacobs.
Candidate quality — and party organization — could prove the difference for the GOP in Michigan’s high-profile race to succeed two-term governor Rick Snyder too. With a powerful get-out-the-vote apparatus, the Michigan GOP is a model for state parties nationally; following Trump’s unexpected Michigan triumph, party chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel moved up to head the national GOP.
“Ronna understands the importance of the grassroots — that’s what won the  election,” says Sarah Anderson, communications director for the Michigan GOP. In late June, the party had already notched 700,000 voter contacts, pacing far ahead of previous midterm cycles.
Likely GOP gubernatorial nominee and current Michigan attorney general Bill Schuette is an expert tea-leaf reader and master of punchy sound bites. Schuette is “one of the four masterful Michigan politicians of my lifetime,” says DiSano, the Democratic consultant. In a June debate, Schuette mostly sidestepped his three primary opponents and reserved attacks for Democrats and Democratic frontrunner Gretchen Whitmer, a well-connected former legislator. “Economic collapse” is their plan, he promised.
On the Democratic side, Whitmer faces a tougher-than-expected primary fight against businessman Shri Thanedar and former Detroit Health Department executive director Abdul El-Sayed. Activists and consultants alike fret about either challenger’s chances against Schuette. DiSano laments Thanedar’s political plasticity and questions El-Sayed’s temperament, saying, “He has a temper and will give you what you want when you poke him.”
In years past, that might have sealed his fate. But this is Trump’s era. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-year-old Berniecrat who stunned veteran Rep. Joe Crowley in a Democratic primary in New York in June, has now openly backed El-Sayed’s candidature. Traditional political calculations don’t always work anymore. Racing toward the 2018 polls, both Democrats, who lost their Upper Midwest bastion in 2016, and Republicans, who snatched it, know that well.