President Donald Trump loves to boast about his business acumen and the country’s strong economy under his watch. But one key region widely believed to have handed him the presidency in 2016 declared itself on Tuesday night to be less than impressed.
The Rust Belt, which played a crucial role in cementing Trump’s 2016 victory, went largely for Democrats in the midterms. And that’s a bad omen for Trump’s 2020 hopes, both Democratic and Republican operatives said.
Voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania broadly rejected Republican candidates in statewide races and sent a raft of Democrats to the House of Representatives from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee.
The result gives renewed hope for 2020 to Democrats still feeling stung by Trump's surprise wins in those crucial states.
“I think the Midwest is the big story,” Jennifer Palmieri, director of communications for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, told VICE News. “When you look at those Midwest wins, you can more than see a path for how a Democrat can win in 2020.”
Trump’s trouble in the Midwest may excite eager Democrats, but his ability to animate his base — demonstrated with stark clarity in the crucial swing state of Florida — remains a potent weapon in 2020, observers said.
One thing is clear, observers said: The country remains deeply divided, and Trump’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric looks certain to be a key fault line for the 2020 race.
BLUE WALL REDUX
In a victory speech as he cruised to re-election Tuesday night, longtime Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown called on his fellow Democrats to look to his region as a model for future victory.
“Let our country — our nation's citizens, our Democratic Party, my fellow elected officials all over the country — let them all cast their eyes toward the heartland, to the industrial Midwest," Brown said.
Trump shocked pundits in 2016 by cruising to victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — states once considered keystones in an impenetrable “Blue Wall.” But the 2018 results paint the midwest as a trouble spot for Trump’s re-election, said Michael Steel, a senior policy and communications advisor to Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential run.
Both parties now need to look closely at which voters flipped the region from red to blue this year, Steel said.
“I think the likeliest scenario was a combination of reduced turnout in rural voters and a switch in college-educated women,” said Steel, who was press secretary for former Republican House Speaker John Boehner. “If so, that would not bode well for the president’s odds for winning those states in 2020.”
In Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and Senator Bob Casey Jr. cruised to re-election on Tuesday night. Michigan re-elected its Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow, and sent Democrat Gretchen Whitmer to the state’s governor’s mansion.
“We know from public opinion polls that they don’t really like Trump’s style.”
In Wisconsin, Republican stalwart Gov. Scott Walker went down in flames, failing to secure a third term in a hard-fought race against Democratic challenger Tony Evers.
Suburban female voters have been notably turned off by Trump’s harsh rhetoric about immigration and other issues, said Paul A. Beck, an expert on elections and politics at Ohio State University.
“White women with college education are a demographic you want to poll well in, and they’ve been traditionally Republican,” Beck said. “We know from public opinion polls that they don’t really like Trump’s style.”
These white, Midwestern women will prove a key constituency for any Democratic candidate vying for the 2020 election, Beck said.
Trump’s campaign took a dark turn in the final weeks of the campaign, ratcheting up fears over illegal immigration and threats to national security.
Trump’s strategy to boost his base’s turnout with inflammatory rhetoric about immigration will likely be a key plank of his re-election strategy, observers said. But the approach proved to be a double-edged sword, and achieved mixed results in important presidential swing states like Iowa and Ohio, observers said.
“You can see where that message didn’t play well in the suburban areas where Democrats in House races did extraordinarily well,” said Donna R. Hoffman, a political science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.
But if the suburbs were a downer for Trump on Tuesday night, he had other reasons to be cheerful: Republicans picked up seats in the Senate.
“It’s entirely possible the Democrats will nominate someone equally polarizing in 2020, and that the president’s base of support will be adequate. But that’s not a great bet.”
Florida — a swing state and a key target for Democrats — delivered big victories for Trump. The state handed victories for Republicans up and down the ticket. Democrats failed to secure a single statewide victory after Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis doubled down on Trumpian messages.
Trump praised himself on Twitter for boosting Republican victories in the Senate. But Steel chalked up the Senate victories to a battleground map that put Democrats on the defensive.
Trump’s strategy of motivating his core supporters, rather than reaching out to centrist voters, may have succeeded in the 2016 election because his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was seen as highly divisive herself — but that’s a dangerous game, Steel said.
“It’s entirely possible the Democrats will nominate someone equally polarizing in 2020, and that the president’s base of support will be adequate,” he said. “But that’s not a great bet.”
Cover image: Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, reacts as he speaks to the audience during the Ohio Democratic Party election night watch party, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)