WATERFORD, Mich. — Democrats woke up in November 2016 to the cold reality that the Blue Wall of reliable votes in upper Midwestern states that they counted on for years had crumbled, clearing a path for Donald Trump to take the White House.
Two years later, the party is aiming in Tuesday’s midterm elections to patch up that barrier, and Democrats appear on track to make gains in House and governor races in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, three once-blue states that Hillary Clinton lost.
But there’s an open question hanging over the vote: Is this a temporary trend, fueled by reaction to Trump? Or are Democrats refashioning a coalition that will hold?
Not much is riding on the answer — except maybe everything.
These Rust Belt states have been trending Republican for years, party strategists on both sides say, as working-class voters have felt abandoned by a Democratic Party they felt didn’t do enough to help them in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
“The Blue Wall was not very high,” acknowledged Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster.
Or, as Larry Jacobs, a University of Minnesota political scientist, put it: “The idea of it being a Blue Wall was something invented in the Brooklyn campaign headquarters,” referring to Clinton’s campaign office. “It wasn’t rooted in reality.”
But these states barely supported Trump in the last election, and they have growing suburban areas where many voters, particularly women, have been turned off by Trump’s rhetoric. That has this battleground area tilting Democratic.
Greenberg said this is due to Trump’s governing more like a plutocrat and less like the populist he promised.
“People aren’t fools,” Greenberg said. “He was going to be for working people. He was not going to touch Medicare or Social Security.”
Now, this is what both sides are seeing: Democratic senators up for reelection in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all appear poised to win; the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, is rated as likely to win by handicappers; and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer is favored to win an open gubernatorial seat in Michigan.
What is most significant from a symbolic perspective: Democrats have a 50-50 shot at unseating Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, long a poster child for the Tea Party wing of the GOP. In a sign of the shifting times, Walker recently embraced an initiative at the heart of the Affordable Care Act that would ensure that people with pre-existing health conditions have access to affordable insurance.
“The Republicans won in 2016 by piercing the Blue Wall in those three states. Now they can’t even find a brick,” said Jesse Ferguson, a strategist who was deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2014 midterms.
These three states could also deliver Democrats the wins they need to retake the House of Representatives. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to secure a majority in the lower chamber.
Still, fair warning: Polls and prognosticators have been wrong before about this area of the country. “It remains to be seen how much progress they have made by turning the tables,” said David Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist. “I don’t think they’ve rebuilt any kind of blue wall.”
He argued that Democrats are bound to recover some ground this year due to the historical trend that the party that controls the White House tends to lose seats in midterm elections.
“We’ve got those headwinds,” Kochel said.
And Trump does not have plans for campaign rallies in Pennsylvania, Michigan, or Wisconsin in the final days of the midterms, a nod to the reality that the president’s time is better spent in areas where the GOP is more likely to make gains. Moreover, the House seats up for grabs in those upper Midwest states have a hefty suburban component.
Kochel said local Republicans are “probably thinking, ‘We don’t want the president to come in with the rally message that won’t help us with that constituency.’ ”
Eager Democrats point to Michigan’s Eighth Congressional District, long a GOP seat in the Detroit suburbs. Trump won this area by 7 percentage points in 2016.
So, solid Trump territory?
Not really. First-time candidate Elissa Slotkin is giving Republican Mike Bishop the race of his life in a contest that combines a host of trends favorable to Democrats. The Cook Political Report rates it a “toss up,” and outside groups on both sides are spending heavily there.
Slotkin is focusing on health care. She decided to run after seeing her mother, who had cancer early in her life, struggle to afford health insurance. Cancer ended up killing Slotkin’s mother, who let her insurance lapse and then had a late-stage diagnosis.
Slotkin vividly recalls watching Bishop in a Rose Garden ceremony in 2017 after the House voted to repeal Obamacare.
“He was smiling and beaming,” Slotkin recalled in an interview. “Something broke for me. And I turned to my husband and said, ‘No, you don’t get to do that, you don’t get to vote against your constituents.’ ”
Anecdotally, she appears to be making inroads with older Republican women who are dismayed by what they see as Trump’s divisiveness and are looking for alternatives. Slotkin said the fastest-growing group of volunteers for her campaign is Republican women over 50 who live in a conservative corner of the district.
“Some of these women started off by saying, ‘I don’t want to tell anyone what I’m doing,’ ” Slotkin said. But that’s changed, and Slotkin campaign workers report seeing homes with lawn signs for both candidates, with the wife supporting Slotkin and the husband backing Bishop.
The incumbent is pitching himself as a longtime Michigander, focusing more on his local ties to the district than his support of Donald Trump.
“I don’t own a home in Washington, D.C.,” said Bishop, elected in 2012. “If you want an absentee representative, she’s your answer.”
At a rally last week Bishop said: “They’ve got billionaires from California, from New York City. These elitists who want to come in here and buy up this district. They are so angry that they lost in 2016 and they will do anything they can to buy this district back.”
Bishop has been outraised by a jaw-dropping two-to-one, raising about $3 million to Slotkin’s $6 million.
Vice President Mike Pence has been to Michigan twice and Donald Trump Jr. held a rally for Bishop. At a rally Monday, Pence took care to condemn the slaughter of 11 Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue two days before.
But then, moments later, Pence launched into a riff about the migrant caravan in Central America, claiming it was organized by left-wing groups. That led audience members to yell: “Soros!” — a reference to George Soros, the Jewish billionaire whom right-wing conspiracy theorists have accused of organizing the caravan.
Pence did nothing to silence the cries, which some Jewish leaders have called anti-Semitic.
Keeping Trump out of the conversation is a wise strategy for both sides: Door knocking by canvassers among undecided voters in nearby Macomb County revealed that these late-deciders are focused on hyper-local issues and don’t necessarily connect their votes in the midterms to the president.
Michigan’s Macomb County is where Greenberg, the Democratic pollster, conducted his groundbreaking 1985 study on “Reagan Democrats.” Former president Barack Obama won here in 2008 and 2012. Then Trump prevailed in 2016.
In interviews with residents of this working-class neighborhood, every one mentioned the poor condition of local roads as a top issue in the midterms. No one mentioned Trump unprompted. No one mentioned the Russia investigation. Or impeachment.
The dichotomy was best encapsulated by Nazirul Haque, a 63-year-old who works in the service industry. At his front door on a bright but frigid afternoon, Haque said he was leaning toward supporting the Democratic ticket because he thinks that Democrats will fix the roads.
But as for Trump, he’s a fan.
“Right now I think he’s doing well,” Haque said. “He’s straightforward.”