The Rust Belt states that provided an election night shocker two years ago—delivering the presidency to Donald Trump—could hand Democrats crucial wins in the midterm elections.
Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which Trump won in 2016 by a total of less than 80,000 votes to put him over the top in the Electoral College count, are looking less like Trump country this year, as Republicans trail Democratic opponents.
The shift illustrates the year’s challenging political landscape for Republicans. Even with a booming economy and record stock market—typically benchmarks of presidential success—the party’s chances of keeping control of the U.S. House have dropped in recent weeks. Trump’s vulnerabilities even threaten the party’s prospects of holding the U.S. Senate, long considered thought safe from Democratic takeover this year.
In 2016, Republicans made major inroads in the Rust Belt and the Upper Midwest when Trump ran up larger margins among rural voters than Republican Mitt Romney had four-years earlier. Trump flipped four states in the region that backed Barack Obama for president in 2012: Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. A fifth, Minnesota, came as close to going for a GOP presidential candidate in 2016 as it had since 1984.
The stakes in those states remain high: they collectively are hosting five Senate races, as well as five House contests rated as tossups by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to take the House and two to win the Senate.
The situation confronting Republicans is typified in Wisconsin, where Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by 22,748 votes, or 0.8 percentage points.
While times are generally good in the Badger State—the unemployment rate in July was 2.9 percent, down from 3.5 percent in the month Trump took office, and below the national average—Republican candidates are struggling.
Gov. Scott Walker, once a rising Republican Party star, is fighting for his political life, according to a Marquette University Law School Poll released on Sept. 18. The survey showed Democrat Tony Evers with the support of 49 percent of likely voters, compared with 44 percent for Walker.
Also in Wisconsin, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat pummeled by millions of dollars in negative advertising from conservative groups, led her Republican challenger, state Sen. Leah Vukmir, 53 percent to 42 percent.
Trump’s job approval has fallen to 42 percent in the state, down from 45 percent in Marquette’s August poll. Among independent voters, a pivotal group, 41 percent approve of his performance.
Many voters in Wisconsin, which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce says is among the states most vulnerable to a prolonged trade war, are also skeptical of Trump’s tariffs on China and other nations. More than half—58 percent—think free trade agreements have generally been a good thing for the U.S. economy, while 25 percent think they have been bad for the economy.
“I certainly think the national forces are affecting voters here,” said Charles Franklin, the poll’s director. “The state is also still pretty opposed to Trump on trade.”
Midterm elections are always a referendum on the president and they typically bring congressional losses to the incumbent’s party. Since the end of World War II, the average midterm election result for the party in control of the White House has been a net loss of 26 seats in the House.
Trump’s approval ratings in the other states in the region are equally low, according to polling in August by Morning Consult. He was at 42 percent in Michigan, 45 percent in Pennsylvania, 44 percent in Iowa and 40 percent in Minnesota.
While not included in the Marquette poll, Republicans are nervous about the congressional race in southeastern Wisconsin to replace retiring House Speaker Paul Ryan, even though it’s rated as “lean Republican” by Cook. The Congressional Leadership Fund, the top super political action committee backing Republican efforts to hold the House, said this week that it’s reserving $1.5 million in advertising for the district. In 2016, Ryan swept the district by almost 35 points.
Prospects for Republicans in the other Trump-won states in the Rust Belt aren’t looking much better.
In Michigan and Pennsylvania, Democratic incumbent Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Robert Casey have double-digit polling leads against their Republican challengers and also held massive cash-on-hand advantages in the most recent campaign finance reports.
“The other side is very motivated,” said Saul Anuzis, a former Republican National Committee member and past party chairman in Michigan. “Much of it will depend on turnout.”
In the fight for the House, Pennsylvania looks like one of the better pickup opportunities for Democrats. The state has two ingredients that could benefit the party in this year’s closest House races: suburban swing districts and an abundance of female candidates in a year when women are showing unprecedented levels of political engagement.
Eight of the state’s 18 House races are rated as competitive, using Cook’s broadest definition. Two are rated as “likely Democrat” and two are “lean Democrat,” while three are “lean Republican” and one is “likely Republican.”
The contests for governor in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Minnesota are also rated as either “lean Democrat” or “likely Democrat.” Walker’s race in Wisconsin and another in Iowa that features a Republican incumbent—albeit the state’s former lieutenant governor, who rose to the post when long-serving Gov. Terry Branstad became U.S. ambassador to China—are rated as tossups.
John Brabender, a Republican strategist who served as a senior adviser to former Pennsylvania senator and 2016 presidential candidate Rick Santorum, said people shouldn’t be surprised that Republican candidates in Rust Belt states are struggling.
Trump only very narrowly won there and those states have been heavily Democratic in recent history. Plus, Brabender said, Trump was competing against a deeply unpopular candidate in Clinton.
“Unfortunately for Republicans this year, she’s not on the ballot,” he said. “Being pro-Trump may not equate to being pro-Republican.”