Donald Trump is president because he broke the “blue wall” in the Rust Belt. But Democrats performed very well in most of those states in the midterms, raising expectations that they can retake the region and thereby deny Trump reelection. And a close read of the returns gives reason for hope and concern on both sides.
First, the reasons for Democratic hope and Republican concern: Democratic House candidates gained eight seats from Republicans in Rust Belt states that Trump had won in 2016. Seven of these seats were in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Des Moines, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. More tellingly, five were seats that Trump had carried in 2016. If the 2020 Democratic nominee simply does as well as the party’s 2018 House candidates did, Trump will easily lose Wisconsin, Iowa, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
Democrats also won gubernatorial or Senate races in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Most of these losses weren’t close; the Republican candidate either never got traction or never had the funding to mount an effective campaign to begin with. Only two-term Wisconsin governor Scott Walker came close to victory, and even he could not win a third term.
There are rays of hope for Republicans, too, however. In Michigan and Ohio, losing Republican Senate candidates with little campaign effort behind them still received 46 percent of the vote. Most impressively, they obtained high shares of the vote in the blue-collar Obama-Trump counties whose party switch elevated Trump to begin with. These voters are not known for their GOP loyalty. That many voted for underfunded Republicans when Trump was not personally on the ballot shows that their party switch has been more fundamental than previously anticipated.
Ohio was also a clear beacon of light for the GOP at the statewide and congressional levels. Two targeted Republican congressmen, Steve Chabot and Troy Balderson, turned back well-funded challenges despite having large suburban components in their districts. Both lost the inner, more affluent suburbs while retaining strong backing in the outer, more middle-class suburbs. Balderson also did extremely well in more rural and small-town counties that had swung dramatically to Trump in 2016. Governor-elect Mike DeWine’s surprisingly strong showing also showed that the Trump coalition remains intact in Ohio. Democrats have to be counted as the underdog there, unlike the other Obama-voting Rust Belt states.
Trump and the GOP, therefore, need to improve their performance by only a slight amount to recapture the key states that tilted blue. That means they have to focus on two swing groups, the RINOs and the TIGRs, and win both.
RINOs are the “Republicans in name only,” moderate and college-educated. In 2016, many backed Hillary Clinton, while others reluctantly backed Trump out of dislike for Clinton. This year, many voted Democratic knowing that Trump’s presence in the White House would keep liberal economic policies from becoming law. The Trump challenge will be to convince these voters again to cast their votes for the lesser of two evils, with “Never Kamala” or “Never Elizabeth” replacing “Never Hillary” as the campaign’s de facto slogan.
It would also help if Trump could display a more presidential mien. He is not going to change his spots, but sometimes he can take the high road. His first State of the Union speech and his victory speech on Election Night were times when he struck a unifying, conciliatory tone. More of that and less snarky tweeting would help him rebuild some support among RINOs.
TIGRs are the blue-collar former Democrats — “‘Trump is great’ Republicans.” Trump remains strong and popular among this group. For them he needs to keep doing what he’s been doing: fighting on immigration, renegotiating trade deals, and generally affirming the value of their daily lives. If he does that, he will be able to tell them that he has delivered on what they wanted and will be likely to regain most, if not all, of the record-high margins he received among non-college whites in 2016.
Democrats are aware of this and will do everything they can to put him on the defensive. But in the absence of damning evidence of corruption or worse from Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, there’s little they can do from Congress that Trump can’t address. Democrats won RINO votes as an anodyne “Never Trump” party in the midterms. Their agenda was based entirely on the bland proposition that insurance companies should not be allowed to deny health coverage to people with preexisting conditions. To challenge Trump on policy from Congress, Democrats would inevitably have to draw harsher, and thus more contentious, lines in the sand.
They will also have to be careful about their proposed investigations of the president. Exit polls show that while most Democrats want to impeach the president, 59 percent of Americans do not. That implies that most RINOs and TIGRs oppose impeachment. If the Democratic base forces Speaker Pelosi’s hand and makes her initiate impeachment hearings when the nation remains unpersuaded, that could give Trump the opportunity he needs to recast himself from an often rude, rambunctious fighter into someone kinder but equally tough.
The next election will also be a choice between two individuals with competing visions for the country, and Democratic leaders will ultimately have little power in selecting the party’s candidate. Should the base push too far toward the left or choose someone with a Trump-like “fight fire with fire” demeanor, we could find RINOs in particular reconsidering how much they really dislike the president.
The Florida governor’s race is an example of this phenomenon. Florida had to choose between a vocal progressive in Andrew Gillum and a Trump acolyte in Ron DeSantis. Unlike most other states, Florida did not demonstrate a strong suburban swing to the Democrats. Florida’s RINOs largely voted Republican, and the TIGRs voted GOP as well. The result was a narrow Republican victory on a map nearly identical to that of 2016. And if the Democrats’ 2020 nominee has a worldview similar to Gillum’s, Florida’s decision might be mirrored throughout the Rust Belt.
Ultimately, however, Trump’s reelection will come down to whether voters think he has done a good job. The exit polls showed Trump at a national job-approval rating of 45 percent, and as a result of his unpopularity the Republicans got shellacked in the House. His approval rating was 44 percent in Michigan and 45 percent in Pennsylvania; Republicans lost handily in each state. But in Wisconsin it was 48 percent, nearly high enough to propel Scott Walker to victory and good enough to prevent Republicans from losing any seats in Congress or the state legislature. And in Ohio it was 53 percent, good enough to elect Mike DeWine and comfortably keep Chabot and Balderson in Washington.
In our hyper-partisan age, Trump can be assured of overwhelming backing from traditional Republicans and massive antipathy from Democrats of all stripes. The RINOs and TIGRs, however, remain up for grabs. If Trump enhances his support just a little among each group, the Democrats’ hope of a renewed blue wall should fade, and with it their dreams of recapturing the White House in 2020.