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Midwest Populism Is a Good Bet for the Democrats’ 2024 Senate Prospects

To make an obvious point, there is a lot of worry among Democrats right now. 

My view of the current political situation is that two things are simultaneously true. First, that some of the problems we see in the polling right now are real (Democrats do need to build more enthusiasm and consolidate the votes of young people and people of color, and voters in general are not feeling good about the economy right now). Second, that Democrats need to focus more on organizing and less on worrying: the election is a long way off and the issue dynamics still favor us. 

Having said all that, as a long-time student of Midwestern politics, I can tell you that I have at least a partial cure for what ails us: old fashioned Midwestern populism, the kind that people like Sherrod Brown, Tammy Baldwin, and John Fetterman practice (yeah, I know Pennsylvania isn’t technically a Midwestern state, but outside of the Philly metro area, PA is a lot more like the Midwest than other Eastern seaboard states).

Our research in the Factory Towns project at American Family Voices shows that an economically populist message focused on fighting for working people and building an economy from the bottom up and middle out moves voters our way, especially harder to get voters like those in small and medium-sized working-class towns.

Big Stakes in the Midwest

Beyond the message, though, it is a simple fact that the Midwest is home to more important swing contests than any other region of the country. Everyone knows that Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are three of the most important states for Biden in terms of getting to 270 electoral votes -- if we win them all, Trump is toast. All three of those states, plus Ohio, also feature some of the most hotly contested Senate races. And in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois, and Iowa, there will be at least three potentially competitive U.S. House races.

However, these battleground districts and states that most political players are looking at closely are not the only thing we need to be thinking about in the Midwest. 

Two Surprising Senate Possibilities

With the retirement of Joe Manchin, and the near certainty that a Republican will win that seat, Democrats would have to win 100% of their incumbent races to keep control of the Senate. While the DSCC and Senate Majority PAC have a great track record at helping incumbents win, and the incumbents running in those races are all very strong candidates, we are also looking at some challenging dynamics in Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, and Nevada. Having no margin for error is a very dicey place for Democrats wanting to keep control of the Senate to be, so competing in some red states is critical.

There are those who think beating Ted Cruz or Rick “Let’s Sunset Social Security Every Five Years” Scott is a good possibility, and those are worthy efforts, but Texas and Florida are two of the top four most expensive states in the country. I think the Tennessee Senate race, where Gloria Johnson, one of the “Tennessee Three,” is taking on Marsha Blackburn, is worth watching, but that will be a very uphill race. 

For my money, the biggest Senate races where people may be surprised are in Nebraska and Missouri. These two red states share an interesting fact: they are home to the two most unpopular Republican Senate incumbents in the country, Deb Fischer in Nebraska and Josh Hawley in Missouri.

These states share some other significant facts:

  • Both are relatively cheap to run statewide races in.

  • Both have young, appealing, working-class candidates running.

  • Both have an independent populist streak. In fact in Nebraska, Dan Osborn is running as an Independent; in Missouri, Lucas Kunce hasn’t been afraid to take on Democrats who have sided with Big Business on issues like trade and antitrust law.

  • And they both are already showing polling numbers that are seriously intriguing.

Missouri Senate Race Dynamics

Unlike most red states, up until fairly recently Missouri was a solidly purple state. Bill Clinton won the state twice; Al Gore barely lost it in 2000; and in 2008, Missouri was the closest state in the country. Since 2012 Democrats have won half a dozen statewide races, and in the last election during a presidential cycle, the Democrat (Jason Kander) only lost by 2.8% (to a well established incumbent). The recent history of Missouri has also shown that there are still far more ticket splitters than in most red states.

Missouri also has a recent history of big wins for progressive ballot initiatives, including expanding Medicaid, legalizing pot, and (by 68%) repealing the Right to Work law passed by the state legislature. 

The current polling shows the race to be very close. One public poll out in November is within the margin of error -- Hawley is only up by four points. His approval rating is only 45% right now, and has been in the 40s for a long time.

The Democratic candidate, Lucas Kunce, is a Marine Corps veteran who has shown himself to be a good fundraiser and a charismatic speaker. He ran a good race in the last cycle, but was beaten in the primary by a self-funder.  

Nebraska Senate Race Dynamics

The Nebraska Senate race is in a different category right now. The candidate, Dan Osborn, gained attention when he, to the surprise of everyone, led a successful strike in Omaha last year. He only recently announced his candidacy, and has decided to run on the Independent line, something that might end up being a significant advantage in a state wary of Democrats. Unlike Kunce, because he just announced, Osborn has yet to show he can raise the money he needs to compete, and he has never run for office before so we have no sense of how we will do the campaign trail.

But the reason this one is on my radar screen is that a new public poll just came out that is pretty eye-popping. It comes from an independent group, but was conducted by Change Research, a highly respected Democratic polling firm. It shows incumbent Deb Fischer’s favorability rating to be very low, and in the initial horse race question, when all voters know about Osborn is that he is an Independent, Osborn leads Fischer 40-38. When you give voters the bios of both candidates, his lead grows to 18 points; when you give them some information about where the candidates stand on the issues, the lead bumps up to an astounding 22 points.

Look, there’s no way Dan Osborn wins the Nebraska Senate race by 22 points. The Republicans will hammer him hard. But this poll shows that Nebraskans are looking for an alternative to Fischer, and that running as an Independent gives a candidate an appeal that running as a Democrat doesn’t at the moment in that red state. And given that both the bio and the issue information gave him a big lead means this could be a winnable race if he can start raising some money.

Populist Independent-minded Candidacies Have a Chance to Break Through in Red States

Democrats cannot bet everything on winning 100% of our incumbent races in all those red and purple states. Missouri and Nebraska are relatively inexpensive states where the Republican incumbents are unpopular; the candidates running against them show a lot of potential; and the polling makes a strong case for making an investment. It’s time to take a chance on these races and make the kind of early investment that would allow us to see if the prospects in these states are real. It would be a real shame if we were to win the presidential re-elect, retake the House, and then lose the Senate because we were too timid to make some calculated bets. 


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