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Something Bubbling in the Heartland

The conventional wisdom of the DC pundits in 2022 is that the Democrats are doomed, and that the biggest reason for their impending downfall is working-class voters outside of urban America. But the DC pundits are almost always wrong, especially when they are pontificating about working-class voters who don’t live in the coastal metro areas that pundits almost never leave. I would suggest to you that it is too early to tell, and that in fact something really interesting is bubbling in the heartland of America.

I have been spending much of the last year talking with activists and voters in Pennsylvania outside of the Philly metro area, and the Midwestern states that some people disparagingly refer to as the Rust Belt. I am the board chair of American Family Voices, a nonprofit where we launched the “Factory Towns Project.” With Lake Research Partners and TargetSmart, we have commissioned polling, focus groups, and in-depth analysis of voter files, census tracts, economic, and health care data of the working-class voters in small and midsize counties in this region. In addition, part of our project is conducting one-on-one and small group discussions with hundreds of activists and organizers.

What we have discovered might surprise all those Beltway purveyors of conventional wisdom. Yes, there are tough challenges for Democrats in these counties, but it is not the hopeless landscape that many people assume. The worst approval ratings in our polling were not for Democratic politicians or the party, they were for wealthy corporations and corporate CEOs. Voters are upset about inflation, but more likely to blame price gouging monopolies than Joe Biden. A messaging strategy that combines economic populism with a focus on kitchen table economic solutions, and an organizing strategy that builds local communities, can help bring back these voters -- both swing and base voters who have been less inclined to go to the polls lately.

All of that, plus the simple idea of making sure Democrats pay enough attention to these kinds of voters and counties, is the path to winning back working-class voters who live outside of big cities.

The even better news is that Democrats are beginning to use this kind of approach in a lot of places in the region right now, and it seems like it has the potential to pay off. Look at what is going on in the states:

  • In the local elections held in Wisconsin in April, despite a widely predicted “red wave” in a low turnout election, which traditionally favors Republicans, Democrats won 53% of the 276 contested local elections on the ballot, holding their own in the purple areas in the state. Meanwhile, Wisconsin Governor Evers is leading both Republican candidates fighting it out in the primary, one of them by four and the other by seven percentage points. Ron Johnson -- who has a trail of controversies and damaging quotes a mile long -- trails three of the four Democrats running in the primary for the Senate seat.

  • In Pennsylvania, Republicans are fleeing their far right extremist gubernatorial nominee as fast as they can, while Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman is running a great populist campaign, and currently sports a 9-point lead in the public polling.

  • In Ohio, where Republicans presided over what the Columbus Dispatch called the biggest scandal in the country, the Republican governor is sitting at only 45% in the polls in spite of having universal name ID after a 46-year political career in the state. Meanwhile, the latest public poll has Tim Ryan leading by 44-41 for the open Senate seat, and Democrats had a great year in mayoral races there last year.

  • In Iowa, Democratic primary voters surprised the DC Democratic establishment by rejecting former Congresswoman Abby Finkenauer, who had much higher name recognition and a big fundraising start, and picking former Navy Admiral Mike Franken 55-40. Franken’s background and strong presence on the stump is making a big impression on Iowa voters. Given that only 27% of voters wanted 88-year-old Chuck Grassley to run again in an earlier poll, this could be a sleeper race.

  • In Missouri, Republicans look likely to nominate Eric Greitens, the former governor forced to resign by the Republican legislature over multiple scandals. Democratic candidate Lucas Kunce, a 13-year Marine veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and has a powerfully populist message, is leading in the Democratic primary. There is polling showing him essentially tied with Greitens right now. In the meantime, an added twist to the race is that a heavyweight Republican lawyer who was a clerk for Clarence Thomas, is entering the race as an Independent, saying he can’t stand the idea of Greitens becoming a senator. So Republicans will be splitting their votes.

  • In Nebraska, there was a special election a couple of weeks back that was a huge surprise in historically Republican CD 1. In a special election ignored by the DCCC and most Democratically aligned groups, where the Republican heavily outspent the Democratic candidate, Democratic candidate Patty Pansing Brooks lost only 53-47. While this district still leans Republican, it actually got four percentage points more Democratic due to redistricting, and the district includes Lincoln, where the University of Nebraska is located and where Brooks is very strong. A big turnout of young people in the district could put Brooks in the winner’s seat.

The other point I want to make about the region as a whole is that Democrats are leaning into the Factory Towns strategy. John Fetterman, Tim Ryan, Nan Whaley, Mike Franken, and Lucas Kunce are all from medium-sized factory towns, and they are all running strong economically populist campaigns against far rightwing candidates who have embraced Trump and all his bullshit.

The working-class industrial heartland -- the Midwest plus Pennsylvania -- has historically been the biggest battleground region in the country. It moved strongly toward Reagan in the 1980s, toward Clinton in the 1990s, to Obama in 2008 and 2012, and then veered toward Trump in 2016. There is something bubbling out there this year that is going to surprise a lot of people.


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