As Midwest suffers, Democrats may lose a key foothold

By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, November 1, 2010; 1:42 AM

COLUMBUS, OHIO - On Oct. 6, 2006, Senate candidate Sherrod Brown stood before a crowd of Ohio State University students and predicted the political upheaval that was about to take place.

"This year, when you knock on doors, when you go around your dorms, when you go around your communities, you're going to matter," the Democrat pledged to the cheering audience. "You're going to change the direction of this state. And if we change the direction of Ohio, we change the direction of the United States of America."

That's more or less how history transpired - at least for the four short years that Democrats would dominate the Midwest. The party's 2006 victories in the area set the stage for President Obama's sweep of the region in 2008.

But just as quickly as Midwestern voters embraced Obama and the Democrats, they are now recoiling from them. The sagging economy has a lot to do with it, of course. More Midwestern manufacturing plants have shut down over the past two years than when George W. Bush was president, and Democratic candidates here are struggling.

On Tuesday, Obama and Democrats will find out whether voters who live along the industrial corridor traced by Interstate 70 from Kansas City through Pennsylvania still hold out hope that the president and his party can revive a region now 30 years past its glory days. Republicans are betting not. GOP pollster Glen Bolger predicts the Midwest will be a "killing field" for Democrats in 2010.

It wouldn't be the first time. The central battleground of American politics for the past three decades, the Midwest has played an outsize role in determining the shape and direction of the federal government - and who sits in the Oval Office.

Voters here are demanding, and they are not always loyal. As the region has seen its fortunes decline, the Rust Belt has lurched between Democrats and Republicans. The term "Reagan Democrat" was born here. Then, the Midwest lined up solidly behind Bill Clinton in 1992, only to see Ohio and Missouri help give George W. Bush two narrow victories in 2000 and 2004. In 2008, the Midwest came together to back Obama. Missouri was the only state in the region that went for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

It isn't hard to see why Democrats now fear another turn of the wheel as voters, weary after decades of decline, may try yet again to find new hope in new leaders.

Midwestern Democrats could lose enough seats to flip the House and possibly the Senate to Republicans. Democrats are also at risk of losing the governorships of three major I-70 states - Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Because governors will have great influence in the coming battles over the redrawing of congressional districts based on the 2010 Census, a wave of new Republican governors could have a lasting effect on the way power flows in Washington, and on Obama's chances of reelection in 2012.

Since World War II, whichever presidential candidate has won three or more of the five I-70 states - Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri - also won the White House.

Recognizing the region's importance, Obama and Vice President Biden made one last stop in Ohio on Sunday, urging voters in Cleveland to come out in support of Gov. Ted Strickland, whose reelection race against John Kasich, a former GOP congressman, has now become the single biggest race in the Midwest for Democrats.

A changed landscape

The contrast to four years ago could not be sharper. Then, Brown won his race by a comfortable 500,000-vote margin in the Democratic wave of 2006, and Strickland became Ohio's first Democratic governor in 20 years by an even larger margin. Democrats' dominance across the five states of the I-70 corridor provided them with two additional Senate seats, in Missouri and Pennsylvania, and a third of the party's 2006 net gain of 31 House seats.

Those gains in 2006 foretold, almost exactly, Obama's sweep across the region two years later. Democrats won six of the seven races for governor and U.S. Senate in 2006 along the five I-70 battleground states. This year there are eight races for governor and Senate in these states; Democrats have already conceded defeat in three of them and trail in the other five.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) blames his party for squandering the connection it made with industrial Midwest voters. He lambastes "the Obama administration's failure to win the communication war" by allowing Republicans to argue that legislation such as the massive stimulus bill was a failure when it accounted for more than 22,500 jobs last month in Pennsylvania alone.

Brown, who is furiously raising money for his 2012 reelection campaign, said the drift from Democrats is an expression of economic despair.

"Times are so bad for so many people, and progress has not been made quickly enough," he said, suggesting that voters tuned out any idea that the $814 billion stimulus helped at all. "People weren't listening to that, because they feel betrayed by their government."

Courting the youth vote

One group that Democrats are determined to keep within the fold: college students and those just starting out in their first jobs. Young people were critical to Obama's election, and his party has tried to rekindle their enthusiasm this year.

Here's one example of why Democrats are so eager to motivate young voters: An October Dayton Daily News/Ohio Newspaper poll found Kasich, the Republican, leading Strickland 49 percent to 45 percent among all voters in the governor's race. But voters 18 to 29 years old backed Strickland 65 percent to 29 percent.

That is, if they vote. Whether young people will turn out has been one of the mysteries of this campaign. The same poll found that 75 percent of all voters were either "extremely" or "very" interested in the election. Only 43 percent of voters under 30 said so.

On the Ohio State campus, students at Democratic headquarters are trying to convince their classmates to vote - and vote Democratic. The place is festooned with Obama campaign posters, an American flag and yard signs for every Democrat on the 2010 ballot; the office is a throwback to the optimistic days of 2008.

Between Sept. 22, the first day of classes at Ohio State, and Oct. 4, when voter registration in Ohio closed, campus Democrats registered 2,721 voters - about twice the 2006 total. Volunteers knocked on over 1,100 doors each of the past two weekends and were reaching 500 students a night by phone. An Obama rally on campus two weeks ago drew 35,000 people, an organizing feat worthy of a presidential race.

Senior Matt Caffrey, the club's president, has practically lived at the office, logging call after call to students. He left once last week, to take his midterms.

Caffrey was still a Dayton-area high school student in 2006, but he became a fixture at the Greene County Democratic office, working for local candidates. In 2007, his freshman year at Ohio State, he became a Democratic dorm captain and campus spokesman for Obama.

Irritable students on the other end of the line don't phase him. "I try to stay bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about things," Caffrey said. "There hasn't been an election yet that I cared about that I've lost."

Caffrey's got help from a motley crew of fellow students. Joey Longley, a 19-year-old sophomore, showed up on campus as an evangelical Republican. But five of the seven young men in his Bible group were Democrats, and he found that his Democratic friends shared his socially conservative, fiscally progressive views.

"It wasn't that my values changed," Longley said. "It was that I began to see Democrats in a different way."

He embraced his new party with the fervor of a convert. In July, when Longley and Caffrey drove to a national meeting of college Democrats in North Carolina, they listened to the recorded version of the president's second book, "The Audacity of Hope," and played "Name That Obama Cabinet Secretary."

For Democrats in a grueling year, enthusiasm like that has been hard to find.

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