As Midwest suffers, Democrats may lose a key foothold

The 2010 election brought scores of tea party-backed candidates into Washington.
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.

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