Despite winning control of the House, many Democrats went to bed Tuesday deflated that they fell short in marquee races.
After losing badly in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan in 2016, the party turned a lot of its attention to the Sun Belt, where changing demographics in places like Georgia, Florida and Texas suggested that, with the right candidate in the right moment, there could be an opening for Democrats.
And yet, despite all the star power and national attention lavished on them, Beto O’Rourke did not oust Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, Andrew Gillum did not win the governorship in Florida, and Stacey Abrams, though she has not yet conceded, is down by two points in the Georgia gubernatorial race.
But while those candidates took up most of the midterms' oxygen, Democrats were mounting a comeback in the Rust Belt.
Of the five competitive statewide races in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan, Democrats won four of them. They held their Senate and governor seats in Pennsylvania and beat the Republican candidate for governor in Michigan, as well as the incumbent in Wisconsin, onetime presidential nominee and GOP rising star Gov. Scott Walker.
If that is predictive of their chances in those states in 2020, Democrats should be thrilled.
Hillary Clinton’s narrow losses in Michigan and Wisconsin — states the Clinton campaign took for granted and presumed she’d win — cost her the election. She lost each by less than one percentage point, in Michigan by just 10,000 votes. Postmortems on 2016 blamed the Clinton camp for failing to make their case to white working-class voters in those states and suggested those places were slipping away from Democrats.
Fast forward two years later and Democrats finished strong in both states.
First let’s look at Michigan. Gretchen Whitmer ran a race that was unapologetically pro-women. But she also focused on issues that everyone in the state cares about, such as clean water and infrastructure; her slogan was to “fix the damn roads.” That appealed to a wide swath of voters, showing Democrats they don’t need to match President Trump’s vitriol to win over voters in the Midwest. She won handily, securing 2.2 million votes to her opponent’s 1.8 million.
Then there’s Wisconsin, easily the biggest victory of the night for Democrats in the region. Democrat Tony Evers, a name few people outside of Wisconsin knew until Tuesday night, beat Walker, a national name brand. Evers, a gray-haired, bespectacled state schools superintendent, ran an almost entirely state-focused race that took on Walker’s record, not Trump. He offered a measured approach that suggests celebrity status isn’t necessary to succeed in the Midwest.
So what does this mean for Democrats' chances in 2020? Donald Trump was not on the ballot this year — he didn’t campaign for Republican candidates in Michigan and only showed up once in Wisconsin. But after Tuesday’s losses, expect Trump to campaign relentlessly for himself in these two states.
Democrats can try again to make inroads in the Sun Belt, and their narrow losses there suggest there’s real potential for movement in their direction, but if they gloss over the Rust Belt again, they’ll do so at their own peril.