NEW ALBANY, Ohio — Troy Balderson, the Republican candidate for Congress, wanted to make one thing clear: He would not support President Trump on everything.
The district, which Republicans won in 1982 and have not relinquished since, supported Trump by 11.3 points over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Ohio overall swung dramatically toward Trump in 2016, part of a near sweep of the Midwest that gave him the presidency and his party complete control in Washington.
But doubts about the ongoing tariff battle and about the administration’s agenda on health care, spending and immigration have changed the terrain. Rather than back the president and Republicans, the Midwest has begun to flirt with candidates who would keep them in check.
In Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio, Democratic senators once thought to be endangered have rebounded and are in fairly safe positions. In House and gubernatorial races, Democrats have grown more competitive since the start of the year — especially in House districts drawn from suburbs that were thought to be safely Republican. In special elections held in the Midwest since Trump’s inauguration, Democrats have improved on their 2016 performance by an average of 11 points.
In Wisconsin, Republicans have lost two state Senate seats and a race for state Supreme Court; in Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota, Democrats have held onto districts where voters had rejected Clinton.
Republicans in the region have been forced into a difficult choice. They can declare independence, like Balderson, who is running in a special election Aug. 7. Or they can side with a president whose actions, while popular among Republicans, are decidedly not so among other voters who will decide November’s elections.
Republicans made historic inroads into the Midwest in 2016 when union households and white voters who lacked college degrees abandoned the Democratic Party. Four states that had backed Barack Obama for president — Iowa, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin — flipped to Trump, and a fifth, Minnesota, nearly turned red for the first time since 1972.
Since then, Republicans have struggled to preserve Trump’s gains, even as the economy, typically a marker of presidential success, has improved. Across the Midwest, unemployment has dropped by an average of one percentage point. In Wisconsin, where the president traveled last month to break ground on a factory for the Taiwanese tech company Foxconn, joblessness has fallen to under 3 percent.
Yet Republican candidates now are in the position held by Democrats during the Obama years — unable to fully share in the president’s popularity with their own party members but tagged with his least popular moves by general election voters.
Democrats have spotted openings on a number of issues, starting with trade. On a three-day Midwestern swing that began Wednesday, Vice President Pence had a message for Republicans: Don’t worry about the trade war.
“We’re going to keep fighting for a level playing field for our farmers,” Pence said Wednesday in Missouri at a stop to benefit the party’s preferred U.S. Senate candidate, Josh Hawley. “And as the president said, America will win that fight, and so will American farmers. Don’t doubt it.”
The same day, every Republican senator from the Midwest backed a nonbinding resolution that urged the president to defer to Congress on tariffs.
In Wisconsin, where two Republicans are competing for the right to challenge Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D), the tariffs have landed with a thud. In a Marquette Law School poll in June, just 29 percent of Wisconsin voters expected Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs to improve the U.S. economy, while 55 percent expected them to hurt. Fifty-one percent of voters said free-trade agreements in general had helped the United States; just 28 percent disagreed.
Both of Baldwin’s potential challengers, however, have decided not to risk crossing the president. In an interview outside a county fair in central Wisconsin, Kevin Nicholson, a first-time candidate supported by conservative groups, said he saw the president as trying to “bring people back to the negotiating table” and eventually create fair markets for the whole country.
“I’m all for Congress playing a thoughtful and intelligent role in trade policy, but I’d encourage it to do the same thing that the president is, which is to apply pressure,” Nicholson said of the Senate tariff resolution.
Leah Vukmir, a legislator endorsed by the state GOP and most of Wisconsin’s Republican leaders, said she was a “free trader” and would weigh the president’s policies “against how it affects all the industries in our state.” But after a rally with House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), which largely focused on Baldwin’s liberal voting record, Vukmir was adamant that she backed the president.
“President Trump was elected in large part because people viewed his ability to be a negotiator,” Vukmir said. “ ‘The Art of the Deal,’ right? So, I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt to work better deals for our country.”
In the same Marquette poll that found voters souring on tariffs, Baldwin held leads of nine to 11 points over any Republican challenger. That was striking, Democrats said, because Baldwin was targeted early in 2017 by Republican groups eager to capitalize on the Trump surge that had flipped Wisconsin and reelected Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.).
At a 2017 meeting of the Koch donor network, Baldwin was singled out as the senator most vulnerable to a 2016-style campaign — a blitz of early TV ads that would drive down her poll numbers. More than $11 million has been spent against Baldwin, including a new buy from Concerned Veterans for America that highlights the deaths of veterans at a Wisconsin VA hospital, an attack that was used to great effect against Johnson’s challenger.
Across the Midwest, Republicans also have found themselves on the defensive for different sets of Trump administration actions.
Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) has tried to separate himself from the administration’s moves to undermine the Affordable Care Act.
“Our bipartisan plan invests $200 million to help lower premiums for Wisconsin families, because we can’t wait for Washington to get the job done,” Walker says in one TV ad.
In other states, Democrats are capitalizing on the administration’s decision not to pursue a large infrastructure funding package. Abby Finkenauer, the Democrat running in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District — another stop on Pence’s tour — said the lack of infrastructure funding had given her an easy opening among voters who had switched from Obama to Trump.
“The administration talks a big game about infrastructure but hasn’t done a whole lot,” Finkenauer said. “I tell people that I want to go to Congress, work across the aisle, pass an infrastructure bill, put it on his desk and see if he signs it.”
In Michigan, where both parties have contested primaries for governor, Democrats have seized on the lack of new infrastructure funding to argue for a break from Republican rule. In her first TV ad, Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Gretchen Whitmer, a former state legislator, made a memorable promise to “fix the damn roads.” In a debate last month, she described the plight of families that had been hit with bills for car damage after driving into potholes.
“That $800 could have been money for rent. It could have been money for vacation,” she said.
Whitmer’s most organized Democratic challenger, Abdul El-Sayed, has joined in the criticism of infrastructure spending and homed in on another unpopular aspect of the Trump administration: the policies of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a member of an archconservative western Michigan family.
In an interview, El-Sayed argued that Trump won the state in 2016 only because Democrats had ceded the populist mantle to Trump — and he asserted that since then, Trump had not governed as a populist.
“People don’t feel like they have a shot anymore,” El-Sayed said.
In Minnesota, Rep. Erik Paulsen (R), who represents a suburban district outside the Twin Cities that backed Clinton over Trump, has reintroduced himself to voters with an ad about his efforts to stop deregulation of mining near the state’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
“I’m for mining, just not there,” Paulsen says in the ad. “I’ll stand up to my party, or President Trump, to protect Minnesota.”
In Illinois’s 6th Congressional District, where Pence concluded his swing Friday, Democrats said they were benefiting from a different Trump administration priority — rollbacks of Obama-era health care and gay rights policies, reversals that were toxic to affluent, moderate voters.
“The Neanderthal wing of this party is not this district,” said Sean Casten, the Democrat challenging Rep. Peter J. Roskam (R-Ill.). “The anti-woman, anti-LGBT values that Pence represents are so out of touch with this community.”
Roskam did not attend the Pence fundraiser, citing his responsibilities in Washington.