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Stinging Defeats in the Rust Belt Flash a 2020 Warning for Trump

Stinging Defeats in the Rust Belt Flash a 2020 Warning for Trump

  • Democrats gain in states that were decisive two years ago
  • In second straight election, voters signal desire for change
Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer discusses how the result might impact Trump’s bid for 2020 re-election.

President Donald Trump got a warning sign on Tuesday from the Midwestern and Rust Belt states that handed him the presidency, as voters delivered big victories to Democrats and offered a road map for the crowd of candidates lining up to challenge him in 2020.

Democrats in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan swept the races for Senate and governor, and picked up valuable House seats, defeating Trump-backed Republicans at all levels. Whether it’s a fleeting backlash or a long-term political shift remains to be seen, but the outcome in those key states is enough to give Republicans heartburn.

Bob Casey supporters on Nov. 6

Photographer: Michael Candelori/Getty Images

Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey and Governor Tom Wolf cruised to re-election. Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer won the governorship and Senator Debbie Stabenow, a member of Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s leadership team, was re-elected. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin won her race running on an unabashedly liberal platform, while Democrat Tony Evers was declared the winner over Republican Governor Scott Walker.

In 2016, Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, but he won presidency with victories in those three Democratic-leaning states by a total of less than 80,000 votes. A Democrat who can hold Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin and their 46 Electoral College votes in 2020 along with the states that Clinton carried would win the presidency.

Illinois and Minnesota

Democrats also won governor’s races in Illinois and Minnesota while both Democratic senators from Minnesota won re-election. Meanwhile, Ohio, a state that Trump won by 8 points and elected a new GOP governor, but also re-elected Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown.

Sherrod Brown speaks in Columbus, Ohio, on Nov. 6.

Photographer: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

"We will show America how we celebrate organized labor and all workers - the waitress in Dayton, the office worker in Toledo, the nurse in Columbus, the mineworker in Coshocton," Brown said. "That is the message coming out of Ohio in 2018, and that is the blueprint for our nation in 2020."

Interpretations Elusive

While the results will be give Democrats hope of wresting back the White House, history warns against over-interpreting them. President Barack Obama won those Rust Belt and Midwestern states in 2008. Two years later, Democrats suffered crushing defeats there, losing governor’s races in all three states plus Ohio, but Obama rebounded and won them again in 2012. Can Trump achieve the same feat?

Victories by progressive Democrats and a record number of women suggest that voters aren’t satisfied with the direction of the government and of the country, said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. “People responded to Donald Trump for change, and now they’re responding to the women for change and in 2020 they’ll vote for change again,” she said.

For Democratic voters likely to face a large and diverse field of presidential candidates in 2020, a central question is which one of them can resurrect the vaunted Midwestern “blue wall” that Trump cracked in 2016. The question looms larger after Democrats suffered stinging disappointments in Florida — a perennial swing state rich with electoral votes in presidential elections — in races for Senate and governor on Tuesday.

Gravitational Pull?

That means deciding whether to pick a candidate who’ll run on an ideologically progressive platform and try to expand the electorate by mobilizing non-traditional voters -- much as Obama and Trump did -- or to select a candidate who’ll seek distance from the Democratic base and appeal to middle-of-the-road voters.

“The center of gravity has massively shifted in the Democratic Party and the general electorate in an economic populist direction,” said Adam Green, an activist with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, arguing that liberal ideas like expanding Medicare and Social Security can win in blue, purple and red parts of the country.

The 2018 election cycle revealed a rapidly changing party to which 2020 presidential aspirants will have to appeal. Democrats showed they want leaders who look like the party’s ascendant base of younger, nonwhite and female voters. Democrats sent the first two Muslim women to Congress in in Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar and Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib.

Ilhan Omar waves to supporters at an election night results party on Nov. 6.

Photographer: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

They elected the youngest new House member in New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Both Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley, the first African-American woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts, won primary contests against longtime Democrats who were older white men. And when all the votes are counted, it’s likely that a record number of women will serve in the next Congress that begins in January, with the lion’s share of them on the Democratic side.

In the Wings

So far, possible 2020 contenders include former Vice President Joe Biden, Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Bernie Sanders of Vermont; mayors or former mayors like Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles, Julian Castro of San Antonio, and Michael Bloomberg of New York, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News; and governors like Colorado’s John Hickenlooper.

“One of the great takeaways from Trump in 2016 is literally anybody can be president,” said Steve Schale, a Florida-based operative who played key roles on the 2008 and 2012 Obama campaigns and is lobbying for Biden to get into the 2020 race. “I think most thinking about doing it are going to do it. I don’t think that Tuesday’s results will be much of a factor.”

Potential candidates and their supporters will “find glimmers of the answer that they want to see on election night,” Schale said.

The Trump era has elevated the ideological left in the Democratic Party as many candidates ran on ideas like Medicare-for-all, sharp increases in the federal minimum wage, tuition-free public college, and more open immigration policies. They won’t achieve those while Trump is in office, but candidates seeking to be the party’s standard-bearer in 2020 will have to contend with the appetite for them within the party base.

Many Democratic victories came on the backs of college-educated women who broke from Republicans to Democrats, which creates an opportunity for 2020. But the defeats in rural areas, which are tilting increasingly toward Republicans, is a cause for concern. The top voter issue in many polls was health care, and Democrats enjoyed a large advantage on the issue, which may be Trump’s Achilles heel in 2020.

Democratic hopefuls will have to balance that with a need to keep the flank of the party in the fold. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin and Montana Senator Jon Tester won re-election in red states. A swath of House Democrats in GOP-leaning districts won in competitive parts of the country that haven’t traditionally supported liberal ideas.

The Democratic takeover of the House will give party leaders power of the purse. It’ll also give them the power to decide what bills get to come up for a vote — which, if past is precedent, they’ll use to draw contrasts with Republicans. They’ll also have the new powers of investigation, and House Speaker-in-waiting Nancy Pelosi suggested they’ll use it.

"It’s about restoring the Constitution’s checks and balances on the Trump administration," she said in a victory speech Tuesday night.

— With assistance by Jennifer Epstein