WATERFORD, Mich. — Democrats woke up in November 2016 to the cold reality that the Blue Wall of reliable votes in upper Midwestern states that they counted on for years had crumbled, clearing a path for Donald Trump to take the White House.
Two years later, the party is aiming in Tuesday’s midterm elections to patch up that barrier, and Democrats appear on track to make gains in House and governor races in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, three once-blue states that Hillary Clinton lost.
But there’s an open question hanging over the vote: Is this a temporary trend, fueled by reaction to Trump? Or are Democrats refashioning a coalition that will hold?
Not much is riding on the answer — except maybe everything.
These Rust Belt states have been trending Republican for years, party strategists on both sides say, as working-class voters have felt abandoned by a #Democratic Party they felt didn’t do enough to help them in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
“The Blue Wall was not very high,” acknowledged Stan Greenberg, a Democratic pollster.
Or, as Larry Jacobs, a #University of Minnesota political scientist, put it: “The idea of it being a Blue Wall was something invented in the Brooklyn campaign headquarters,” referring to Clinton’s campaign office. “It wasn’t rooted in reality.”
But these states barely supported Trump in the last election, and they have growing suburban areas where many voters, particularly women, have been turned off by Trump’s rhetoric. That has this battleground area tilting Democratic.
Greenberg said this is due to Trump’s governing more like a plutocrat and less like the populist he promised.
“People aren’t fools,” Greenberg said. “He was going to be for working people. He was not going to touch Medicare or Social Security.”
Now, this is what both sides are seeing: Democratic senators up for reelection in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all appear poised to win; the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, is rated as likely to win by handicappers; and Democrat Gretchen Whitmer is favored to win an open gubernatorial seat in Michigan.
What is most significant from a symbolic perspective: Democrats have a 50-50 shot at unseating Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, long a poster child for the Tea Party wing of the GOP. In a sign of the shifting times, Walker recently embraced an initiative at the heart of the Affordable Care Act that would ensure that people with pre-existing health conditions have access to affordable insurance.
“The Republicans won in 2016 by piercing the Blue Wall in those three states. Now they can’t even find a brick,” said Jesse Ferguson, a strategist who was deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in the 2014 midterms.
These three states could also deliver Democrats the wins they need to retake the House of Representatives. Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to secure a majority in the lower chamber.