Part I is here
Democrats are quite possibly on the brink of no longer being a national party. Outside of big cities and heavily urbanized elections the party’s struggles in 2016 were its greatest up and down the ballot since the 1952 election when a popular Dwight Eisenhower topped the GOP ticket and the unpopularity of the outgoing Truman Administration fueled a wave. While analysts have focused on Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania for their decisive nature in the election, other signs were ominous and consistent for the Democrats. Should the Democrats really want to push to regain the House of Representatives in 2018 they need to heed these warnings and change the party’s perception. One preface to this entire discussion is that Hillary Clinton may have been a historically poor candidate and it is possible that her performance is the low-water mark for Democrats in many areas around the country. But given the general attitude towards parties and increasing tendency for Americans to vote a straight party ticket, Democrats need to be prepared.
Even in traditionally Democratic Rhode Island and Minnesota the party’s margin of victory became worrying low relative to historic numbers. Minnesota last went Republican in 1972 (when it was still George McGovern’s third best state) and Rhode Island last went for the GOP in 1984 (when it was one of Walter Mondale’s best states still). Similarly, states such as Maine which splits its electoral votes are now suddenly in play. Ohio’s decisive swing towards Trump from three point Obama win in 2012 to eight point Trump win four years later hasn’t been covered the way you’d necessarily expect.
This past cycle, Iowa a state that gave Michael Dukakis a ten point victory in 1988 and one of the few states where President Obama carried the majority of the WHITE vote twice, gave Donald Trump a close to ten point victory.
While the South remains a distinct cultural region, the rural and small-town Midwest has more in common with the South than with the liberal big cities of the Northeast or Pacific Coast. Historically while the South elected Democrats and the rural Midwest elected Conservative Republicans, the members of Congress from the two regions teamed up to form a Conservative Coalition to block initiatives by President’s Roosevelt and Truman to expand liberalism at all levels. The apex of this coalition came when they overrode President Truman’s veto on the anti-labor Taft-Hartley law which legalized right-to-work and weakened labor’s political influence permanently. The veto override of Truman ended America’s golden age of liberalism. The coalition broke apart on Civil Rights, when after years of voting with the South, the Midwest was courted in 1957 by Vice President Richard Nixon and in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson to break the back of the south’s racially-motivated filibusterers. The Midwest began to drift back toward the Democrats after the impact of GOP economic policies became apparent in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. Unions and the right to unionize differentiated the Midwest from the South but today’s Democratic Party and millennial idealist doesn’t per se see this nuance.Many simply see rural and small town America as a monolith of “deplorable” voters influenced by radicalized religion and racism.
Now that the Democrats downplay real lunch plate economics in favor of a tone that emphasizes race and ethnicity in almost every discussion including on the economy, the Midwest is now voting on cultural issues more and more – and on cultural issues it lines up with the now GOP-dominated south.
Eventually incumbent Democrats retire or are redistricted into tougher territory in areas trending against the party – this was a harsh lesson of the 1990’s in the South and has held true since. While the last white Congressman from a Deep South seat John Barrow was defeated in 2014, several Democrats in the Midwest are sitting in white-majority seats where Barack Obama was successful in 2008 and 2012 but where the 2016 results were less than promising.
Several Democrats are suddenly sitting in difficult largely rural/small-town Midwestern seats. Like Southern Democrats who for years were able to avoid really difficult challenges because of a lack of local GOP infrastructure or the de-linking of national Democrats from local ones, these members now sit in difficult territory.
Ron Kind (WI-3)
This is a seat Kind first won in 1996 when moderate Republican (and first openly LGBT GOPer) Steve Gunderson retired. Kind hasn’t had really tough reelections but at the top of the ticket while, Barack Obama won this seat by 20 points in 2008, by close to 12 in 2012, Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 by five points.
David Loesbach (IA-2)
This seat was once held by Republican Jim Nussle, the former House Budget Chairman who once put a paper bag over this head on the House floor. Loesback was actually first elected in an adjoining district in 2006 where he beat Republican Jim Leach, one of the smartest members of the House and maybe at the time the most moderate Republican in Congress besides Senator Lincoln Chafee (Chafee really wasn’t a moderate – he was a Republican but by the 2001 to 2006 period his voting record was straight left). Leach was one of several centrist GOPers to publicly endorse Obama in 2008 and served in the Administration. Loesback’s current seat went to Obama by 16 points in 2008 but to Trump by four points in 2016.
Matt Cartwright (PA-17)
The Wilkes Barre-Scranton area Congressman has seen his district go from a double-digit Obama victory in 2008 when it was represented by Tim Holden, a moderate Democrat to a double-digit Trump win in 2016. In 2012, when Cartwright was first elected, Obama won the district by about 12 points. The swing in this district was among the biggest in the nation between 2012 and 2o016 in favor of the Republicans.
Cheri Bustos (IL-17)
Bustos seat was won by Obama twice by double-digits but was won in 2016 by Trump.
Colin Peterson (MN-7)
Peterson is the most conservative Democrat in the House, as he has been since the 2010 election wipeout when more conservative members such as Bobby Bright (D-Alabama) among others were defeated for reelection. Peterson’s seat has always been more rural and conservative than Minnesota as a hold but it has gone from a three point Obama loss in 2008 to a 37 point Clinton loss in 2016.
The Democrats have already been wiped out of the Ohio, Michigan and Indiana delegations beyond truly safe seats though pickup opportunities in those states will be limited if the party’s general messaging does not change.