WASHINGTON — The clearest path for Democrats to return to the White House runs straight through the upper Midwest, fueling debate over who is best positioned to recapture the region's working-class voters who broke for President Donald Trump in 2016.
Though the first prominent Democrats to announce their 2020 candidacies hail from the coasts, several Midwestern natives — including Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — are offering themselves as potential contenders uniquely attuned to the region's priorities.
Brown, who will launch a tour of early-voting states in Iowa on Thursday with a message focused on workers, has been explicit in his appeal, saying recently that he could win his crucial home state, “where they know me best.”
That's a tantalizing argument for Democrats who are desperate to reclaim Wisconsin and Michigan, which would significantly reduce Trump's already narrow path to victory in the Electoral College. Tom Russell, a Wisconsin-based Democratic strategist who worked on last year's successful bid to unseat GOP Gov. Scott Walker, said the Midwest is winnable for a Democrat who focuses on “not talking down to voters.”
“It's about being able to create a message and persona for yourself that's not elitist in nature,” Russell said. “We've got plenty of great coastal candidates running or looking at running, but particularly in the primary, they end up talking to the bubble.”
Democrats have reason for optimism. Beyond Walker's defeat, they picked up a governor's mansion in Kansas and won the majority of the region's hardest-fought Senate seats during last year's midterms.
Midwestern appeal has sometimes helped presidential candidates. As a U.S. senator from Illinois, Barack Obama introduced himself to voters in neighboring Iowa as one of them. His victory in the 2008 Iowa caucuses was crucial, cementing him as a serious candidate who would ultimately clinch the Democratic nomination and the presidency.
But more often, success in the Midwest comes down to more than geography. Ahead of the 2012 campaign, then-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty was seen as a promising candidate because of his background as a low-key Republican leader of a traditionally Democratic state. But he never made it to the Iowa caucuses. Similarly, Walker was seen as a front-runner in the early days of the 2016 Republican primary but withdrew after a disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa straw poll.
Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law Poll at Milwaukee's Marquette University, said he's “somewhat dubious” that being a Midwesterner translates into success at the regional or national level.
“It's not like his neighborliness did him any favors,” Franklin said of Walker.
More fundamentally, there's no guarantee that voters are familiar with — or fond of — their regional political leaders. In a Marquette Law poll conducted earlier this month, nearly two-thirds of Democrats and independents said they didn't know enough about Klobuchar to have an opinion about her. Of the eight candidates whose names were included in the poll, only Julian Castro of Texas was less familiar to Wisconsin voters.
With name identification numbers far lower than coastal rivals such as Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Brown and Klobuchar have their work cut out for them. Brown's new tour, which will also stop in New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, could give him a needed boost as he weighs a primary campaign.
As the tour begins, even Brown says he doesn't see his potential candidacy as solely geared to the Midwest.
“I think it's an appeal to working-class voters from all regions and of all races,” Brown told The Associated Press, describing his message as a product of “who I am and my whole career,” not shaped by “focus groups.”
Klobuchar also dismissed the notion that her commanding re-election victory in November, in which she won 42 counties that Trump claimed in 2016, makes her uniquely qualified to capture Midwestern voters. Yet she also touted the power of the playbook she's used to win over Minnesotans “in this time of highly polarized politics, where people are in opposite corners of the boxing ring.”
“While I stand my ground on issues that matter to me, I'm also someone who looks for common ground,” she said in an interview. “That's only way you can get to higher ground.”
Still, if she mounts a presidential bid — she said she'll announce a decision “shortly” — Klobuchar could surprise rivals in Iowa, a neighboring state she's visited multiple times since Trump's election. David Johnson, a former Iowa state senator who switched his affiliation from Republican to independent in 2016 out of opposition to Trump, said Klobuchar is a familiar face who shares the workhorse sensibilities of many people in the state.
“She's real knowledgeable, and she has a real sense of humility about it,” Johnson said. “She's level-headed. She's not a grenade-thrower.”
Recalling Klobuchar's pitch to bridge the divide between rural and metro areas during remarks to the Iowa Farmers Union last month, Johnson added that “a majority of Americans want some sanity to return to Washington and the Congress, and I believe she's the one candidate that can bring that together, rather than both parties operating in the extremes.”
Brown's keen focus on blue-collar areas feeling the economic wallop of globalization has its own dark-horse potential. He also brings a fluency in civil rights issues that could break through with black and Hispanic voters in early primary states that follow the overwhelmingly white electorate in Iowa.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman David Pepper pointed to one small but meaningful touch that's succeeded for Brown: publicly name-checking their state's smaller manufacturing hubs, a signal that he cares about areas seeking “a role that's positive in this 21st-century economy.”
Pepper recalled that Democrats instinctively pushed back at Trump's call to “make America great again” in 2016, but the president connected with Midwestern voters who “thought, at least they saw someone who seemed to appreciate they are struggling.”
That connection is at the core of the presidential pitch from another Midwestern hopeful, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana. “To me, the really important thing to do in the so-called Rust Belt is to demonstrate there's a way forward that isn't soaked in nostalgia,” the 37-year-old Buttigieg said this month as he announced his candidacy. “So, yeah, we have a relationship to our past, but we're not trying to recapture it.”
But if you ask Brown, the very term “Rust Belt” talks down to Midwesterners.
“It demeans who we are,” he said. “It diminishes our work.”
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