Purple States: What Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania can tell us about 2020

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As the 2020 election is in full swing, the Michigan Advance and our sister publications in Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania bring you “Purple States,” an ongoing series on issues that matter to our states.
On Monday, the Advance ran a column to kick off the project from Editor Susan J. Demas, “What the national media keep missing about Michigan in 2020.” Here’s the big-picture view from editors in other Upper Midwest states:  

David C. DeWitt: Ohio is flat, rural, red and boring. Except that it’s not.

Ohio is flatland corn country. It’s rural and red and full of white people who drink mass-produced American lager and like football. Oh, and it’s boring, painfully boring.

It’s not that these statements are entirely inaccurate, but the massive generalizations they represent are wildly off base. 

In reality, while Ohio boasts plenty of flat corn country, we also have the foothills of Appalachia stretching along Eastern and Southeastern Ohio and all the singular culture of that unique region. We have nautical hamlets and islands and beaches and thriving wineries along the shores of Lake Erie. We have the Ohio River wrapping around our right flank and across the bottom of the state to Cincinnati.

We have a big agricultural industry, yes, but we are also a staple of the industrial Midwest, a legacy of which we are very proud and that our elected leaders are working hard to help revive. Places like Akron and Youngstown have seen their fair share of trouble, sure, but are making big plans for a 21st Century future.

Cleveland and Cincinnati may often be used as the butt of jokes as downtrodden, boring places to visit, but anybody who actually has visited Over-the-Rhine in Cincy or E. 4th St. in CLE in recent years has found vibrant, energetic, fun places full of craft breweries, all varieties of entertainment, museums, art, amazing restaurants and plenty of culture.

Then there’s Columbus, which seems almost too generic to use as the butt of a joke. But it’s not generic, at all. Columbus is the fastest growing city in the state of Ohio. Often used as a bellwether of product testing for national chains, Columbus is seeing a cultural renaissance and attracting big business in areas from insurance to technology.

Ohio is boring? Sandusky boasts the best roller coaster amusement park in the world in Cedar Point. And if you aren’t up near Lake Erie to ride the best coasters around there, we have Kings Island down near Cincinnati. Like science? We have two amazing, hands-on science museums in the form of COSI in Columbus and the Great Lakes Science Center in Cleveland. Right next door to the Science Center is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Forty minutes down the road, in Canton, is the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (We do like football.)

Tired of boring American lagers? So are we. The Ohio craft brewery game has exploded in recent years, perhaps best shown by the Athens-hosted Ohio Brew Week featuring products from nearly 50 craft breweries around Ohio. Athens is also home to a Halloween party known as the Mardi Gras of the Midwest.

Tommy Greer, 34, fishes in the Cuyahoga River with a background of downtown Cleveland, which has been chosen for the 2016 Republican National Convention, on July 8, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. The 2016 event will be held at the Quicken Loans Arena. | Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

The point is, we have a lot going on in Ohio, and that extends to our politics.

Ohio is not a red state full of white people. Ohio is more diverse than one might think, and it is purple.

Demographically, Ohio is 81% white, 13% black and 4% Hispanic or Latino. The U.S. as a whole is 77% white, 13% black and 18% Hispanic or Latino (these statistics include Hispanic/Latino people who may have mixed ancestry, so they do not necessarily add up to 100%).

Is Ohio rural? Well, halfway. With 11.7 million residents, more than half live in just 10 of our 88 counties.

National pundits in recent years are quick to write off Ohio as red politically. And why not? Republicans have controlled both chambers of the Statehouse for 10 years. They’ve won the governorship and other statewide offices three cycles in a row. Donald Trump won here in 2016 by eight points.

But Barack Obama won Ohio twice. Democratic Ohio U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown won reelection in 2018 by seven points. Democratic candidates for the Ohio Statehouse in 2018 won 49.3% of votes compared to 50.3% of Republicans. Democratic Congressional candidates in 2018 won 48% of the votes compared to 52% for the Republican candidates.

Meanwhile in Republican Ohio … roads, bridges to see improvements with new gas tax money

So why would Ohio be perceived as so deeply red? Well, gerrymandering. 

As reported by Cleveland.com, despite only winning 52% of total votes in 2018, Republicans won 75% of U.S. Congressional seats. Despite only winning 50.3% of total votes for Statehouse seats in 2018, Republicans ended up with supermajorities of 62 of 99 seats in the Ohio House, and won 11 of 17 seats in the Senate up for reelection (their full Senate supermajority is 24 to nine).

If Ohio’s Statehouse and Congressional delegation were truly representative, those numbers would be much closer to even with a slight Republican edge.

The effect of this perpetuates the narrative of Ohio being somehow deeply red because politicians in gerrymandered districts don’t have to run to the center to protect themselves, they have to go to the extreme to protect their flank.

So even though actual Ohio voting trends make for an essentially 48-52 or 49-51 state, supermajorities in the state legislature and a 12-4 advantage in Congress make for lawmakers who play to their base, passing extreme laws that are entirely out-of-touch with nearly 50% of the population they’re collectively representing.

One could say that’s not how a truly representative constitutional republic ought to function, and one would be right.

At the very least, these facts give the lie to the idea that Ohio is a red state. It’s not. Ohio is a purple state, rigged by gerrymandering into being red, and resulting in unrepresentative extremism.

Ruth Conniff: What Wisconsin could show the nation

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It’s understandable that political observers with a front-row seat to the meltdown underway in our nation’s capital are nervously eyeing voters in flyover land, wondering how we will vote this time.

But the daily news cycle that drives outrage among people who are paying close attention to national politics doesn’t faze the dairy farmers I’ve spoken with. It’s not that these rural voters embrace the toxic narcissism or racist rhetoric that is dividing our country. Their Midwestern values do not include the aggressive displays of rudeness practiced by the president and his enablers in Congress. They simply see the drama and theater of politics as far away and they take it with a big grain of salt.

Many farmers I’ve talked to during a crisis that is putting family farms out of business at a rate of two per day see that neither political party has done much to stop massive consolidation in agriculture, a race to the bottom in prices that is killing dairy farms, or a general sense of being looked down on and forgotten.

If the president is obnoxious, some rural voters figure, well, at least he is throwing a rock at the system on behalf of the “forgotten men and women of this country” he promised to represent.

Trump mocked an ejected protester in Wisconsin. Her story is nothing like he imagined.

Disgusted by both parties

Mark Johnson, a dairy farmer who lives near the border of Wisconsin and Minnesota, told me, “If I’d had a better choice, I wouldn’t have voted for either of the candidates [in 2016].” Donald Trump, he said was “the better evil. … He’s awful radical, but at least he’s trying to make things happen. He’s not sitting on his thumbs. He’s getting people talking.”

Johnson’s neighbor, dairy farmer Dana Allen-Tully, agreed. “I’m disgusted with both parties,” she said. “The only one I see who wants to fix something is him [Trump].”

National political writers often see white, rural voters in the Midwest as more inclined to support a safe, centrist Democrat — as opposed to young urbanites who might rally behind a barn-burning socialist.

But in Wisconsin, there are independent, populist voters in both rural and urban parts of the state.

“The key thing to understand is that Wisconsin voters are less centrist than they are conflicted,” says Ben Wikler, chair of the state Democratic Party. “There’s a populist streak that has both leftwing and rightwing flavors that runs through the state. And the fundamental question that voters are asking is: ‘Is this person on my side?’ ”

In the 2016 primary, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) beat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by 13 points in Wisconsin. In the general election, rural voters all along the state’s Western edge who helped re-elect Barack Obama in 2012 voted for Trump. 

The pattern here is that candidates perceived as championing the interests of ordinary people against the establishment do well in Wisconsin. 

Column: Trump’s agriculture secretary conveys the administration’s contempt for rural people

‘People across Wisconsin want solutions’

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, an out lesbian and unabashed progressive who supports universal health care, is one of the most successful politicians in Wisconsin history. She won her Senate race in 2018 by a healthy 10-point margin, meeting with voters all over the state and talking in detail about how to support farming and manufacturing.

As Baldwin explains, “People across Wisconsin want solutions to their challenges and are not all that interested in Republican versus Democrat. They’re interested in who you’ll stand up to, and who you’ll stand up for.”

Justin Myers, who runs the “permanent progressive field program” of For Our Future, a labor-funded group that is knocking on doors in seven swing states, reinforces this idea that setting aside the national political fights and connecting with voters on the issues they care about is the way to get people involved in politics.

For Our Future is putting eight field offices and hundreds of staff into every area of Wisconsin to ask voters what matters to them.

And, Myers takes pains to note, they are staying year-round and building relationships with grassroots organizations here, including Milwaukee BLOC and Voces de la Frontera — local neighborhood empowerment and immigrant-rights groups — not just parachuting in for a single election.

“If you look at a lot of the paid messaging that’s happening,” says Myers, “it’s about national issues, for the most part, right? You’ll see an ad about Social Security this year. We’re going to see an ad about some national issue. But at the end of the day, there is a large subset of voters that don’t consume media, specifically political media in the way that we do. So you’re missing them when you’re talking about those issues.”

“If you want to enlarge the electorate, which is what we want to do,” Myers says, “We want to connect on hyperlocal issues.”

Milwaukee Trump rally was a dry run for the DNC

Getting over ‘divide and conquer’

That’s the approach taken by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who beat former Gov. Scott Walker in 2018. 

Evers took a pass on the “divide-and-conquer” approach to politics pioneered by Walker in Wisconsin — and weaponized, nationwide, by Trump.

Instead of pushing political hot buttons to divide neighbor against neighbor, Evers promised to “fix the damn roads” and reinvest in education. Since taking office, he has called special session after special session to deal with issues voters care about — gun violence, the farm crisis and funding public schools.

The Republican-controlled Legislature, safely gerrymandered into power, has refused to engage — gaveling in and then gaveling out of the special session on guns without debate, and ignoring the governor’s other proposals. Recently, however, Republican leaders promised they would bring up their own package of bills to outspend Evers’ efforts to address the farm crisis — showing that they are not entirely immune to matters of urgent interest to the public.

As the presidential election nears, and Trump and Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly visit our state, there’s a lot of talk about who will win over suburban voters and how Wisconsinites are responding to the impeachment drama in Washington.

The New York Times reported on Feb. 8 that suburban voters in Waukesha feel more supportive of Trump after impeachment. Waukesha, which the Times describes, misleadingly, in the Sunday print edition of the story as a “tossup district,” is the most Republican county in Wisconsin, and home to the rightwing talk radio hosts who fueled Walker’s rise, along with an aggressive, racially divisive brand of Republican politics. 

Michigan Republicans want to quash Whitmer’s power. Here’s a roundup of GOP power grabs in other states.

It’s not surprising that Republican voters there are circling the wagons after impeachment. Statewide opinion polls have shown little movement in Wisconsin on the issue. 

What’s more important is what’s happening in people’s lives.

Outside the hardcore pro-Trump base, Wisconsinites might be willing to continue to ignore the president’s bad behavior and racist tweets if it seems like things are getting better on the farm. Trump can point to the new trade deal with Mexico and Canada as a win for farmers, but the deal is fundamentally a continuation of NAFTA, which many farmers here saw as a betrayal. Tariffs, trade wars, and tone-deaf remarks by Trump’s ag secretary Sonny Perdue, who told family farmers that they might not survive if they can’t get big enough compete with giant operations, have not added up to a net plus for the president.  

Trump is also courting suburbanites here, who are enjoying the booming stock market. And like rural voters, many have gotten good at ignoring the aspects of Trump’s personality and behavior that they don’t like.

Meanwhile, as their 2020 convention in Milwaukee approaches, Democrats are fretting about whether their eventual candidate should court rural, white voters or the younger, browner electorate that represents the country’s future.

The truth is that our political leaders have to find a way to speak to both groups at once. That’s what Evers continues to do — plugging away, emphasizing the values that bring Wisconsinites together rather than tearing us apart.

It’s more than Midwestern nice. It could be a model for reviving our democracy, beginning in a state that is still divided, but not conquered.

John L. Micek: Enough with the ‘Pennsyltucky’: Pa’s biggest political myths debunked

With the chaos of the Iowa caucuses behind us, and New Hampshire beckoning, it won’t be long before vote-rich Pennsylvania is besieged by candidate visits (already well-underway) and reporters in the national press who will write the endless think pieces about What It All Means.

But before everything goes all Alabama in the Middle, and the nationals start pelting us with done-to-death Primanti Brothers and Pat’s Steaks references, we thought we’d take a moment, courtesy of some veteran political scientists, pundits, and a whole bunch of thoughtful and opinionated people on Twitter, to disabuse them of some of their Keystone State misconceptions.

This column is the first installment of The Purple States Project, a joint effort between the Capital-Star and our sibling sites, the Michigan Advance, the Wisconsin Examiner, and the Ohio Capital Journal.

From now until November, our four sites in the States Newsroom network will be taking an in-depth look at the issues, the people and the policies that matter to voters in the four states that could well determine who wins the White House.

AFL-CIO president hosts NAFTA town halls in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania

With that obligatory boiler-plate out of the way. Let’s get started. First up, the experts.

Fletcher McClellan, Pennsylvania Capital-Star opinion contributor, Elizabethtown College political science professor: “The line attributed to James Carville that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Alabama (or Alabama without black people) in the middle still has some truth in it. But much has changed. Allegheny and Centre Counties are now Blue islands, surrounded by an increasingly Red landscape. Philly Blue has extended into the suburbs, stretching into the Lehigh Valley and even Lancaster County. At the same time, the historically Blue Northeast is quickly turning Red. At its most competitive, Pennsylvania politics has become the Southeast, urban pockets, college towns, and suburban professionals (such as those on the West Shore) versus the rest of the state.”

Christopher Nicholas, Republican political consultant: “In no particular order: Only Philly has suburbs‎ that are of import; that the western Pa. ‘blue collar’ vote is monolithic; that Democratic Party endorsements are vital, and the GOP holds majorities in the state Legislature “only/primarily” because of “gerrymandering.”

G. Terry Madonna, political analyst/pollster, Franklin & Marshall College: “One of the enduring myths is the extensive coverage of Pennsyltucky. Yes, it refers to rural and exurban Pennsylvania, and specifically the Appalachian parts of the state. [But] the state has become much more diverse and complicated, especially in the suburbs. So, yes, parts of the state are like Kentucky but many parts of it are more like the [northeastern U.S.]. The point is that sometimes the state is just characterized as Pennsyltucky and the stories don’t include the complexity of the state.”

And because the hive mind continues to be a beautiful thing, I threw the question out to Twitter, where, as you might imagine, there were no shortage of opinions. Here’s a random sampling of responses:

We hope this little talk helped.