The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman charted the blue wave that wiped out Republicans in Virginia. Yes, he says that a ten-seat pickup in the commonwealth’s House of Delegates races could offer a clue into how the 2018 midterms might turn out; Democrats picked up 13. It was a trouncing. Democrats showed up in numbers not seen since 2008. With an electorate like that, the GOP was going to get creamed. Yet, even with these victories, there are a few caveats. For one, Virginia has been trending blue, it’s a state carried by Clinton, and it’s highly educated. College-educated whites, coupled with massive nonwhite voter turnout, make for GOP killing fields. Yet, Wasserman also throws some cold water on the Democratic exaltation, noting the white working class voter wall that Democrats have to overcome in order to retake the House. He centers on Howard County, Iowa, where while not a powerhouse county, is the only one that had a 20-point vote swing between Democrats and Republicans, specifically between Obama and Trump. So, while many Democrats often denigrate and mock these people as racists, the fact that a 98 percent white county voted for a black man twice probably suggests the shift was mostly due to the economy—wages have been stagnant here with people working more than ever—and wanting to shake up Washington.
What’s ironic is that in 2008, Clinton won this country during the caucuses. At the time, she was campaigning on a small-town, pro-union crusader, while trying to paint Obama as an elitist. As with most cases seen in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, you had Democrats in these areas that were tired of being ignored by the urban-based professional wing of the Democratic Party that took over. By 2016, Clinton was the out-of-touch elitist, Bernie fever swept the region, and Wasserman noted that distrust reached a boiling point. Why does this county matter? Well, it could hold the key to whoever wins Iowa’s first congressional district next year. Rod Blum, a Republican holds it, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has it on their target list.
In a nation increasingly composed of landslide counties — places that voted for one side or the other by at least 20 percentage points — Howard County, Iowa (population 9,332), stands out as the only one of America’s 3,141 counties that voted by more than 20 percentage points for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016. Democrats can’t credibly blame Howard County’s enormous 41-point swing in just four years on a last-minute letter to Congress, voter ID laws or Russia-sponsored Facebook ads.
Contrary to the “Trump Country” stereotype, Howard County isn’t drowning in manufacturing job losses, high unemployment or an opioid crisis. In fact, its unemployment rate the month before the election was just 2.9 percent. The main gripe? Stagnant wages — and a gnawing feeling that people have been working harder and for longer hours while other parts of the country reaped much bigger rewards during the recovery from the Great Recession.
“When Trump said, ‘What the hell do you have to lose?’ a lot more people heard it than just African-Americans,” said Pat Murray, a Democrat who worked 29 years as a press brake operator at Donaldson and now serves on the Howard County Board of Supervisors. “Our wages have been stagnant, and our insurance has gone backwards,” he told me, citing the union-sponsored health plan’s surging deductibles. “We work 50, 60 hours a week because there’s no one to hire.”
“[Obama] saved us from another Great Depression, but it never really got back to the working class,” said Murray, who calls himself “as anti-Trump as they come” but says Clinton’s campaign took places like Howard County for granted in the November election. “The average Joe Blow isn’t hung up on the stock market. Democrats always say we’re going to fight for the working people. The last few elections, we haven’t shown that at all.”
Autopsies of the Clinton campaign frequently cite her inattention to Michigan and Wisconsin as a cause of her loss. But her failure to connect in places like Howard County probably had less to do with which states she visited — after all, she spent plenty of time in Iowa — and more to do with her image and message.
Clinton came to be seen as establishment and dishonest in a year when a plurality of voters wanted change. But in a baffling display of obliviousness, she spent much of the fall jetting between big-city rallies, which were often followed by closed-door, high-dollar fundraisers. She spent precious little time making her economic case before people in midsize cities or small towns like Cresco. And even though she outspent Trump $6.5 million to $2.2 million on Iowa’s airwaves, her ads were more about Trump’s antics than about how she would raise voters’ wages or how Trump might lower them — effectively ceding that ground to Trump’s utopian jobs promises and inescapable slogan.
Democrats’ next path to 270 Electoral College votes may not run through Iowa. After all, Trump prevailed by a slightly larger margin in the Hawkeye State than he did in Texas. But Democrats don’t have the luxury of simply writing off voters like the ones they lost in Howard County.
If Democrats want to retake the House in 2018, they’ll need to win congressional districts like Iowa’s 1st, which includes Howard County. The 1st District narrowly re-elected rough-around-the-edges GOP Rep. Rod Blum last November. More importantly, Howard County’s Trump-curious Democrats have countless analogs in states that will decide the 2020 election: not just in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but in Minnesota and Maine as well.
To rebuild lost trust and win support, future Democrats face the twin challenges of, first, persuading voters that Trump is on track to negatively affect their livelihoods and, second, reclaiming the mantle of working-class hero that every successful Democratic nominee has embraced since vaudeville ruled the stage at the Cresco Theatre.
Wasserman was noting on Twitter how the Democratic white working class outreach project isn’t going well. In fact, with Democrats’ Virginia wins, it may even reinforce feelings already within the party that it’s not worth reaching out to voters who voted for Obama twice - a bit odd since Obama did venture out into these counties. And while he didn’t win them per se, he was able to keep the margins within levels that ensured he won comfortably twice. Clinton was more focused on an Access Hollywood tape, disregarded white working class voters, and did not have an economic agenda. Look at what happened there.
Nevertheless, the rash of GOP retirements and the legislative stagnation of the Trump agenda might do more to destroy the House Republican majority come 2018. Trump’s approvals should go up, given the time frame we have here. Democrats are still facing recruitment problems in races in rural areas. One of their candidates in upstate New York already dropped out due to fundraising issues. Certainly Virginia offered some good news for Democrats, but have a ways to go until November 2018. If their disdain for white working class voters continues, expect this to be more of a tossup.