How the Midwest Was Won

How the Midwest Was Won

Pundits write off the region as a vast expanse of red states. But recent progressive victories show there’s more to it than that.

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During the Trump era, the tirelessly mythologized upper Midwest has counted among its chief exports a set of rock-ribbed political certitudes among the pundit caste. But defying that conventional wisdom, the region has lately been convulsed with measurably leftish turns in electoral behavior. Democratic candidate Janet Protasiewicz won a runaway victory in a high-stakes battle for the swing seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court—after she both pledged to shore up the endangered right to reproductive choice and to restore ballot access in one of the most rigidly gerrymandered states in the country. The city of Chicago, meanwhile, voted in reformist candidate Brandon Johnson over a cop-friendly, school-privatizing candidate from neoliberal central casting, Paul Vallas.

Of course, this off-year election balloting represents a very small sample. Dismaying bulwarks of our recent national foray into political reaction are still in evidence—Wisconsin also voted a GOP supermajority into its state Senate, just for starters. But at a moment when an incumbent Democratic president remains widely unpopular, and conservative movement supporters are energized by Donald Trump’s indictment and arraignment, it’s a notable trendlet. And what’s especially striking are the broader alignments that have given it traction—an ongoing mobilization of pro-choice voters in reaction to last year’s Dobbs ruling, and a wave of labor activism that’s held strong against the managerial agenda of self-styled centrist policy savants like Vallas.

“There’s a much different, younger, more strident progressive movement than what’s existed in the city before. That’s come about in the last 10 years,” says Chicago native Thomas Geoghegan, a longtime labor lawyer and former progressive congressional candidate. “It’s also a larger progressive movement—the unions, together with younger people who don’t necessarily identify as progressive and still wanted change, and came out to vote.” The unions in particular—led by the impressively connected Chicago Teachers Union, which has assumed a leading role in city politics in the wake of several hard-fought recent strikes—“did an incredible amount of retail, door-to-door politics,” Geoghegan adds. “And it works.”

Both of these central factions are of course recognizable from the successive insurgent campaigns for the presidency waged by Vermont independent Senator Bernie Sanders. But the mood for change has been brewing in Chicago for a long time, as the city’s teacher wars make clear. And Vallas—the consensus candidate for the political establishment and its big-donor backers—was a marquee casualty of this mood shift. “You can’t discount the fact that Vallas was a turnoff,” Geoghegan says. “He consorted with the police union, there were legit questions whether he was a Democrat…. He billed himself as this policy intellectual, but he was calling for more cops on the streets, more charter schools. Charters poured a ton of money into Vallas’s campaign. But people thought, ‘Let’s try something different’—he was an old guy who thought of himself as cutting-edge but had the same old tired solutions.”

Much the same dynamic held in Wisconsin, albeit with a massive infusion of out-of-state PAC money into a statewide race that could help shape the outcome of the 2024 presidential balloting under a renewed battery of phony voting fraud charges from the right. But if anything, the organizing push behind Protasiewicz’s landslide win was all the more impressive in a state that’s been living under a Koch-orchestrated state of siege since the mid-aughts. As was the case with Chicagoan organizers galvanized by the CTU strikes, Wisconsin activists on the left have been tightly aligned with labor, ever since former Governor Scott Walker’s frontal assault on the public employees unions. It’s true that the ongoing fallout from the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling was a decisive factor in the outcome—but it’s also true that the organizing crucible of the anti-Walker movement furnished the critical infrastructure to mobilize voters outside the state’s liberal power centers in Madison and Milwaukee. “The Wisconsin Democrats have a strong organization,” says Chicago-based political editor and writer Martha Bayne. “They’re very good at getting out the vote.”

They have to be, to remain competitive on a state electoral map that’s been rigidly hardwired to produce Republican victory after Republican victory in the face of Democratic popular majorities. The urgency of abortion rights in a state that’s rushed to restore an 1849 ban on reproductive freedom is matched by the need to reclaim ballot access under a GOP oligarchy that comes to more closely resemble the regime of Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán—a hero of GOP Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson—with each new election cycle. The lesson here for a Democratic Party long divided on the allegedly conflicting agendas of social movements and universalist grassroots organizing is that there’s no conflict here at all: Party strategists can and should place bodily autonomy, ballot access, and economic populism all in the center of the Democratic Party’s big tent.

The same lessons hold beyond the notoriously rancorous municipal politics of Chicago and the punishing fight to redeem the progressive tradition in Wisconsin. During the 2022 midterms, Michigan Democrats gained control of all arms of state government for the first time in 40 years—thanks in no small part to the approval of an earlier ballot referendum to reverse the state’s Wisconsin-style gerrymander that had secured a long run of GOP legislative majorities. Abortion politics again played a central role in that election—which saw women candidates sweep the top three executive offices in the state. But Michigan Democrats also benefited from a different sort of political miscalculation by their GOP opponents, who went all in on the GOP’s war on public education, and wound up paying grievously for attacking a genuinely popular government-funded social good. As a fitting testament to the emerging politics of new possibility in the region, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a measure rescinding the state’s 1931 abortion ban the day after the balloting in Wisconsin and Chicago.

On the right side of the ledger, I’m sorry to report that my home state of Iowa, which broke for Obama in both 2008 and 2012, remains mired in hard-right reaction—so much so that it’s becoming known as “the Florida of the North.” Ohio, once a reliable swing state in presidential cycles, now is trending firmly Republican, thanks to still more rampant gerrymandering. And Mike Pence’s Indiana continues to hew to its long-running tradition of white nationalist militance, dating back to its status as a central recruiting ground for the modern resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. (“My uncle always blamed Ohio’s conservatism on its proximity to Indiana,” Geoghegan jokes.)

Still, the clear left victories in Chicago, Wisconsin, and Michigan carry a useful moral for beleaguered reform movements in redder states and districts: Organize beyond the boundaries imposed by conventional culture-war wisdom, and never shy away from class-based appeals. It’s important to recall, after all, that many of the same states baptized over the past half decade in the glowering orange image of Donald Trump formerly made up the “blue firewall” of the Obama years. And it’s just as important to remember that said firewall was not the mystic product of some charismatic spell Obama held over the Midwestern electorate; no, what buttressed it was his decision to bail out the auto industry after his distinctly Vallas-ian GOP rival Mitt Romney had gone on record as ready to let the main sector of the region’s industrial jobs economy continue smoldering to the ground.

Other regional political leaders have built on this critical foundation, even as national Democratic leaders haven’t. It’s no accident that two of the most pointed critics of  union-busting Starbucks maximum leader Howard Schultz during his recent appearance before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee were Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin and Minnesota’s Tina Smith–just as it’s no accident that, as women, they were well positioned to call out Schultz’s oleaginous paternalism as the bald assertion of management prerogative that it is.

Baldwin and Smith are both smart enough political leaders to listen to the social movements marshaled behind them—and to ground their appeals in the context of a direct and inclusive case to make the American political economy more fair and less grotesquely unequal. All that remains now is for the rest of the Democratic establishment to start taking the same fundamental lessons to heart.

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