Democrats are rebuilding their strength in the “blue wall” states that former President Trump won in 2016, raising the party’s hopes in a region that will prove critical to races up and down the ballot next year.
The party is riding high after key victories in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin over the past six months, signaling a newfound momentum after Trump’s win called into question the party’s standing in the rust belt.
But Democrats say they’re not taking the states for granted and still have more work to do as President Biden looks to clinch a second term and several senators in those states face reelection.
“It’s clear that the path to the White House, the path to retaining a Senate majority cuts through the Midwest,” said Kaitlin Fahey, a Democratic consultant who led the successful bid to host next year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago and former chief of staff to Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).
Meanwhile, Republicans clearly have their sights set on pummeling the “blue wall,” choosing to host the Republican National Convention in nearby Milwaukee next year.
“Both on the Republican and Democratic sides, it’s indicative of their choice how critical they view the path of the Midwest, the Rust Belt, some describe it as flyover states,” Fahey said. “Those are states and constituencies who cannot be forgotten about; who have been at times felt left behind, especially in previous administrations.”
The party made its focus on protecting the traditional “blue wall” clear earlier this month when Biden and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) selected Chicago to host the 2024 party convention. Governors of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota each signed onto a letter supporting Chicago’s DNC bid in which they said the party “must do everything we can to ensure the blue wall becomes an impenetrable blue fortress.”
In addition to being swing presidential states, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin are also home to competitive Senate races this cycle.
While the nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates these Senate races as “lean Democratic,” that does not mean the party is complacent going into these elections — especially given the GOP primary fields are still solidifying over a year and a half out from Election Day.
“This is Pennsylvania, the work never stops,” said one Pennsylvania Democratic strategist. “We will not be abandoning any part of the state.”
In Pennsylvania, Democrats made gains up and down the ballot in 2022, winning the suburbs while making a play for rural areas usually dominated by Republicans.
“From a GOP perspective, those margins that Trump was able to do in 2016 are good, but it’s also [because] he was able to have much better margins in the suburbs,” the strategist said.
Michigan was also a major success story for Democrats at the ballot last year, but like Pennsylvania Democrats, Michigan Democrats say that’s a sign to keep going.
“Make no mistake, Michigan is still a purple state and if we turn our backs on it, if we get complacent, it can go in the wrong direction,” said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist who works closely with Michigan Democrats. “Michigan Democrats across the board from the state Legislature all the way up to the top of the ticket in the state have done the work since Trump won in 2016 to rebuild the party and rebuild that infrastructure, and I think you’re going to continue to see them aggressively organize.”
Wisconsin Democrats saw a major statewide victory earlier this month when Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz’s victory handed a majority to liberals on the state’s Supreme Court for the first time in 15 years. On top of that, Democrats also point to incumbent Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s (D-Wis.) reelection win in 2018, two years after Trump flipped the state in 2016.
“In 2018, Sen. Baldwin proved that she can win Trump voters as well as bring out the Democratic base,” said Arik Wolk, a spokesperson for the Wisconsin Democratic Party.
“In large part, it is because of her focus on issues that are important to people across the political spectrum in Wisconsin,” Wolk added, referring to manufacturing and agriculture.
The Biden campaign and outside groups backing the president’s reelection made clear where their focus will be within hours of the president’s 2024 launch.
The campaign announced it would air ads in six battleground states, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
United the Country, a pro-Biden super PAC, announced its first ad of the 2024 cycle would air in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as part of a $1 million ad buy focused on those states to remind voters of Biden’s legislative accomplishments.
And Priorities USA, another major Democratic super PAC, announced a goal of putting $75 million toward digital mobilization and programming to persuade voters in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Biden carried all six of those states in 2020. All are expected to be competitive in 2024, and all but Georgia will have competitive Senate races for seats currently held by a Democrat.
“That’s your incumbent advantage that everybody talks about. They can run on something right now, and Republicans can’t,” said Mike Nellis, a Democratic strategist at Authentic, a fundraising and consulting agency.
“They understand persuasion needs to be happening 24/7,” Nellis said. “And not just in the final 90 days of a campaign.”