Why a shuttered auto plant in Ohio could doom Democrats from picking up a key Senate seat

·6 min read

There were a lot of single-issue voters in Youngstown, Ohio, last weekend when Donald Trump and JD Vance rolled into town.

Thousands of the former president’s supporters poured into the Covelli Centre as the sun set over a warm summer evening, neglecting an intra-state matchup between Ohio State and Toledo which kicked off around the same time.

And though Mr Trump delivered one of his trademark rambling addresses, aiming denouncements at the “radical left” and the FBI for the ongoing investigation into his retention of apparently classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, there was one subject on the mind of just about everyone in the room: the 2019 retreat of General Motors from Lordstown, the massive industrial complex and auto plant just a few miles away.

It was hardly a surprise. A working-class city of just over 60,000 that has faced decades of population decline thanks to similar closures of manufacturing centres and other heavy industries, Youngstown represents, as Donald Trump would refer to it, “central casting” for the kind of economic decay that has gripped America’s Rust Belt for generations.

In interviews with The Independent around the city on Saturday, nearly a dozen Trump supporters and protesters picketing his appearance discussed the issue of the 2019 closure — with most bringing up the issue wholly unprompted.

And in what was clearly a bad sign for Congressman Tim Ryan, the Democratic nominee for US Senate, most seemed to feel let down by the 49-year-old lawmaker who has represented Youngstown’s district for nearly a decade.

GM’s Lordstown plant was, for a time, the undisputed regional heavyweight in terms of economic opportunities for Youngstown’s working class. In its heyday, it employed more than 10,000 people — at the time, a staggering one in 10 people in the city. By the late 2010s, that number had shrunk considerably but was still the biggest name in town, dropping to around 1,400 when it finally closed in 2019. When it finally did shutter, residents of the area were distraught, telling The New York Times at the time that the plant was the last real economic driver in the region and predicting total collapse of Youngstown in its wake.

The Lordstown assembly complex, located 20 minutes away from the site of Donald Trump’s rally on Saturday (AFP via Getty Images)
The Lordstown assembly complex, located 20 minutes away from the site of Donald Trump’s rally on Saturday (AFP via Getty Images)

News of the plant’s impending final closure dropped in late November of 2018, less than a month after Democrats captured control of the House and Mr Ryan was reelected to another two-year term. Also reelected was Sherrod Brown, the state’s Democratic senator, who cleanly defeated a Republican US representative seeking his seat in the upper chamber.

Mr Ryan responded to the announcement by declaring the day a new “Black Monday”, a reference to the September 1977 decision by Youngstown Sheet and Tube to shut down its plant and furlough 5,000 workers in the region that is widely regarded as the beginning of the end of Youngstown’s steel industry.

“Thousands of families have sacrificed to build GM into what it is today. And in return, GM has turned its back on us when we need them the most,” Mr Ryan said at the time, adding: “Corporations like General Motors and [Donald Trump] are the only ones benefiting from this economy — an economy rigged against workers who are playing by the rules but still not getting ahead.”

But on Saturday those who gathered in support of Mr Trump in Youngstown blamed both Mr Ryan and Mr Brown for not working harder to keep GM in the region. None mentioned the former president’s promise from the White House to save the plant. Lordstown Motors, to which GM sold the plant, is only planning to produce 500 vehicles there this year. A new partnership with Foxconn is supposedly set to boost those numbers, but it hasn’t materialised yet into anything close to resembling what the plant looked like even just a few years ago.

One of Mr Trump’s supporters even claimed in an interview that Mr Brown had been informed of the plant’s impending closure months before the election took place.

“Sherrod Brown knew for nine months that it was going to shut down, and he chose to stay quiet,” John Pleava told The Independent.

Of Mr Ryan’s campaign, he quipped: “We don’t need any more help like that.”

He and others spoke of the aftermath of GM’s pullout. The end of well-paying union jobs for even a few thousand of the city’s residents, as the largest employer, devastated businesses across a wide range of sectors.

“Those people had home loans. They had IRAs,” Mr Pleava said of the company’s former employees. “They had a lot of stuff…a lot of them lost their homes…a lot of men moved out of state.”

Mr Pleava pointed to Market Street and other once-thriving areas of the city downtown, remarking that it “was like a torpedo went off”.

“The buildings are still there, but they’re shells,” he said.

A few blocks away, a group of protesters waving signs denouncing the ex-president as a fascist dismissed that charge, noting that there was little in terms of tangible action Mr Ryan could have taken beyond speaking out. But they did express dismay towards Democrats who they saw as missing an opportunity to speak to the region’s needs.

That was where Chucky Dennison, one of Lordstown’s former workers, displayed a pillowcase banner which he would later unfurl inside the Covelli Centre as Mr Trump spoke to thousands of fans.

“Trump lost 3,000 Lordstown jobs – and the 2020 election,” it declared in bold red print.

Chucky Dennison holds up his banner before attending Donald Trump’s rally in Youngstown, Ohio (John Bowden)
Chucky Dennison holds up his banner before attending Donald Trump’s rally in Youngstown, Ohio (John Bowden)

Now affiliated with the Bernie Sanders-aligned Our Revolution group, Mr Dennison described his party’s Senate nominee as missing an opportunity to run on a progressive message and offer something for Lordstown’s left-behinds.

“He had an opportunity to be one of the best representatives in the country. And instead he chose oil and gas,” Mr Dennison explained, while noting with some disappointment that he still planned to support the congressman over his Republican opponent, JD Vance.

Mr Dennison and others who joined the conversation described the end of GM at Lordstown as an earthquake that had touched every person in the city. For every one plant worker, he explained, there were more than a half-dozen members of the community whose employment across various industries “supported”, or more accurately, depended, on that plant worker’s job.

There may be logic in Mr Dennison’s description of Mr Ryan’s missed opportunity. Running a campaign that has included distancing himself from Joe Biden and progressives like Bernie Sanders, the Ohio congressman is currently polling a few percentage points behind his opponent, according to a new Emerson College poll of the race with The Hill.

In neighbouring Pennsylvania, which has seen its own economic turmoil resulting from departing industry, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has taken the opposite approach and pledged to be a team player in Congress — he’s polling solidly ahead of GOP nominee Dr Mehmet Oz in that Senate race, though the contest has tightened following a stroke suffered by the Democrat earlier this year.

Mr Dennison advised that Mr Ryan should pivot to a full-throated support of progressive causes including the Pro Act, a piece of pro-union legislation widely popular on the left that among other provisions would end anti-union “right-to-work” laws nationwide.

“The Democratic Party is mostly a party of the people. The poor, working class, the elderly, disabled,” Mr Dennison argued. “And even though they’re the lifeline that we have, they’re not truly fighting.”