Prag­matic Mid­west vot­ers make moder­ate turn

The Columbus Dispatch - - Front Page - By Mitch Smith and Mon­ica Davey

LAWRENCE, Kan. — A decade ago, a Demo­crat was gover­nor of Kansas. And Illi­nois. And Michi­gan. And Wis­con­sin. Since then, Repub­li­cans have dom­i­nated, win­ning gover­nors’ races across much of the Mid­west and en­act­ing con­ser­va­tive poli­cies that re­shaped the re­gion in their im­age.

On Tues­day, there were signs of a shift back to­ward the pol­i­tics that had long de­fined the re­gion. Though Repub­li­cans re­main the more pow­er­ful party in the cen­ter of the coun­try, vot­ers flipped gover­nors’ of­fices back to Democrats in those four states and sent Democrats to Congress in sev­eral sub­ur­ban districts that had long been firmly Repub­li­can. In this elec­tion, mod­er­a­tion played well in the Mid­west.

The re­sults sug­gest that the much-dis­cussed demise of the Mid­west­ern Demo­crat might have been ex­ag­ger­ated af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s vic­tory in 2016.

What hap­pened in the Mid­west this past week, bring­ing an end to to­tal Repub­li­can con­trol in three state cap­i­tals, was in some cases less a sharp shift on mat­ters of na­tional ide­ol­ogy and more a re­turn to the once- fa­mil­iar po­lit­i­cal mid­dle.

For at least some vot­ers, the choices seemed less about fiery de­bates over il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion or Supreme Court se­lec­tions and more about meat-and-po­tato mat­ters such as re­pair­ing pot­holes and pay­ing for schools. Some vot­ers said they sim­ply did not care for too much of one thing — red, blue or oth­er­wise.

“I do hope it’s a turn to­ward more of a moder­ate coali­tion,” said Dorothy Hughes, 35, a Repub­li­can from sub­ur­ban Kansas City, Kansas. Hughes said she had voted for Laura Kelly, a Demo­crat who de­feated Trump ally Kris Kobach in the race for gover­nor. She has grown troubled by her own party’s dom­i­na­tion of the state, she said, and its in­creas­ingly stri­dent con­ser­vatism. She was ready for some­thing dif­fer­ent.

“It ben­e­fits peo­ple in power to be chal­lenged,” Hughes said. “They’ll come up with bet­ter so­lu­tions if they’ve got some­one to con­tend with.”

Signs of Democrats’ Sup­port­ers of Kris Kobach, the Repub­li­can can­di­date for gover­nor of Kansas, were dis­ap­pointed Tues­day by the Trump ally’s loss to a moder­ate Demo­crat, one of sev­eral re­sults that point to a more moder­ate Mid­west.

strength spread through parts of the re­gion. Democrats won sev­eral Repub­li­can­held con­gres­sional seats in the Mid­west, in­clud­ing in Illi­nois, Iowa, Kansas and Michi­gan. They se­cured full con­trol of the state gov­ern­ment in Illi­nois by un­seat­ing Gov. Bruce Rauner, the Repub­li­can in­cum­bent.

But there also were sig­nif­i­cant signs of Repub­li­can dom­i­nance. The GOP held onto gover­nors’ seats in Iowa, Ohio and South Dakota de­spite close con­tests. It also held onto all but one state leg­isla­tive cham­ber that it had con­trolled in the Mid­west. And races in this re­gion helped Repub­li­cans main­tain a hold on the Se­nate: They flipped three cru­cial seats in Mid­west­ern states where Trump’s mes­sage res­onated, de­feat­ing Democrats Claire McCaskill in Mis­souri, Joe Don­nelly in In­di­ana and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota.

The mixed out­come raised un­cer­tainty look­ing ahead to the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 2020. Both for Repub­li­cans who had be­gun to rely on the Mid­west and for Democrats who had writ­ten it off, all bets were off.

“There’s an ar­gu­ment to make that the blue wall is be­ing re­built,” said Lawrence Ja­cobs, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Min­nesota, who de­scribed Rauner Heitkamp In the Wis­con­sin gover­nor’s elec­tion, vot­ers opted Tues­day for Demo­crat Tony Evers over con­ser­va­tive in­cum­bent Scott Walker. No­tably, most of Evers’ cam­paign cen­tered on ev­ery­day is­sues such as health care and high­ways.

the re­sults in Min­nesota as “at least a mini- blue wave.” There, Democrats held onto the gover­nor’s of­fice and two Se­nate seats, in­clud­ing a spe­cial elec­tion to the seat from which Al Franken had re­signed. Four com­pet­i­tive House seats from Min­nesota districts were split evenly be­tween Repub­li­cans and Democrats.

“This was all sort of a re­turn to nor­malcy, which is po­lit­i­cal par­ity,” he said. “What I would call it is a prag­matic elec­tion.”

But Jen­nifer Car­na­han, chair­woman of the Min­nesota Repub­li­can Party, at­trib­uted her party’s losses in sub­ur­ban con­gres­sional and state leg­isla­tive races to “a very mo­ti­vated bloc” of Demo­cratic vot­ers reg­is­ter­ing their dis­taste for the pres­i­dent.

“I don’t think this was a vote on a mid­dle ground,” Car­na­han said. “I think it truly was a vote against the pres­i­dent, and it’s un­for­tu­nate be­cause the pres­i­dent has done so many great things.”

Across the re­gion, some

Demo­cratic can­di­dates had tried to shape their cam­paigns with bluntly prac­ti­cal, lo­cal mes­sages that steered clear of con­tentious philo­soph­i­cal de­bates and of Trump. Some seemed to cel­e­brate the univer­sal ap­peal of such mes­sages — and their back- to- ba­sics sim­plic­ity.

“Fix the damn roads” be­came a ral­ly­ing cry for Gretchen Whit­mer, the Demo­crat who was elected gover­nor of Michi­gan. At one point, she filmed a com­mer­cial from the seat of her car, promis­ing to im­prove the state’s roads and bridges.

In Kansas, Kelly promised to be “the ed­u­ca­tion gover­nor,” a pitch that ap­pealed to vot­ers across party lines and helped her run up large leads in sev­eral pop­u­lous coun­ties that Trump car­ried.

Though Kansas is re­li­ably Repub­li­can in pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, res­i­dents have long elected fairly moder­ate gover­nors from both po­lit­i­cal par­ties. That changed eight years ago when Sam Brown­back be­came gover­nor and com­man­deered a hard-right shift in the state’s poli­cies, in­clud­ing sweep­ing tax cuts that led to painful rev­enue short­falls.

Tues­day’s elec­tion be­tween Kelly and Kobach, a Repub­li­can whose style and poli­cies are sim­i­lar to Trump’s, amounted to a choice be­tween the state’s more cen­trist past and its very con­ser­va­tive present.

“It’s all got­ten far too ex­treme,” said Rachael Pirner, 58, a Repub­li­can lawyer from Wi­chita who do­nated to Kelly’s cam­paign and voted for her. She saw Kelly’s win as a re­turn to her state’s moder­ate roots, “a shift back to where we are re­ally.”

“What hap­pened in Kansas was a wave of com­mon sense, a wave of bi­par­ti­san­ship,” Kelly told sup­port­ers Tues­day night. “This wasn’t one side beat­ing the other. It was Democrats and Repub­li­cans and in­de­pen­dents all coming to­gether to put our state back on track.”

In Wis­con­sin, Democrats held onto Tammy Bald­win’s seat in the Se­nate and flipped the gover­nor’s seat, re­mov­ing Scott Walker, who had pushed the state sharply to the right over eight con­tentious years.

Walker, an as­tute politi­cian, had long been a tar­get of Democrats in the state, but they had failed to de­feat him dur­ing three highly con­tested elec­tions, in­clud­ing a re­call at­tempt. Af­ter he took of­fice in 2011, Democrats had of­ten com­plained that his po­si­tions on is­sues such as lim­its to union power and voter ID re­stric­tions had po­lar­ized the state in a way it wasn’t used to.

In the end, though, it might not have been the po­lar­iz­ing is­sues that made the big­gest dif­fer­ence at the polls.

Tony Evers, the Demo­crat who won an ex­tremely nar­row race to be elected Wis­con­sin’s gover­nor, talked mostly about pro­tect­ing health- care cov­er­age, fix­ing high­ways and pay­ing for ed­u­ca­tion.

“I think Scott Walker be­came over­con­fi­dent and out of touch with the press­ing con­cerns of the peo­ple in Wis­con­sin,” said Sally Mather, a re­tired so­cial worker who said she voted for Evers. “Peo­ple were look­ing at their schools, they’re look­ing at their roads, and they’re say­ing, ‘Wait a minute, what about me?”’

[BAR­RETT EMKE/ THE NEW YORK TIMES]

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