By: Maggie Haberman
Two years after President Barack Obama swept the Midwest, Democratic fortunes in the region are sagging, with the GOP poised to make big gains by scooping up disaffected independent voters in a wide swath of states hit by job losses, budget woes and political scandal.
From Ohio to Iowa, there’s a yawning stretch of heartland states whose citizens voted for Obama and congressional Democrats in 2008, but who have lost patience waiting for an as-yet undelivered economic revival that was first promised in 2006, and then two years later. Now, they look set to stampede toward the out-of-power party.
“There's little doubt that the Midwest is the Democrats' toughest region this year,” Democratic pollster Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling wrote on the firm’s website Friday, adding that the firm is also finding an enthusiasm gap of about 10 points down from what existed in 2008.
“If the election was today the party would almost certainly lose the Governorships it holds in Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. It's also more than likely at this point to lose the Senate seats it has in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Indiana, miss out on a once promising pick up opportunity in Ohio, and quite possibly lose their seat in Illinois as well. And there are too many House seats the party could lose in the region to count,” Jensen noted.
Top GOP pollster Glen Bolger of Public Opinion Strategies wrote in even harsher terms last week: “The Midwest is going to be a killing field for Democrats this year from western [Pennsylvania] through to the Plains, Republicans are going to sweep a LOT of Democrats right out of office.”
The states in question magnify what’s happening elsewhere in the country: dissatisfaction with Obama, unrest with Washington in general over major legislation that voters feel has merely piled onto the national debt, and the steady erosion of jobs.
“There’s two major factors. One is that there are a lot of swing voters, as well as a lot of Reagan Democrat voters, in the Midwest, and therefore I think the national mood hits harder,” said Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan Republican Party chairman. “And secondly you’re talking about record unemployment.”
But there’s also the enthusiasm gap, the flight of independent voters, unpopular Democratic governors in each state and Obama’s own sinking approval ratings, PPP found.
Anuzis said there had been very high expectations of Obama, and that the crash from such a high has been a bitter pill for voters to swallow.
Some states appear to suggest that 2008 was an anomaly—such as Indiana, which Obama carried despite losing 77 of its counties.
“I think states are reverting back to form. I think there's a lot of people in the middle who are not aligned with either party, who have been [ticked] off since 2006 and haven't stopped being [ticked] off,” said a Democratic strategist who is working on races in Illinois.
Bolger cited generic ballot data he’s just conducted showing the Democrats faring even worse in the Midwest than in the South. His numbers show Democrats getting 35 percent in that key region, compared to 39 percent in the South, which is a Republican stronghold.
In both regions, the generic Republican captures 47 percent.
Such brutal forecasts suggest an intense fight could be in the works for Obama and his party in 2012 to win back independents who are clearly still up for grabs, but seem set to teach the Democrats a lesson.
“The tea party movement and all these grassroots movements on both the right and the left are not going away,” Anuzis said. “There are much more independent voters, and they’re more likely to react and punish folks they think have [failed them].”
In every state in the region, the top of the ticket is struggling and the problems are rolling downhill. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, who’s run an energetic reelection campaign and still trails former GOP Rep. John Kasich, isn’t even cracking 35 percent approval, according to PPP’s surveys.
Yet he’s at the top of the Midwestern gubernatorial heap, with most incumbents not even breaking the 30 percent mark.
“When Obama was elected, it was almost like he was the second coming of a political Jehovah, who was somehow going to deliver us into the promised land,” said Bill Ballenger, the pundit behind Inside Michigan Politics. “And more and more things have happened that have disillusioned people.”
That disillusionment is front and center in Illinois, the truest blue state of the crop. Its budget hole rivals California’s, and instead of making long-term structural revamps, the state has this year borrowed heavily and issued bonds.
At the same time, voters have watched the corruption trial of Democratic ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, and the hapless campaign of current Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn, who’s got an anemic 23 percent approval rating in PPP’s recent survey and trails GOP nominee Bill Brady by double digits.
In the state’s other high-profile statewide race, despite help from the White House, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias is struggling in what should have been a far easier race to hold the president’s former Senate seat against GOP Rep. Mark Kirk—especially after revelations that the Republican exaggerated his military record.
Obama’s approval ratings are actually slightly better in Illinois than in other states—52 percent somewhat or strongly approve of his performance, according to the latest Rasmussen Reports survey. But elsewhere, including Ohio, Obama’s negative numbers top 50 percent.
In Ohio, Strickland failed to win the backing of the state chamber of commerce, which backed Kasich in its first-ever gubernatorial endorsement. He has tried going more the I-feel-your-pain route in his latest ad, using the word of the cycle—anger—but it’s not clear that it will be enough to turn the tide.
Strickland, though, is seen as a better bet than his lieutenant governor and ticket mate, Lee Fisher, the Democratic Senate nominee who is trailing by a wide margin to former GOP Rep. Rob Portman.
Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern insists the national trends are being misread in their state.
“The air is fresher in the Midwest,” Redfern told POLITICO. “I understand it’s the first term midterm, blah blah blah. I’m bullish on Ohio. God bless everybody who disagrees, but most of those people who disagree don’t live in Ohio.”
He said that looking at critical Hamilton County (Cincinnati), Democrats were seeing requests for absentee ballots that rivaled the number sought there in 2008, and that internal polls for both Republicans and Democrats show the race much closer.
But he added, “I hope I'm not wrong.”
In nearby Michigan, many Democrats privately concede the governor’s office is gone after two terms of Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who’s got a dismal 60 percent disapproval rating in the latest Rasmussen Reports poll.
Democratic Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero has failed, except on a few occasions, to get past 30 percent in the polls against Rick Snyder, the wealthy businessman who is the GOP nominee.
Democrats are still hoping they can portray Snyder, who has spent big on well-known Washington consultants, as similar to Dick DeVos, the unsuccessful GOP hopeful four years ago, and distance Bernero from the anti-establishment anger.
But Ballenger said it’s unlikely given Michigan’s budget problems, which he said are so bad that a new batch of well-received state-sponsored tourism ads had to be yanked because the government ran out of funds to pay for them. He noted that voters have some appreciation for the auto industry bailout, but would like carmakers in Michigan—now dubbed ‘Government Motors’ by some residents—to start standing on their own.
Indiana is yet another state where hits to the manufacturing base and concern about debt have reverberated. Rep. Brad Ellsworth, the Democratic nominee for retiring Democratic Sen. Evan Bayh’s seat, is way back in the polls and extremely low on campaign funds, leaving him unable to fight back against GOP rival Dan Coats’s attacks.
In Wisconsin, where both Sen. Russ Feingold and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett are trailing their Republican competitors in the Senate and gubernatorial races, the landscape is only slightly more promising.
Feingold, a liberal icon, took two politically wise votes against TARP and the financial regulation package. But he backed the stimulus bill, and Johnson’s personal and anti-government narrative also dovetails neatly with the tea party movement.
Bolger said that Democrat talk of stopping the wave is happy talk.
“It’s a lot better than starting drinking at 9 am,” he said. “In 2006 and 2008, that's what a lot of Republicans did - happy talk. It is healthier for you [but it] doesn’t make it true.”