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Is Trump DOA in the Rust Belt?

A Republican "autopsy" of 2018 losses in Wisconsin shows a party struggling to reconcile racist policies with midwestern politics.

Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

If you’re the betting sort, maybe bet on the 2020 election being decided in the Rust Belt. It was there, in 2016, when the Democrats’ fabled “blue wall”—Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania—crumbled, handing an Electoral College victory to Donald Trump. In the 2018 midterms, however, Democrats began to rebuild that wall, electing three governors, three senators, and a host of state legislators. “Let our country—our nation’s citizens, our Democratic Party, my fellow elected officials all over the country—let them all cast their eyes toward the heartland, to the industrial Midwest,” Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown said after the election (even though Democrats had little to celebrate in his state).

Six months later, Donald Trump and the party he commands are increasingly worried about the president’s fate in this trio of essential states. “Behind the scenes, they’ve rushed to the aid of languishing state Republican Party machines,” reported Politico’s Alex Isenstadt on Monday. “Scrutinizing the map for opportunities to fire up his base,” the article noted that the Trump campaign “recently completed a 17-state polling project that concluded the president trails Joe Biden in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.”  

In Wisconsin, Republicans just released an autopsy of their disastrous performance in the midterms. Under Republican governor Scott Walker, who lost his bid for a third term last November, the state turned into what Dan Kaufman, the author of The Fall of Wisconsin, described as a “laboratory for corporate interests and conservative activists.” But you won’t find this sort of reckoning in the autopsy. Instead, the document focuses primarily on reforms to the party’s infrastructure. In a way, it is a document emblematic of the GOP in the Trump era, at once a self-excoriation—in which the party digs into its structural weaknesses and its struggles to reach women and minority voters—and a dodge, with none of the party’s actual ideas examined with any rigor.

The majority of the report is focused on the kinds of problems you hear from organizers of every persuasion: It’s hard to keep people motivated and connected; communication between campaigns, state parties, national parties, and other organizations is a mess; everyone acknowledges that data is important, but no one agrees on how best to use it. Nevertheless, the most damning criticism is aimed at the state party, which the report argues “drifted from its roots as a grassroots organization and became a top-down bureaucracy, disconnected from local activists, recklessly reliant on outside consultants and took for granted money that was raised to keep the party functioning properly.” (Alas, the Wisconsin GOP does not appear to have hired a writing consultant.) 

That’s a particularly interesting assessment given the role that outside consultants and money has played in Wisconsin’s transformation into a Republican laboratory. “There is tremendous frustration with the influence of out-of-state organizations and out-of-state money,” Lisa Graves, the executive director of the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, told Kaufman in a 2012 New York Times article about the state. The Kochs, in particular, have taken interest in the state’s Republican Party—particularly its assault on organized labor—and have poured millions of dollars into the state in recent years, aiding the conservative revolution. Unfortunately, after going for broke to re-elect Scott Walker in 2018, the party is now broke—one maxed-out credit card cost the party $600 a month in interest payments alone. 

But the most interesting part of the report is what it doesn’t say. The Wisconsin GOP autopsy recalls another post-mortem, the one the Republican Party conducted after its 2012 defeat. That document, released in 2013, blasted the party for its failure to make inroads with young people and minorities, particularly Hispanics:

Public perception of the Party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country. When someone rolls their eyes at us, they are not likely to open their ears to us… If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies…. Other minority communities, including Asian and Pacific Islander Americans, also view the Party as unwelcoming.

There is nothing so direct, or so cutting, in the Wisconsin GOP’s assessment. That seems intentional. The 2013 autopsy has been used as a cudgel by critics of the party’s turn toward Trump, racism, and xenophobia. Republican elites, having done the math, endorsed immigration reform; Donald Trump won the presidency, and became the leader of the party, demanding to build a wall.

In Wisconsin, Republicans are “midwestern nice” about their failures. They struggle to connect with black voters, but are “one of the very few state parties that continue to fund full time organizers focused in the Hispanic and African American communities” and set up “meetings and roundtables with leaders in those communities.” (Later in the report, they reveal they have two full-time organizers working “in minority communities.”) They struggle to connect with young voters and must do more to support College Republicans, “who find themselves outnumbered and too often unsupported,” but hopefully note that “College campuses have an obligation to allow diverse points of view to be heard, and that includes the center right perspective.” While “Republicans are losing with women,” it’s also true that “Democrats are losing with men.” On gender, at least, embarrassment creeps into the report: “On our side, one cannot look at the number of women hired as Party staff or included in high level campaign messaging and strategy sessions and make a straight-faced argument that we’ve done enough to include a group that represents approximately 52% of the vote.” 

The overall theme, however, is that all of these problems can be solved by better organization, no shift in ideology or policy positions required. It’s a point hammered home by the strange, snowflake-like conclusion: the ultimate goal is to “help make it safe to outwardly support the President, and use our recognized superiority in data to implement a strategy that re-elects our President and benefits our local and legislative candidates.”

It is, of course, the president’s policies and personality, his history with women, his administration’s barbaric approach to immigration and health care that helped lose the election in 2018. But there is clear concern about acknowledging that at all, let alone in the stark terms of the 2013 autopsy. Those policies have been baked into the Republican Party for decades. But Trump’s explicit embrace of many of them, particularly on immigration, has made criticizing the use of xenophobia as a political tool nearly impossible. 

Recent polling suggests a further dilemma for Republicans. Last week’s Quinnipiac survey of Pennsylvania voters (as reported in The New York Times) “found that 77 percent of voters described their own financial situation as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’—but that Mr. Trump would lose [the state] by 11 percentage points” against Joe Biden. Faced with this challenge, it is not hard to imagine Trump and Republicans again elevating divisive social issues in an attempt to bring out base voters—a strategy that will likely further damage the GOP’s standing with minority voters and women. He faces similar challenges in the key states of Wisconsin and Michigan. 

Wisconsin might be Trump’s best hope, although the state has fewer electoral votes than Michigan (sixteen) and Pennsylvania (twenty). Wisconsin’s unemployment rate has been hovering around three percent for the last year, a record. But the roaring economy alone will likely not be enough, given that many expect high turnout in 2020. “Simple math: Trump has to find more,” Matt Batzel, the executive director of the conservative group American Majority told The New York Times earlier this month. “Unless there’s another Hillary Clinton who doesn’t campaign here, which doesn’t seem likely to happen.”

Not that Trump would be content to run on his economic stewardship anyway. The absurdity of the Wisconsin GOP’s autopsy is its strident assurance that the party—which it repeatedly insists is “center-right”—doesn’t need to alter its political approach in order to win. The party that is increasingly rejected by women and Latinx voters sees no need to shift course on abortion or immigration. Instead, they just need to hire better consultants.