Campaigns

States in the Midwest with outsize roles in the 2020 elections

Rust Belt states helped decide the presidency, and have numerous competitive races for House, Senate

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst’s reelection is one of several that make Iowa at battleground state in 2020. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

If there’s an abiding lesson from 2016, it’s that national public opinion in the presidential race is not as important as the votes of individual states. Republican Donald Trump won by taking 304 electoral votes to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s 227, even as Clinton beat him by 2.9 million votes and 2.1 percentage points nationally.

In 2020, Democrats will be looking to recapture states Trump won that went for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. And many of those states will also be prime battlegrounds in the fight for control of the Senate, where Democrats need a net gain of four seats to take a majority (three if they win the White House and the vice president can break 50-50 ties), while Republicans need a net gain of 19 seats to retake the House.

A look at the most competitive states in the Midwest is below. These links will take you to the most competitive states in the East, the South and the West.

Iowa

As the state with the first presidential caucus, Iowa is getting a lot of attention as the crowded field of Democratic candidates vie for the nomination. But it will also be a state to watch after the February caucuses are over. Trump won Iowa by 9 points in 2016, but campaign operatives in both parties believe it could be competitive in 2020. Obama won the state in 2008 and 2012.

Iowa had mixed results in 2018, with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds winning a full term while Democrats flipped two GOP-held House seats. Democrats now control three of the four House seats in Iowa. Hawkeye State voters do have an independent, populist streak. The largest share of voters, 36 percent, are not registered with any party. Thirty-two percent of active voters are registered Republicans, while 31 percent are Democrats.

Some Democrats in Iowa are concerned their party could forget about the state after the caucuses, engaging instead in states with more populated urban areas and increasing minority populations that are more likely to support Democrats. They see that as a false choice and believe an economic message focused on “kitchen table” issues such as health care and education will resonate in rural areas in Iowa and urban areas in other states.

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Democrats also see a potential opening in rural areas amid an ongoing trade war that has been affecting Iowa’s top exports such as pork and soybeans. Republicans counter that farmers who support Trump are willing to suffer short-term economic pain if it leads to a broader trade deal with China. But it’s unclear how long farmers will be willing to stay behind Trump if the trade war continues to drag on.

Leaders for both parties in Iowa are expecting a hotly contested general election in the state, and not just at the presidential level.

Sen. Joni Ernst is running for a second term, and the popular Republican could be tough to beat. But Democrats will seek to tie her to Trump and the nation’s capital since she is a member of Republican Senate leadership.

Democrats in Washington and many in Iowa have coalesced around real estate executive Theresa Greenfield in the primary to take on Ernst. Greenfield, who stresses her rural roots on the campaign trail, faces a handful of opponents, including insurance broker and community activist Eddie Mauro, who recently loaned his campaign $1 million. Both Mauro and Greenfield outraised Ernst in the third fundraising quarter.

[A year out, here’s four scenarios for how 2020 could go]

Iowa will also be a critical state in the battle for control of the House. In 2016, Trump carried all three House seats now held by Democrats, making those top GOP targets in 2020. Republicans believe Trump will bring out his supporters who stayed home last fall, and higher GOP turnout will bolster their candidates further down the ballot.

Democrats Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne flipped the 1st and 3rd districts, respectively, in 2018. Finkenauer faces state Rep. Ashley Hinson, whom Republicans see as a top recruit, and Axne faces a likely rematch against former GOP Rep. David Young. Both Finkenauer and Axne have continued their strong fundraising, which could help them fend off the challenges.

In the 2nd District, Democratic incumbent Dave Loebsack is retiring. Democrats have lined up behind former state Sen. Rita Hart as their preferred candidate. Two Republicans so far are vying for the GOP nomination: state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who ran unsuccessfully against Loebsack in 2010 and 2014, and former Rep. Bobby Schilling, who previously represented a neighboring district in Illinois.

Democrats are targeting the deeply red 4th District in northwest Iowa, where controversial GOP Rep. Steve King almost lost in 2018 to Democrat J.D. Scholten, who is running again. House GOP leaders stripped King of his committee assignments this year after he made racist comments, and he is in danger of losing in a primary. Should someone other than King be the GOP nominee, the district would be much tougher for Democrats to flip.

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., arrives in the Capitol building for a vote on April 10, 2018. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Michigan is vital to the presidential race, and which voters turn out will also help determine if Democratic Sen. Gary Peters gets another term. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Michigan

Recent elections in Michigan tell two tales. On the one hand, the state got away from Democrats during the 2016 presidential election. But during last year’s midterms, Democrats made gains. As one of just two Trump states where Democratic senators are running for reelection in 2020, Michigan has one of the country’s most vulnerable Democratic senators and also should have plenty of down-ballot action.

Trump’s populist message resonated with Michigan voters. His victory there in 2016 was the first for a Republican since 1988. But he won by less than half a percentage point, and Democrats have identified Michigan as one of their core states to engage with in 2020, believing that Trump will contest the state again.

Michigan in 2018 was more encouraging for Democrats, with Democrat Gretchen Whitmer winning the governorship by nearly 10 points, Sen. Debbie Stabenow holding onto her seat, and Democrats flipping two districts Trump had won two years earlier.

Stabenow’s Republican opponent, Army veteran John James, is running again — this time against the state’s junior senator, Democrat Gary Peters. James outraised Peters during the third quarter of 2019, and he has the support of national GOP groups.

Stabenow didn’t have to work very hard to dispatch James, but she only won by 6 points — a smaller margin than expected. Peters isn’t as well known in the state as Stabenow, but his own military background could help mitigate James’ appeal. How competitive this race gets will likely depend on the presidential contest. Inside Elections rates it Likely Democratic.

CIA veteran and former acting assistant secretary of Defense Elissa Slotkin defeated GOP Rep. Mike Bishop by 4 points in the 8th District, which Trump had carried by nearly 7 points two years earlier. Slotkin was one of seven freshmen who came out in support of an impeachment inquiry in a Washington Post op-ed on Sept. 23, which helped lead to Speaker Nancy Pelosi opening a formal inquiry. Inside Elections rates her reelection Tilts Democratic.

Democrats also flipped the 11th District, which was an open seat in 2018. Trump won the district by about 4 points, but an increasingly suburban electorate made the seat more competitive. Democrat Haley Stevens, the chief of staff for Obama’s Auto Task Force, won the 11th by 7 points in 2018 and could face a tough reelection, but she doesn’t have much competition yet. Inside Elections rates her race Leans Democratic.

Other House races likely to be competitive are the 6th District, where Democrats are salivating over the possibility of former Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton retiring, though he hasn’t given any indication he’s leaving, so far. Either way, Democrats will likely try to target the seat, which Trump won by 8 points. Inside Elections rates the race Likely Republican.

The more unusual House race will be in the 3rd District, which Rep. Justin Amash has represented since 2011. Amash was the first Republican to come out in support of impeachment proceedings against Trump this summer, and soon afterward he resigned from the GOP. Now that he’s an independent, national Republicans — who never liked his libertarian voting streak — are promising to take him out. Already a handful of Republicans are running against him. Inside Elections rates the race Leans Republican.

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 11: Angie Craig, the Democratic Farmer Labor candidate for Minnesota's 2nd Congressional District, is interviewed at the DNC on October 11, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Angie Craig helped give Democrats the majority in the House by ousting a Republican in 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Minnesota

Trump barely lost the Gopher State in 2016, and his campaign is hoping to turn those fortunes around in 2020. But Democrats haven’t lost a presidential race in Minnesota since 1972, their longest winning streak in the country. With national Democrats vowing not to ignore the upper Midwest the way Clinton’s campaign did in 2016, the party is optimistic about holding on to the state in 2020.

There’s plenty of down-ballot action here, including a Senate race. But the more interesting races are in the House. During the 2018 midterms, Minnesota was representative of how the parties were realigning along a suburban-rural divide. Republicans lost two House seats outside the Twin Cities, but won two rural districts that had swung heavily to Trump in 2016. Minnesota’s 1st and 8th districts were two of the only three seats Republicans picked up across the nation last fall.

Heading into 2020, at least four House races here will be competitive, including many of the seats that flipped last year. The 1st District, which Trump won by 15 points in 2016, is shaping up to be a rematch between GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn and Iraq veteran Dan Feehan, the Democrat who came within half a point of winning last fall. Inside Elections rates the race Leans Republican.

Democrats are less hopeful about winning back the 8th District — the other Minnesota seat Republicans flipped last fall. This northeastern district, now represented by Republican Pete Stauber, is home to the Iron Range, the iron ore mining region where Trump’s tariffs on Chinese steel played well with white, blue collar workers who have felt burned by America’s past trade agreements. Inside Elections rates that race Likely Republican.

One of Republicans’ best pickup opportunities in the country is the heavily agricultural 7th District, which spans nearly the entire western half of the state, from the Canadian border south almost to Iowa. Rep. Collin C. Peterson has held this seat since 1991, and he’s likely the last Democratic-Farmer-Labor (as Democrats are known in Minnesota) politician who will be able to hold it. The district voted for Trump by 31 points in 2016, and barring any significant discontent from farmers over his tariffs, the president is likely to do well here again in 2020.

Peterson reclaimed the chairman’s gavel on the House Agriculture Committee when Democrats won control of the House. He hasn’t committed to running again in 2020, but as one of the most conservative Democrats in the caucus Peterson is his party’s best chance to retain the seat. Even if he does run, he will have a competitive race. In 2016 and 2018, he won by just 5 points and 4 points, respectively, despite running against an underfunded GOP challenger who had no national support. This cycle, national Republicans have a candidate they’re excited about in former Lt. Gov. Michelle Fischbach, who could give Peterson — who’s never been a strong fundraiser — a real race. Peterson still has a strong personal brand in the district, though, and this race will be a good test of how much top-of-the-ticket allegiances influence down-ballot voting. Inside Elections rates the race Leans Democratic.

Of the two districts that Democrats picked up in Minnesota in 2018, only one of them is rated as competitive by Inside Elections. Democratic Rep. Angie Craig defeated Republican Jason Lewis in a rematch of their 2016 race in the exurban and agrarian 2nd District that Trump carried by just 1 point. Craig does not yet have a strong GOP challenger, and Inside Elections rates her race Leans Democratic.

Democrats also flipped the neighboring 3rd District last fall, when gelato and vodka tycoon Dean Phillips unseated GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen. This is an affluent, suburban district where voters split their tickets in 2016, voting for Clinton by 9 points and Paulsen by 14 points. But with Trump in the White House last year, these voters were looking for a check on the president. Philips won by 11 points, and this race isn’t expected to be competitive as long as Trump is on the ballot. Inside Elections rates it Solid Democratic.

Democratic Sen. Tina Smith is also up for reelection next year after winning a special election last fall. (She’d been appointed to former Sen. Al Franken’s seat after he resigned.) She’s now running for a full term, and Lewis — who lost the 2nd District last fall — is the only big-name Republican who’s taking her on so far. Inside Elections rates the race Solid Democratic.

Wisconsin

The Badger State is certain to be one of the most hotly contested states in the presidential race. Wisconsin was part of the Democrats’ blue wall that crumbled in 2016, when Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984. He won Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes by less than a percentage point, or about 23,000 votes.

Trump resonated with voters in the industrial Midwest who were frustrated by the economy and felt left behind by both parties. He dominated in rural Wisconsin and among white voters without college degrees, according to an analysis by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Clinton famously never visited the state during her presidential campaign, and some Democrats stayed home.

Going into 2020, Democrats list Wisconsin as a top battleground. The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA ranks it among core states that will be critical to taking back the White House.

Wisconsin doesn’t collect information about the party affiliation of its 3.3 million voters, and the results of recent election cycles have varied. In presidential years, Democrats tend to do well, while Republicans have found success in recent midterm elections. But that wasn’t the case in 2018, when Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin won a second term by 11 percentage points and Democrat Tony Evers defeated GOP Gov. Scott Walker by 1 point.

Most of the action in Wisconsin in 2020 will be at the presidential level. The state does not have a Senate race, and potentially just one House race could be competitive. Democratic Rep. Ron Kind is one of 31 Democrats in districts Trump won in 2016. Trump carried the 3rd District by 4 points and the NRCC has listed Kind as one of its 55 targets. But so far Kind does not appear to have a viable GOP challenger. Inside Elections rates the 3rd District race Likely Democratic.

Wisconsin will get at least two new members of Congress. GOP Rep. Sean Duffy resigned in September after learning the child he and his wife were expecting would have health problems. Evers set the special primary election to fill Duffy’s seat for Feb. 18 and the general election for May 12.

The 5th District will also have a new representative since longtime GOP Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner is retiring. The eventual GOP nominee in both districts will likely be in a strong position in the general election. Trump won both the 5th and 7th districts by 20 points in 2016 and Inside Elections rates both as Solid Republican.

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