After the 2016 Surprise, Democrats Have Solidified Their ‘Blue Wall’
Democrats faced a rude awakening in the 2016 election when Donald Trump’s surprise upset victory was propelled, in part, by his major inroads into the Left’s “Blue Wall.” This shock evidently awoke the Democrat’s political machine to lock down the voting base in the big three: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Having lost Michigan (0.3%), Pennsylvania (0.7%), and Wisconsin (0.7%) by the narrowest of margins, Democrats must have figured out what all went wrong on November 8, 2016 — and have since corrected course. Ever since the 2016 upset victories, Republicans have either had poor showings in every statewide election, or Democrats have been overperforming in these states — and it hasn’t even been close.
The 2018 Blue Wave brought in major victories for Democrats in all three states. The Dems held onto three U.S. Senate Seats with Debbie Stabenow (6.5%), Bob Casey (13%), and Tammy Baldwin (10%), who all cruised to re-election. All toss-up U.S. House seats also broke for the Democrats, flipping two seats in Michigan and four in Pennsylvania (although some impact was due to redrawn congressional maps). They also held on to all three of their seats in Wisconsin.
The governors’ races also led to several Democratic flips. Gretchen Whitmer flipped the Michigan seat by 10%, Tony Evers unseated incumbent Scott Walker to win Wisconsin, and Governor Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania sailed handily to re-election by a 17-point spread.
Then came the COVID election of 2020, which saw continued Democratic dominance in these three states. President Trump went on to lose all three of the states he had flipped just four years prior, losing them by nearly as close of margins as he had won them: Michigan (3%), Pennsylvania (1.2%) and Wisconsin (0.6%). Michigan was the only state to hold a Senate election that year, and Democrat incumbent Gary Peters edged out challenger John James by 1.2%.
That same year, all toss-ups in the U.S. House went towards Democrats with Republicans failing to flip a single seat in Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin after pouring significant resources into doing so.
In this year’s midterm election, key toss-up races were once again at the top of the ticket in all three states. While control of the U.S. Senate is still undetermined at the time of this writing, these states will have played a key role in the outcome. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) was able to hang on in a narrow victory, becoming the sole Republican to win statewide office in any of the Blue Wall states since 2016. Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) retired, leaving an open contest in which Dr. Mehmet Oz failed to win over enough of the Republican base and suburban voters to beat John Fetterman, who suffered a stroke before the May primary and was unable to campaign at full capacity.
Yet again, governors’ races ended overwhelmingly in favor of Democrats. Whitmer (D) handily won re-election (10%) in Michigan despite being known for over-aggressive COVID lockdown policies and running a scorched-earth campaign focused solely on late-term abortion. Her coattails even helped to flip both the State House and Senate. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) similarly won re-election (3.2%), although by a much smaller margin. Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D), the heir apparent to Governor Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania, won the governor’s race by 14%.
Does it feel like déjà vu, yet? Republicans once again failed to flip any of the competitive U.S. House seats except for Derrick Van Orden’s upset victory in Wisconsin’s 3rd Congressional District, which was largely due to redistricting and a retiring incumbent.
Diving into the competitive races in these three states paints a clear picture of how Democrats have been able to adapt to what was a surprising defeat in 2016. Since then, every single U.S. Senate, U.S. House, and gubernatorial race in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin has gone handily for Democrats — with the exception of the small victories by Johnson and van Orden in Wisconsin. The strong showing by Democrats has even affected down ballot statewide races, with Democrats winning nearly every attorney general, secretary of state, and state treasurer race.
Much can be said for why Democrats have had such strong showings in these midwestern battleground states since 2016 — but the key driver is the change from election day for voting to election season in these states. Democrats showed an ability to adapt while Republicans stayed put on the sidelines. COVID-era election laws appear to be here to stay, with Michigan now adopting a state constitutional amendment which virtually removes voter ID and creates state-mandated voting drop boxes. Pennsylvania also solidified its universal mail-in ballot system, which now takes weeks instead of days to count.
The fact of the matter is that Republicans just lost — for the third cycle in a row — any chance at making substantive changes to the election systems in any of these states. Rather than turn to doom and gloom, it would behoove Republican campaign officials to embrace each of these state election systems for what they are. No longer can campaign rallies and strong same-day get-out-the-vote efforts alone work in these states. President Trump held a massive campaign rally in Latrobe, Pa. just days before the election, but it didn’t help either statewide Republican get over the finish line.
Instead, Republicans would benefit from investing in early voting promotion — and, yes, even working within the new mail-in voting systems to ensure that their voters are aware of mail-in voting, so they can use it to their advantage. This playbook worked for the California GOP after the state moved to a mail-in ballot harvesting system for the 2018 election, leading to several key upset victories in U.S. House races and leaving the state party flat footed. In the 2020 cycle, and seemingly so again this year, the state party embraced the mail-in ballot harvesting system and used it to their advantage, gaining back nearly all toss-up races.
Despite national media markets and campaign financing, elections are very local by nature, with each state having its own election system and unique dynamics. Rather than ignore or fight against these differences across the states, the key to victory may actually be a tailor-made state by state strategy to ensure that the party’s base and swing voters actually cast ballots. The old system of elections worked for Republicans in 2016, but dramatic shifts in election laws and an ability to adapt allowed Democrats to turn what were once battleground states into a formidable Blue Wall once again. Breaking through that Blue Wall is still possible — but conservatives will need a much different approach come 2024.
Connor Semelsberger is Director of Federal Affairs - Life and Human Dignity at Family Research Council.