America has become deeply polarized not just along racial, gender and class lines but also along geography (driven in many cases by a divide between rural and urban counties). But, it is the less thought of divide that might benefit Republicans the most this cycle. The political economy.
Electorally, Democrats have become increasingly concentrated on the Pacific Coast and along the Eastern Seaboard. While they have made gains in diversifying Sunbelt states this has not translated to down-ballot success (let alone Presidential success in all cases).
Republicans have found increased success, especially down-ballot, in the Midwest. While Obama found success twice in these states he did so during an election when the stock market crashed under an incumbent Republican and a reelection campaign against a former hedge fund manager. By contrast, Republicans now dominate many of the states Obama carried. Short of Iowa, Republicans control almost every legislature besides the financial basket case that is known as Illinois (and voters even elected a GOP Governor last cycle).
What has allowed GOP success is not of their own making. Rather, it is a reshuffling of the economic deck. Increasingly Democratic states on the West and East Coasts (and Illinois) are reliant on economies that produce few actual goods and trade in far more services. These states have large numbers of white-collar professionals and low wage service jobs but they lack what many GOP leanings states have. A manufacturing and industrial base that produces actual, tangible goods. These “Heartland” states produce agricultural and industrial goods. They have been hit especially hard by globalization and the changing US economy. Local Republicans have played up how the government should protect these vital industries while Democrats seem to have yet to catch on.
It was not so long ago that Democrats had a lock on these states. Starting in the late 1920’s, Democrats forged a strong alliance with these voters through the New Deal. This alliance lasted until about the 50’s. As Republicans made inroads with these voters they also maintained the allegiance of the professional class.
But the 1980’s saw a political shuffling of sorts. Ronald Reagan’s victory spread the seeds for GOP success among these increasingly rural, downscale states. While the East Coast and Northwest became increasingly liberal states in the Midwest (while still Democratic at the Presidential level) saw their preferences continue to shift down-ballot.
The change has not been uniform. For example, many Southern states went red at the federal level far well before they elected local Republicans. Holdout states like West Virginia (heavily reliant on coal) and North Carolina only recently shifted. Long-time purple states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have trended blue Presidentially but gotten redder at the local level.
The national Democratic platform is not friendly to these states. Indeed, Democrat’s intense focus on appealing to white-collar professionals and service workers has led to policies anathema to many Heartland states political economies. The party’s emphasis on clean energy despite the costs has repelled the most active voters. The party’s intense focus on social issues that appeal to the young has made older, often unemployed voters feel like their interests are being ignored.
This has led to Democrats enjoying success at the Presidential level but increasingly suffering losses in midterms and local elections. For Republicans, there open embrace of these voters opens up the door to short term gains. At some point the party will need to appeal to white-collar professionals and low income service workers but for now the party can play up the issues that appeal to these state’s political economies.
As the election winds to close it is clear the GOP’s Senate majority will hinge on these Heartland states. Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Missouri, to name just three, are states where the political economy is heavily reliant on manufacturing and industry. In Florida, New Hampshire and North Carolina the party must appeal to voters who reside in different political economies.
If the GOP majority in Congress survives it will be because the downscale voters, hurt most by globalization and the recession, who feel left behind, will show up in force and indicate that their political economy is a deciding factor in their votes.