The Democrats recover some of their strength in the Midwest

MIDWESTERNERS grew used to presidential visits during the mid-term election campaigns. In the final two weeks of the campaign Donald Trump roused voters at rallies in Wisconsin, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Missouri (twice), Indiana (twice) and Ohio (twice). For the Democrats, Barack Obama paid regular visits, kicking off his post-White House return to public life in September with a feisty speech in downstate Illinois, before adding visits to Wisconsin, Indiana and, once again, Illinois.

They came for a pair of reasons. First, the region hosted several competitive races for House, Senate and Governor. In this off-year election, more than usual, national politics especially stirred up voters. The other reason, for those already looking ahead to the presidential race in 2020, is that the Midwest will again be influential as a battleground. Narrow victories for Mr Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania gave him with a path to the presidency in 2016. Mid-term results in these states are being studied closely for evidence that he might prove successful again.

What does the evidence suggest? Each party has something to cheer. Look at Senate results and the picture was undoubtedly brighter for Republicans. A Wisconsin Democrat, Tammy Baldwin, might have kept her potentially vulnerable seat with ease, as did senators in Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota. But Republicans gained in Indiana, Missouri and North Dakota, dashing Democrats’ hopes that Midwestern soybean farmers, for example, might turn against the Republicans. A worsening trade spat with China has disrupted agricultural markets and two more years of economic pain could produce a different outcome, but Democrats can’t bet on it.

In the House, Democrats had the better time. Of the 27 congressional seats the Democrats gained nationally, eleven were in the Midwest (depending how you define the region): three in Pennsylvania, two in each of Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, plus one in Kansas. Crucially, these were mostly seats gained in suburbs, not truly urban areas. The party still struggles to win outright rural support. It is finding ways to  appeal in semi-rural areas, which is a start, but the urban-rural split remains as stark as ever.

Democrats also picked up significantly in state legislature and governors’ races, buoyed by heavy spending. The Republicans are pleased they held on in Iowa and South Dakota despite rumours of vulnerability there. The most dramatic Democratic win was by Laura Kelly (pictured), who will be governor of usually solid-red Kansas. (She was helped along by an opponent whose ultra-Trumpism and over hostility to migrants perhaps makes this result a one-off).

Tony Evers, a mild-mannered former teacher also succeeded, by the thinnest of whiskers, in stopping Scott Walker from getting a third term as Republican governor in Wisconsin. Gretchen Whitmer picked up an open Governor seat in Michigan; while a billionaire, J.B. Pritzker, toppled a weak, moderate Republican in Illinois. Honours were shared in two other races—Democrats held on in Pennsylvania, while Republicans kept their man in Ohio. In Colorado, if the definition of the Midwest is stretched farther west, the Democrats produced the first gay man to be elected as governor.

In all, the Democrats probably feel happier with the outcome. Given the current cheerful economic climate (farming aside) in much of the region, Republican incumbents might have expected to get more credit from voters. Unemployment is generally low; wage growth is beginning to climb; and in Wisconsin, for example, Mr Walker had won a big investment in a factory by Foxconn, a Taiwanese manufacturer (though only by promising enormous subsidies that look all but impossible to justify). Instead many voters appeared to be moved by other issues, such as a wish for access to expanded Medicaid or for higher spending on schools or roads, or they reacted badly to Mr Trump’s vitriol against immigrants. In Illinois Mr Rauner looked hopelessly isolated. Some voters in suburbs, such as in Naperville, a formerly Republican area an hour west of Chicago, said they most wanted to send a message that they dislike Mr Trump.

Despite that, there is little evidence for the Democrats to conclude that the Midwest will be theirs in 2020. A high turnout appeared to help Democrats in particular. But they won different races across the regions because of a variety of candidates and different strategies that will be hard to repeat two years from now.

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