Jan 18, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Dem candidates seek votes in "factory towns"

Vote margin changes in industrial heartland states, by county type
Note: 10 industrial heartland states, including Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania; Data: American Family Voices and 21st Century Democrats; Chart: Jared Whalen/Axios

A set of Senate Democratic candidates in swing states is actively courting voters in regions that suffered the steepest manufacturing losses.

Why it matters: The renewed effort by Democrats to reach out to white, working-class voters in so-called factory towns before this year's primaries reflects a key focal point for a party looking to overcome its losses in rural areas.

  • That could be as much as 40% of the electorate in the industrial heartland of the Midwest, according to a report from the progressive group 21st Century Democrats.
  • It looked at 853 counties in 10 states where Democrats lost over 2.6 million votes between 2012 and 2020.

In Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has gone so far as using campaign infrastructure — his email list — to ask would-be donors to his Senate campaign to also contribute to funds for workers going on strike.

  • "To be blunt, when we do that, we lose money on these emails, but it's a strategy of using our campaign apparatus to help workers. We're running an unabashedly working-class campaign," Fetterman spokesman Joe Calvello told Axios.

In Wisconsin, "the voters we lost most were in small-town counties anchored by a paper mill or machine tool die company," Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson told Axios.

  • Nelson, who's been endorsed by the Wisconsin Sunrise Movement in his bid for the U.S. Senate, previously teamed up with union leaders and management to keep open an Outagamie County paper mill threatened with closure.
  • He's now highlighting that effort in his campaign for the Democratic nomination.

In Ohio, a state where Donald Trump prevailed in both 2016 and 2020, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) has been consistent in his efforts to resuscitate Ohio’s manufacturing base.

  • "The success of America isn’t housed in the halls of Congress," the 10-term congressman said in the video announcing his U.S. Senate campaign. "It lies in the calloused hands and the unrelenting grit of America’s workers. Those who dug the deepest sent our nation soaring."

Driving the news: Last week, Nelson and Fetterman endorsed a bill from Sen. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) to ban lawmakers, spouses and dependent children from stock trading.

Ryan is a co-sponsor of the House version spearheaded by Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.).

  • The message is clear: We do not represent the Washington elite.

What they're saying: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), during an interview with the Guardian, called on Democrats to make “a major course correction."

  • He urged them to stand up to powerful corporate interests and focus on America’s working class.

But, but, but: Many of these same voters have historically fallen into a category of what election experts call "low-propensity voters" — less likely to vote and even more unlikely to vote in a midterm election.

Go deeper