The Industrial Midwest was always going to be a battleground in November.
The region is now becoming a new frontline for Americans’ lives and livelihoods as coronavirus hotspots proliferate and jobless rates spiral. The confluence of a ferocious pandemic, deepening economic turmoil and rising political tensions is more pronounced here than anywhere else in the country. And it sets the stage for a combustible campaign season that is testing President Donald Trump’s efforts to move on and insulate himself from the crisis—and Joe Biden’s ability to blame him for the fallout.
On Thursday, Trump ventured to a swing county in Pennsylvania, stopping off at a Lehigh Valley medical equipment distributor where he used an official speech to mock “Sleepy Joe,” chastise governors for moving too slowly to reopen and assail the news media as a “disaster” while touting American workers.
“I say it’s the ‘transition to greatness.’ The transition is the third quarter,” Trump said. “The fourth quarter is going to do very well. And next year is going to be through the roof.”
The numbers and interviews, however, paint a much grimmer picture. The virus has moved from urban centers like Detroit and Chicago into suburbs and more sparsely populated counties, a trend seen from western Pennsylvania to Minnesota and Iowa. In Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania—Democrats’ so-called “Blue Wall”—19 counties report coronavirus cases doubling in less than 14 days. Trump won all but one of those counties, by an average of 65 percent.
Democrats are working to ensure that doesn’t happen again by casting his stewardship over the virus and economy as a betrayal.
“There are so many things Trump has done to attack the labor movement to undermine and betray workers,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told POLITICO. “And since the coronavirus, he’s done nothing to help the essential workers.”
The region has been devastated by job losses amid pandemic-induced economic shutdowns, in some cases far outpacing the national average in terms of the proportion of their workforces that have applied for unemployment benefits since mid-March.
In Michigan, more than 3 in 10 workers have sought aid in the past two months, according to a POLITICO analysis of Labor Department data. Layoffs and furloughs are also piling up in Pennsylvania, where more than one-fourth of the workforce — or 29.6 percent — has filed an unemployment claim.
Minnesota and Ohio, too, are both seeing more than one in five workers applying for unemployment benefits, though they both fall slightly below the national average of 22 percent.
The double shock of the virus and financial meltdown has further sharpened partisan divides in the states. Wisconsin and Michigan were home to the highest percentage of people saying their state governments were overreacting to the crisis, according to a survey conducted by researchers at Harvard, Northeastern and Rutgers Universities last month.
Overall, however, the public has remained solidly behind governors who are urging caution, giving them high marks for their performances while their assessments of Trump’s handling of the outbreak sag.
And private surveys conducted by both parties and described to POLITICO show concerns about the virus and health care running ahead of worries over the economy.
In interviews, public health officials across the states said that while the infection data is trending in the right direction in many areas, there are concerns about stubborn hot spots and a broader rise in cases and deaths as cities and states begin to reopen businesses.
Personal protective equipment also remains a problem in many jurisdictions, health officials say, and there are fears of how rural areas with rising caseloads and fewer hospitals will manage future outbreaks, particularly in Michigan, where health officials are starting to see spikes in rural counties.
The economic fallout is expected to be even more long-lasting, casting a shadow over the presidential election. Biden has maintained polling leads over Trump in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, while public polling of Ohio has been scarce.
“The way I’ve come to terms with what happened in 2016 in these working-class areas is that the Trump vote was a vote of despair and desperation. And that despair and desperation remain in 2020,” said Paul Clark, director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University. “The big question is, will people in those areas react in the same way that they reacted in 2016 … or have they had enough?”
The emerging economic downturn has also further undermined the president’s promises of reviving American manufacturing, particularly the steel industry.
“I’m doing my best to keep morale up, but this is tough,” said Don Furko, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1557 in Clairton, Pennsylvania, outside of Pittsburgh. “This is basically the toughest thing that’s happened to the steel industry since they started closing down steel mills in the 70s and 80s.”
In some industries — construction and building trades, for example — workers are used to long breaks between jobs, and many have filed for unemployment in the past. But the abrupt nature of the country’s shutdown threw many out of work with little warning, leaving them without time to prepare.
“You usually have some sort of notice when you’re headed towards unemployment — you can save up some money, you can try to line up work ahead of time,” said Ryan Bennett, who’s in charge of roughly 800 active and 200 retired plumbers and pipefitters as part of UA Local 174 in Coopersville, Michigan, outside of Grand Rapids. “But this thing just kind of happened out of nowhere.”
Bennett said roughly half of his workforce had jobs grind to a halt when the shutdown began. The uncertainty around what, if any, added benefits the federal government would provide, paired with slowdowns in filing for unemployment aid at the state agency, only added to the pain. “It’s been very difficult here in Michigan,” he said.
One of the only major industrial Midwest states seeing a lower-than-average claims rate is Wisconsin, according to the analysis, which compared non-seasonally adjusted claims filed to the number of employees on states’ non-farm payrolls in February. But the 17.6 percent of workers filing claims there still illustrates a stark increase for a state where the unemployment rate had for years hovered around 3.5 percent or lower.
Democrats maintain that the region’s long standing financial difficulties were already being exacerbated by the Trump administration in the three years before the coronavirus struck. They point to tariffs and renewable fuel-standard waivers that impacted corn farmers. Manufacturing, too, has taken big hits. Last year, Pennsylvania saw a drop of 5,700 factory positions, while Michigan was down 5,300 and Wisconsin lost 4,100 jobs.
In her conversations with constituents, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) says they now recognize Trump’s role in a string of earlier economic setbacks, which have been compounded by the virus.
“They are very clear about what those missteps are and, frankly, they are angry,” Baldwin said.
Experts warn the data of recent job losses is likely still an undercount, given the widespread issues states have had in processing unemployment claims and the fact that self-employed and other newly eligible workers have faced delays in being able to successfully claim aid.
Trump aides and allies are primarily focused on changing the subject from the pandemic and ensuing economic devastation — highlighting Biden’s vulnerabilities in the region rather than defending the administration’s response. In interviews, they critiqued Biden’s embrace of environmental policies like the Green New Deal and past trade pacts like NAFTA. A Trump campaign aide suggested Biden himself is susceptible on health care, arguing his “public option” proposal would crowd out private insurance and drive rural hospitals out of business.
Republicans on the ground describe an enthusiasm gap that could work to their advantage.
“My gut tells me that Democrats aren’t engaged on this issue in the same way that a center-right Trump voter has been,” said Dennis Lennox, a Republican strategist in Michigan, of the unrest and mounting demonstrations over stay-at-home orders. “It’s an absolute possibility that this could flare up again. But it also could be like SARS and we never hear about it again.”
Conservative opponents of the lockdowns in the region have grown increasingly aggressive. Wisconsin’s Republican-led legislature notched a major victory over Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration Wednesday when the state Supreme Court struck down the governor’s stay-at-home order. Wisconsin was already close to meeting criteria Evers’ office established for its phased reopening.
Evers warned in a cable news appearance shortly after the ruling that it “puts our state into chaos.”
“Now we have no plan and no protections for the people of Wisconsin,” Evers said on CNN. “When you have more people in a small space—I don’t care if it’s bars, restaurants or your home—you’re going to be able to spread the virus.”
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, alerted protesters this week that their recurring demonstrations could backfire on participants and lead to delays in getting businesses running again. On Wednesday, Whitmer pointed to the flare-ups—and talk of increased outdoor activity by residents—to urge people to stick to the guidelines.
“It would be a travesty if the sacrifice we’ve made was in vain,” she told reporters.
Pennsylvania Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf last month vetoed a GOP-backed bill to reopen more businesses. He’s issued stern warnings in recent days that county leaders who defy current state orders will lose out on funding.
“Even though we are seeing a positive trend in our Covid-19 cases, we know that we’re far from done with this,” said Benjamin Weston, director of medical services for the Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management, who added that the county will continue dealing with the coronavirus and continued outbreaks and surges until a vaccine is, hopefully, available sometime next year.
“This is really the beginning of Covid,” he said, “and we have a long road ahead.”
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