Blue Shifts

In the United States’ 2022 midterm elections, the Democratic Party narrowly averted the devastating rout predicted by most pundits. The GOP will have a slim majority in the House of Representatives while the Democrats will enjoy a 51 seat edge in the US Senate on account of Raphael Warnock’s reelection in Georgia to a full Senate term. As with every major election since 2016, the refrain of many Democrats throughout the campaign was that democracy itself was on the line. Months of handwringing over inflation stoked fears that MAGA candidates would repeat the Tea Party’s success during Obama’s tenure – a red wave credited with hastening the collapse of Democratic power across the South and Midwest, fuelling the emergence of Trumpism. Now, the avoidance of this humiliating outcome is being touted as tantamount to a blue victory.

In assessments of the results, the campaigns of two key Senate candidates, Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio and Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, have been frequently cited to illustrate the Democrats’ vulnerabilities and prospects in the industrial Midwest and interior Northeast. Ryan, who has served in the House of Representatives since 2003, had spent the majority of his political career in the ideological wilderness – yet his previously marginal policy concerns have since become mainstream. He ran on his record as a pro-labour protectionist and champion of declining manufacturing regions who had helped sustain his party’s links with industrial workers. Nonetheless, he was roundly defeated (by a margin of 264,675 votes) by Republican JD Vance, a conservative memoirist and venture capitalist who, with Peter Thiel’s financial backing, adopted a demagogic ‘postliberal’ persona. In Pennsylvania, however, Fetterman’s successful campaign deployed many of the same themes, thereby raising hopes for the Democrats that they may recapture certain deindustrialized regions that have gravitated toward Trump. A charismatic former small-town major with a giantesque stature and uniform of Carhartt sweatshirts, Fetterman prevailed over TV personality ‘Dr’ Mehmet Oz by a five-point margin (just over 260,000 votes) despite suffering a stroke in May.

Both Ryan and Fetterman pledged to revive high-wage manufacturing jobs while protecting abortion and LGBT rights from Republican advances. They also shared a hawkish line on China, an unambiguous defence of Israel, support for fracking, and opposition to activist calls to ‘defund the police’. Yet, in spite of their similar messaging, most progressives were antagonized by Ryan and energized by Fetterman. Mainstream liberals, too, were generally wary of the former and fond of the latter. What explains such divergent perceptions? And what do their respective campaigns mean for the future of the party?

Pessimism over the Democrats’ prospects in Ohio dampened Ryan’s campaign from the outset. Vance was always the poster candidate of his party’s right, thanks to his combination of evangelical conservatism and fervent MAGA populism (one of his campaign ads asked the viewer, ‘Are you a racist?’). Yet in a state that had voted for Trump by eight percentage points in both 2016 and 2020, Ryan’s supporters nevertheless hoped for an upset. Indeed, the early signals for Ryan were good: in the primary, he easily beat Morgan Harper, a young progressive lawyer who touted her support for Medicare For All and a Green New Deal, raising expectations that he had the backing of both the party establishment and progressives.

Ryan’s support for industrial policy made him an outlier in his party until Joe Biden declared a ‘paradigm shift’ at the start of his presidency. This abrupt departure from the precedent set by the Clinton and Obama administrations reinforced Ryan’s focus on trade and manufacturing workers in his campaign. Ohio is fourth among US states in manufacturing GDP on account of its production of plastics, appliances, autos and other value-added goods, yet its industrial base has been depleted by around 359,000 jobs over the past thirty years due to successive trade shocks – a decline Trump exploited with greater success in Ohio than any other competitive rustbelt state.

Although some of Ryan’s supporters assumed that the neo-Hamiltonian industrial strategy of the Biden White House would aid his chances against Vance, Ryan continued to distinguish himself from the Democratic establishment. He discouraged Biden from running for reelection in 2024 and provocatively declared that he ‘agreed with Trump on trade’ (while also asserting, ‘I don’t answer to any political party’). This rhetorical distancing act may have undermined his ability to secure crucial PAC funds in early October, when he came within a point of Vance’s lead in the polling average, donors clearly sensed a gulf between Ohio Democrats and the bicoastal base. Though Ryan outraised Vance in donations and laid claim to 350,000 small donors, he was left trailing in contributions from his own party’s coffers. While Vance received $28 million from a Republican SuperPAC controlled by Mitch McConnell, his opponent was left to fundraise from labour organizations, small PACs, and ordinary voters. The Democratic Senate Majority PAC praised his ‘remarkably strong campaign’ but reportedly refused to donate a cent.  

Ryan compounded the damage to his campaign by failing to galvanize a younger generation of labour activists or match the tenor of fellow Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown, who has won three elections to the Senate as a self-styled progressive populist. He could have created a favourable contrast with Vance by defending Ohio’s multiracial working-class (there are signs that Black and other minority turnout in Ohio is declining amid various Republican-devised voter suppression schemes) and emphasizing his social liberalism. But instead, Ryan simply doubled down on economic nationalism while giving it a Sinophobic edge. ‘China’s winning. Workers are losing’, he declared in an early campaign ad, claiming that securing US manufacturing dominance came down to a contest of ‘capitalism versus communism.’ It is hard to see what, if any, advantage may have been gained from reframing his pro-labor protectionism in Cold War terms of national security. In the end, the attempt to outflank Vance as a vociferous trade hawk merely conceded the terrain on which the campaign would be fought.

This strategy, along with Ryan’s persistent attacks on the ‘defund’ movement, also served to alienate the progressive base in urban constituencies. With neither the left nor the Democratic establishment firmly in his corner, Ryan struggled to cement a broad anti-Vance coalition. Winning 47% of the vote compared to Vance’s 53%, his performance conformed to general expectations: his support was concentrated in the reliably Democratic metropolitan areas of Cleveland, Columbus, Cincinnati, Akron and Toledo; he narrowly lost Mahoning County, part of his congressional district, where the small, distressed industrial city of Youngstown had one of the highest poverty rates in the country following the Great Recession. Having flipped only one county that Trump carried in the 2020 presidential election by the barest margin, Ryan did not meaningfully alter the state’s Democratic coalition nor its urban-rural divide. A redistricting process overseen by state Republicans following the 2020 census will implement new boundaries in 2023, intensifying gerrymanders that favour conservatives.

At a glance, the electoral map of Pennsylvania suggests that Fetterman was equally unable to reshape the Democratic constituency. The former factory towns and micropolitan locales that make up most of central Pennsylvania and its northern and southern borders voted decisively for Oz, while Fetterman dominated greater Philadelphia and Pittsburgh – the latter still a vital if diminished centre of heavy industry and advanced manufacturing, even as it has increasingly relied on growth in the healthcare and education sectors. Yet, from the New York Times to Jacobin, the near-unanimous assessment was that Fetterman improved prospects for progressives in the state, partly by breaking with the orthodoxies of Pennsylvania’s Democratic machine and spearheading a new electoral strategy. 

The leading concern for both Fetterman and Ryan was the unspoken need to regain the trust of white industrial workers and the working poor in regions outside of Democratic strongholds. Like Ryan, Fetterman emphasized the importance of domestic industry and unions to the economic revival of hard-bitten communities. Both backed the currently thwarted PRO Act and opposed ‘right-to-work’ laws that have spread in Republican-dominated states. And both adopted the economic argument that re-shoring supply chains would reduce inflation and consumer costs. The central plank of Fetterman’s platform, ‘Make More Stuff in America’, was yet another example of a Democrat telegraphing agreement with Trumpian trade policy, even as it was couched in terms meant to appeal to left-leaning audiences. On top of this, Fetterman echoed Ryan on China, attacking Oz for producing his campaign merchandise there and reiterating bullish arguments about American competitiveness. ‘I’ll always stand up to China and anyone who threatens the Union Way of Life’, he declared. ‘We know Oz won’t get tough on China.’

But whereas Ryan’s sabre-rattling cast him as a provincial and perhaps untrustworthy red state Democrat, Fetterman’s nationalistic rhetoric did not elicit the same criticism. On the contrary, a liberal-left coalition rallied behind the Pennsylvanian candidate in a rare show of unity, with an enthused core of national organizers – the same Senate Majority PAC that refused Ryan funneled $42 million into the election – who saw him as the key to winning back the target constituency of ‘non-college educated white working class’ voters.

What explained this variance? Political timing was a crucial factor. Back in the spring, Ryan had alienated key Democratic constituencies while Vance had simultaneously emerged as one of the strongest ultra-MAGA congressional candidates, making the race seem like a foregone conclusion. Fetterman, meanwhile, was boosted by the early mobilization around his insurgent primary campaign, in which he prevailed over the centrist Conor Lamb, and the subsequent recognition that the balance of power in the Senate would likely hinge on his performance. Since Pennsylvania, unlike Ohio, remains integral to the success of the Democratic presidential nominee in the Electoral College, the ramifications of an Oz victory were especially significant. In this context, the left seemed willing to tolerate or ignore Fetterman’s muscular expressions of ‘labour patriotism’ amid worrying signs that Oz was closing the polling gap during the final stretch of the campaign. Such high stakes made it easier for Fetterman to forge the coalition that eluded Ryan: progressives, stalwart Democrats, party elites and swing voters.

Of course, contingent elements also played a part in determining the outcomes in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Fetterman, aided by a savvy communications team attuned to the state’s challenging political terrain, defied speculation that the stroke would undermine his credibility and managed to sustain his momentum throughout the summer. In fact, his recovery fed into the underdog narrative which his campaign had begun crafting ever since the outset of the primary contest with Lamb. Whereas Fetterman was perceived as an insurgent outsider turned national politician, Ryan was viewed as an emblem of his party’s declining fortunes in the region. In both cases, the Democrats’ fragile position in these key manufacturing states set the tone of their campaigns. But while Fetterman translated this struggle-against-adversity into an electoral asset, Ryan was haunted by the apparent inevitability of defeat. This was partly due to the relative strength of their opponents, Vance being a far better political operator than the hapless Oz.

Fetterman’s success, however, does little to change the Democrats’ pattern of episodic victories and long-term structural weakness in the rustbelt. While Biden has committed to backstopping domestic industries, particularly the emerging renewables sector and advanced chip production, new plants are not opening at a war economy’s clip. Though there are promising signs of fixed investment in Ohio – encouraged, perhaps, by this past summer’s CHIPS Act as well as the American Rescue Plan and bipartisan infrastructure bill of 2021 – this will not be enough to reverse decades of working-class dealignment and blue-collar animus toward the Democratic establishment. Future candidates may look to Fetterman as a model of pragmatic progressivism; but, as Ryan’s case shows, this is far from a straightforward election-winning formula. Indeed, with influential Democratic strategists and pundits now insisting that the metropolitan Sunbelt offers more opportunities to grow the Democratic base, Fetterman’s nostalgic affinity for industrial labour may turn out to be unrepresentative of the party’s overall direction. In either case, the Democrats will struggle to rebuild their regional power beyond the Northeast and West coast in the absence of a national programme capable of mobilizing progressive cadres as well as disaffected former supporters.  

Read on: Tom Mertes, ‘Hell with the Lid Off’, NLR 132.