Editor’s Note: Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat, is the junior US Senator from the state of Wisconsin. The views expressed here are hers. Read more opinion on CNN.
The Democratic presidential candidates convene this week to debate in Detroit, a city in a region that the party lost just three years ago: the Midwest.
There is no doubt that the path to the White House next year will run through Midwestern states, and that Democrats need to perform better here if they are going to have any chance of winning back the presidency.
The Midwest is by no means out of reach for Democrats. Last November, in Wisconsin, I overcame millions of dollars in unprecedented outside spending and other obstacles to win re-election while still being a proud progressive. And Republican incumbent Governor Scott Walker was defeated.
But the political culture in the Midwest is also unique, so I wanted to share three key strategies I have learned from living and running for office in Wisconsin that can help Democratic presidential candidates to compete and win in the region next year.
1. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats – it’s about taking on special interests
While the stock market may be doing well and the jobs report looks good, many people in the Midwest are feeling the pinch of rising costs of living and seeing their jobs move elsewhere. I hear it all the time from my constituents. Meanwhile, they see one group doing well in Washington: the powerful special interests.
When I ask Midwestern voters about party affiliation, they tell me they don’t care about the “D” or “R” next to anyone’s name. They want to know if you’re going to stand up for them against Wall Street, large multinational corporations and drug companies whose numerous lobbyists roam the halls of the Capitol.
With those drug companies continuing to jack up the prices of prescription drugs on struggling families, voters especially want leaders who are unafraid to stand up to Big Pharma and willing to work with anyone, regardless of their political party, in order to lower prescription drug costs.
And just like other parts of the country, you can bet that health care will be a top priority for Midwestern voters when they go to the polls next year. I’ve spoken to countless families who tell me how guaranteed coverage for people with pre-existing conditions, included in the Affordable Care Act, helped save their child’s life or avoid medical bankruptcy.
And yet we still see cynical efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act and gut these important protections.
The bottom line here is that voters in the Midwest are looking for gutsy leaders who are in their corner, not beholden to the special interests.
2. Respect and promote Midwestern values
One thing to know about the Midwest is that we are very proud of our tradition of making things. In Wisconsin, we make everything from paper, engines, tools, manhole covers and ships to beer, brats and cheese.
It’s why my campaign emphasized my Buy American reforms to rebuild our country’s water infrastructure with American-made iron and steel, something that President Trump supports. Despite this bipartisan support, we face an army of lobbyists representing foreign steel interests who work to prevent Congress from investing in American companies and American workers.
At the same time, hardworking people in our region are facing unique economic hardships. Farmers and their families across the Midwest, particularly in Wisconsin, are getting hit hard by the Trump administration’s reckless trade wars and tariffs, and Republicans have been largely silent. Wisconsin alone has lost over 1,600 dairy farms since President Trump came into office.
There is no question that farmers and workers need allies in Washington like never before, and the Democratic presidential candidates must show that they respect hard work and American workers by stepping up for the Midwest.
3. Don’t leave any part of the Midwest behind
Finally, it’s critical to remember that the Midwest is a diverse region. In Wisconsin, you win by showing up; not just in Madison and Milwaukee, but across the state. You need to spend time listening to the health care workers in Wausau, the farmers outside of La Crosse and Eau Claire and the paper mill workers and steelworkers in Green Bay and the Fox Valley, which is arguably one of the most important swing areas in the country.
That raises an important final point. Right now, many are debating whether Democrats should focus on turning out base voters or persuading independent voters in next year’s election. That’s a false choice.
In my race last year, we worked hard to do both by focusing our efforts in urban, suburban and rural areas. My campaign opened an office in Milwaukee earlier than ever before to engage and turn out voters there who often feel like politicians don’t care about them until the last few days of the campaign when they need their vote. But I also spent a considerable amount of time on the campaign trail holding rallies and tours in rural western Wisconsin and suburban Green Bay. The strategy worked, and it’s one of the reasons why voters re-elected me by an historic 11-point margin on election night.
There is no question that the Midwest will be in play next year and that Democrats need to recapture this region. But by sticking to the strategies outlined above, I’m confident that the Democratic presidential nominee will win back these states – and perhaps flip a few more in the process.