David Betras could see trouble coming. The Democratic Party chairman in Youngstown, Ohio, wrote to Hillary Clinton’s advisers in May warning she needed to put a jobs-focused message at the heart of her White House campaign or else watch blue-collar voters in states like Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania slip away to Republican Donald Trump.
Clinton never responded to Betras, and in the final weeks of her campaign she spent much of her time portraying Trump as unfit, rather than highlighting her economic plans. On Nov. 8, Election Day, Betras’ warning proved prescient – she lost Ohio and Pennsylvania and, on Wednesday, Michigan, too, based on the latest unofficial ballot counts.
The surprising upset by Trump, a wealthy businessman who made his promises to renegotiate trade deals and restore jobs a centerpiece of his agenda, was fueled in part by support from white working-class voters in those vital Rust Belt states and elsewhere.
After the disastrous election losses at the state and national level, Betras and other Rust Belt Democrats who have found success in blue-collar districts have some advice for their anxious party: the key to recapturing those voters is not a broad change in policy, but a new commitment to listen and act on their economic concerns, and to show Democrats care.
“You can have all the great ideas on Earth, but if they don’t think you are on their side they aren’t going to listen to you,” said U.S. Representative Dan Kildee, of Flint, Michigan, one of a small cadre of Democrats in Congress who have learned how to win in working-class districts by emphasizing economic solutions.