If Democrats win in the state of Ohio on Election Day, they will have union workers to thank.
Canvassers have spoken to thousands of union workers who backed Trump in 2016 and are now planning to vote for Democrats in Tuesday’s midterm elections, according to the Ohio AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions that represents about 600,000 union workers in the state.
About half of union households that voted for Trump said they are planning to vote for Democrats in two key statewide races, the AFL-CIO says. That includes 51.4 percent of Trump voters who plan to cast a ballot for progressive Democrat Richard Cordray for governor and 49.9 percent of Trump voters who favor incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown — the only Democrat currently holding statewide office. The estimates are based on canvassers’ conversations with 15,283 union households that identified as Trump supporters in 2018.
While these households make up a small share of Ohio’s electorate, they point to a larger political shift happening within working-class communities in the Midwest: union workers, who were crucial to Trump’s 2016 victory in Ohio and other Rust Belt states are realigning themselves with populist Democrats who want to raise wages and expand health care.
Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, said too many workers in Ohio are struggling to support their families on their incomes.
“Things aren’t changing for the better like they thought would happen,” said Burga, whose organization has endorsed Brown and Cordray. “Real wages are not keeping pace with inflation. We haven’t replaced the well-paying manufacturing jobs that we lost.”
According to recent polls, Trump is much less popular in Ohio than he once was. The president’s approval rating has been sinking in the state since he took office, and now nearly half of Ohio voters view the president unfavorably.
Democrats are poised for huge wins across other parts of the Midwest too, says Vox’s Dylan Scott — a resurgence that seemed unimaginable just two years ago. And the Ohio Senate and governor’s races are particularly crucial this election cycle.
The Senate race in Ohio is crucial for Democrats
If Democrats expect to take control of the Senate next year, Brown needs to keep his seat. It’s one of 10 Senate seats Democrats are defending in states that Trump won in 2016. Right now, his chances look good. The UVA Crystal Ball, a prominent elections forecaster, rates the outcome of the race “Likely Democrat,” and so does the Cook Political Report.
Brown, who was first elected to the Senate in 2006, is well-liked in Ohio for his populist approach to politics. He supports a $15 minimum wage and helped block a rule the Trump administration proposed that would have allowed employers to pocket workers’ tips.
Brown’s voting record shows that he consistently sides with workers over business interests, which helps explain his popularity among union workers. It’s not surprising that workers who voted for Trump plan to vote for Brown, said Justin Barasky, the senator’s campaign manager. That’s because Ohio workers don’t vote strictly along party lines, he said.
“Union members and workers of all stripes in Ohio go to the polls and vote for the candidate who they think is going to be on their side,” Barasky said. “They don’t ask themselves ‘is this person liberal or conservative?’”
Right now, Brown seems to have an edge. The senator is facing a challenge from Jim Renacci, a Trump loyalist in Congress who represents a House district in northeastern Ohio. Renacci has consistently voted in line with the president’s agenda and has repeatedly defended the president’s racist and xenophobic comments.
But Renacci’s unapologetic support for Trump and his agenda hasn’t landed so well in Ohio. The Congress member’s vote to fully repeal Obamacare, instead of replacing it with something better, has tarnished his image among working-class voters in the state, Burga said.
“[Obamacare] is wildly popular here in Ohio,” he said. “People like Medicaid expansion, they like that you can’t get kicked off of your insurance.”
But the fact that many Trump supporters are planning to vote for Democrats on Tuesday is more about the blue-collar appeal of candidates like Brown and Cordray, Burga said, than it is about rejecting Trump. And many workers in Ohio really don’t like the Republican candidate for governor, Mike DeWine.
The Ohio governor’s race is super competitive
The race for governor of Ohio is one of the tightest in the country.
Ohio took a strong red turn in 2016, but Cordray, the progressive Democrat running for governor, is proving competitive against his Republican opponent. Cordray currently holds a slight lead on average in the polls, and the Cook Political Report says the race is a toss-up.
Cordray, the former director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau under President Obama, is more progressive than your average Ohio politician. He also has decades of experience in Ohio government, first as state treasurer and later as attorney general in 2008. He then served as the first director of the CFPB, the agency created in the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, which implemented consumer safeguards in the banking industry following the subprime mortgage crisis that triggered the Great Recession.
Cordray’s Republican challenger, DeWine, also has decades of experience in politics. He is the state’s attorney general and a former US senator. (He narrowly defeated Cordray in his bid for attorney general in 2010; now they are squaring off again for the governor’s seat.)
Ohio voters know exactly what to expect from each candidate, explains Vox’s Dylan Scott:
DeWine and Cordray have a combined 63 years in the public eye, and they’ve each focused on the same strengths they have for decades now in all three debates they appeared in: health care and consumer protection for Cordray, crime and business development for DeWine. The opioid crisis has hit the Buckeye State especially hard too, in one of the rare Republican Medicaid expansion states.
When it comes to workers’ issues, however, labor groups do not consider DeWine an ally. Union members are particularly furious about a lawsuit he filed as attorney general in 2016.
That year, DeWine joined 21 other states in suing the US Department of Labor to block the agency from enacting a rule that would have made 4 million more American workers eligible for overtime pay. In Ohio, the rule would have granted overtime pay to roughly 300,000 more workers in the state, many of whom are union members.
Instead, the overtime rule was suspended as a result of the legal challenge. Labor unions in the state slammed the move, and it may have turned many working-class Republicans against DeWine. So it’s not surprising that so many union workers who support Trump plan to cast their ballots for Cordray instead.
To sum up, it looks like many blue-collar workers in Ohio will realign themselves with Democrats this election cycle — but if they do, it’s because of policy issues, not politics.