Donors helped Democrats to modest 2018 victories in the upper midwest

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Senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota (far right), Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin (2nd from right) and Debbie Stabenow (3rd from right) all enjoyed a great fundraising cycle and won their reelections comfortably. (Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

Many on the left were disappointed in the results of the so-called “blue wave” at a national level, but you might not know it by looking at the states between the Dakotas and Lake Erie. The Democrats’ wins in the region come thanks in part to generous donors eager to shift the region’s political landscape.

The upper Midwest was key in Trump’s 2016 presidential victory, but just two years later it pushed back against Republicans. Several Republican-leaning districts turned blue and governor’s mansions in Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois fell into Democratic control.

Minnesota already had a Democratic governor, Mark Dayton. Dayton served two terms. He was succeeded by Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) who beat Jeff Johnson with almost 54 percent of the vote. While in the House, Walz established himself as a reliable fundraiser, raking in more than his opponent in every race since 2008.

Democratic Minnesota Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith both kept their seats. Thanks to Al Franken’s departure from the chamber, the state voted in two Senatorial races in the same election for the first time in 40 years.

Klobuchar trounced her opponent in terms of fundraising, pulling in more than 47 times as much as he did. 55 percent of Klobuchar’s contributions came from outside Minnesota. After the election, Politico said Klobuchar “deserves a fresh look as a presidential candidate.”

Smith also outraised her opponent, though not nearly as dramatically as Klobuchar did hers. Labor and agribusiness PACs kicked in $176,500 and $96,500 respectively to help Smith arrive at $8.1 million.

Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) and Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) lost seats in Minnesota’s 2nd and 3rd Districts. Lewis, formerly a right-wing radio host, courted controversy after misogynistic comments he made on his show surfaced. The clips had Lewis expressing disbelief that women could no longer be called “sluts” and singling out Madonna as an example, saying she “had a series of lovers” and “dress(ed) up in these sorts of prostitute-like outfits.”

Lewis lost his seat in Minnesota’s 2nd District to Angie Craig, the first lesbian mother elected to the House of Representatives, despite outraising her by over $2 million.

Hubbard Broadcasting, a Minnesota-based media company, gave Lewis’s campaign $18,200 while also covering the race through a Hubbard owned ABC station. Hubbard Broadcasting also gave Erik Paulsen $24,300 and Karin Housley, Tina Smith’s Republican opponent, $44,675.

The Grassroots-Legalize Cannabis party earned six percent of the vote in the Minnesota attorney general’s race and will now be recognized as a full-fledged political party throughout the state.

In Illinois, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners said the turnout rates they tracked were higher than anything they had seen in over three decades.

In the highly anticipated 14th Congressional District race, Lauren Underwood defeated Randy Hultgren in a tight contest. The reliably conservative 14th District is in Northeast Illinois, between Chicago and the Wisconsin border. Underwood is a nurse from Naperville, one of Chicago’s west-suburbs. She will be the first woman and the first African American to represent the eighty-plus percent white district.

“I do think people like to have checks and balances,” Hultgren said after the results came in. “We kind of knew the House was where the battle was going to be at.”

Both Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a regional figurehead, and President Trump endorsed Hultgren.

Underwood, meanwhile, was endorsed by Joe Biden and occasional-Chicagoan Barack Obama. The candidate was also buoyed by tens-of-thousands in contributions from prestigious universities, including Stanford, the University of California, the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. Over 70 percent of contributions to Underwood came from outside of Illinois. Only about 16 percent of Hultgren’s did.

Northwest of Chicago, not far from the 14th, Sean Casten ousted Rep. Peter Roskam (R-Ill.) from his seat in the 6th Congressional District. Casten is a climate-minded scientist. Roskam is a lawyer who dug in his heels against the Affordable Care Act. In 2016, the sixth voted for Hillary Clinton, handing her a seven-point win. In 2012, they favored Romney by eight points. The New York Times said this race was “emblematic of a type of district that could decide control of the House.”

Roskam actually outraised Casten by over $1 million, but Casten had help from the likes of Alphabet Inc. and Bain Capital.

Mitt Romney founded Bain Capital in the early 1980s, and while it has a mixed history of giving to both Republicans and Democrats, it now gives to Democrats almost exclusively. The big exception is Romney himself, to whom they contributed $83,700. That is over $20,000 more than they gave to anyone else.

In Illinois’ 3rd District, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) beat Arthur Jones, a former leader of the American Nazi Party. Jones only received 26.5 percent of the vote, but 56,350 Illinoisans still came to the polls to support a man with ties to the Nationalist Front, a white supremacist group. Roughly a third of the 3rd District is Hispanic or Latino according to

Further north, Wisconsinites broke midterm-records, coming out in higher numbers than ever before with well over half of the voting age population casting ballots.

Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), long a centerpiece of political life for Wisconsinites, lost the top-job in Madison to Tony Evers, a three-term state superintendent, and Wisconsin’s liberal senator, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), successfully protected her seat from challenger Leah Vukmir. Baldwin had over $29 million to work with, outraising Vukmir more than five-fold.

Wisconsin Democrats’ most visible loss came from what may have been their most ambitious campaign. Randy Bryce, a union ironworker and military veteran, ran for Paul Ryan’s seat in Wisconsin’s 1st District on a platform in-line with those of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In spite of a spate of endorsements and an influx of cash, he was beaten by Bryan Steil, a lawyer for Charter NEX Films. Steil was endorsed heartily by Paul Ryan. The Congressional Leadership Fund spent $2.6 million on anti-Bryce ads, which stirred up controversy by invoking Bryce’s past arrests for offenses ranging from drunk driving to missed child support payments.

More than 90 percent of contributions to Bryce came from outside the state. He received money from the Ironworkers Union and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail & Transportation Union, but also from Alphabet Inc. and AT&T.

Democrats managed to flip some U.S. House seats in Michigan. Elissa Slotkin, formerly of the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency, beat incumbent Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Mich.) in Michigan’s 8th District. Thanks in part to her work for Arlington and Langley, Slotkin accrued unlikely endorsements from national security-focused Republicans. Slotkin pledged to accept no corporate PAC money from her campaign and has been outspoken on campaign finance issues.

“Our campaign finance system is broken — and voters know it in their bones,” said Slotkin. “We have seen how the vast sums of money in our elections have given corporations undue influence over Congress, putting the interests of powerful insiders and corporations ahead of constituents.”

Slotkin still outraised her opponent by over three million, raking in over $100,000 from Universities and $49,958 from EMILY’s List. She also received hefty contributions from Alphabet Inc. and Bain Capital.

Bishop received $24,600 from Amway, which was co-founded by Richard DeVos, patriarch of the politically-connected DeVos family. (DeVos passed away in Sept. 2018.) Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was his daughter-in-law.

Haley Stevens also beat Lisa Epstein for an open seat in the 11th District, near Detroit. Stevens worked on the auto task force convened by President Obama in 2009, and Epstein helped run Trump’s 2016 Michigan campaign. Stevens outraised Epstein by well over $1 million. Like Slotkin, she had help from Alphabet Inc. and Bain Capital, which gave her $15,714 and $13,500 respectively.

With Gretchen Whitmer’s decisive victory, Michigan joined Wisconsin and Illinois in welcoming Democratic governors. Whitmer’s opponent’s platform, which found its foundation in slashing taxes, fell flat. He ended up with around 44 percent of the vote. Whitmer said that as Governor she would “fix the damn roads” and fight the expansion of the charter school system.

Charter schools are a pet-issue of Betsy DeVos, who hails from Holland, Michigan. Holland is in Michigan’s 2nd Congressional District, a conservative stronghold where incumbent Republican Bill Huizenga decisively beat Democratic and libertarian candidates with over 55 percent of the vote.

Though the Democrats fared well in the upper midwest, 2018 was by no means a sweep. Republicans persevered in several pivotal midwestern races. Maybe the most notable example is Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). King is known for his nativist sentiments and has earned praise from David Duke, once the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Though his opponent raised twice as much money and much of the state turned blue, King won over fifty percent of the vote and clung to his seat in Iowa’s fourth district.

Indiana also broke from its northern neighbors to stay red, not giving up any House seats to Democrats and dumping Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) for Mike Braun, despite Donnelly embracing President Trump and showing support for the border wall. Republicans now hold zero statewide offices in Indiana.

“We are conservatives being led by President Trump,” said Mike Braun after results poured in from around the state. “We’ve got to prove why our way of thinking, why what works in the state of Indiana, is gonna work for the rest of America.”

Still, many red districts flipped elsewhere in the midwest. (And in states that stretch the definition of Midwestern. There is some ambiguity as to what counts.) In Oklahoma’s 5th District, Kendra Horn turned a reliably conservative district blue with the help of a Bloomberg-backed super PAC. In Kansas’s 3rd, Sharice Davids blasted through a series of glass ceilings to become the first LGBT Kansan, the first Native American Woman (sort of — it’s a tie), and the first MMA fighter to win a congressional election. (Davids is yet another new congressperson who can count both Bain Capital and Alphabet Inc. as two of her top contributors.)

It would be going too far to say the Democrats can declare a full-on victory in the upper midwest, but after a 2016 cycle in which Wisconsin and Michigan both looked like Trump-country (Wisconsin voted for a Republican president for the first time since Ronald Reagan and Michigan did so for the first time since George H.W. Bush.) the region is visibly competitive again.

If Democrats can keep raising money and winning elections as they did in much of the upper midwest in 2018, there is a chance they could finally get their blue wave in 2020, or at least prolong a purple tide.

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