AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
We've been hearing from voters in Wisconsin, a state that just barely went to Donald Trump but was one of many states in the so-called Rust Belt that did. And this got us thinking about how that might fit into other big, historic voter shifts, like when Harry Truman drew black voters to the Democratic Party in the late '40s or when Lyndon Johnson saw Southern whites bolt to the Republican Party in the late '60s. We asked Milwaukee Sentinel political writer Craig Gilbert about this in the context of these counties in the Rust Belt that flipped from blue to red in 2016.
CRAIG GILBERT: In the case of Wisconsin and in the case of Minnesota, Iowa, when you look at this unusual cluster of communities that have sort of defied this Republican trend in recent decades, it's fair to ask, you know, will they continue to defy that trend? Or will they go the way of rural, white voters elsewhere?
CORNISH: Basically, are Trump Democrats lost to the party? Have Republicans won them for life? Wisconsin's 3rd District flipped red to blue in 2016, so we went there, to the city of La Crosse, and sat down with Brandy Holter. Holter is a 32-year-old mom to four kids. She's carved out some quiet time for us to talk. Her sister's watching the baby while the other kids are at school. Holter's husband works a late shift at a plastic manufacturer, so he's asleep upstairs. We start with her telling me that she's from a family of Democrats, that her sister said she was crazy for voting for Donald Trump, especially after voting for Barack Obama twice. And I asked her to walk me through that thinking.
BRANDY HOLTER: The first time, I was like, oh, going to make a change. This is going to be great. This is a historical vote, and I'm just going to vote for Obama and see how things go. The second time around was like, OK, well, you know, he really didn't do too great the first time, but I'm going to chalk that up to people are opposing everything he wanted to put out. And we'll see if he can make a difference this time around. And then he didn't make a difference the second time around.
CORNISH: By 2016, Holter was thinking of how frustrated she was hearing about American factory jobs going overseas, how it seemed that everyone was talking about how great the economy was even when she wasn't feeling it. She voted Republican and never looked back. And despite Trump's first few weeks in the White House marked by lawsuits against his immigration orders and a major resignation from his head of national security, she's happy with her decision.
HOLTER: I was pretty excited. Like, he's actually doing what he said he was going to do - the pipelines and trying to secure our borders. And he's actually doing stuff, and he's only been in office for not even a month. That's a big deal. That's a big step for a president.
CORNISH: What else?
HOLTER: The executive orders he signed for the Obamacare...
CORNISH: That's the one that allows people to file tax returns without saying whether they paid for health care.
HOLTER: ...Where you don't have to pay that money in if you don't have the insurance for the whole year 'cause I know people who were personally affected by that - getting penalized for not having insurance when they couldn't afford the insurance. That's a big deal to a lot of people. Like, people are happy about that, so good for him.
CORNISH: He's done these things that you've loved. What has he done that worries you?
HOLTER: I don't know if DeVos was the best person to put in charge of the Education.
CORNISH: So this is Betsy DeVos, the Cabinet secretary.
HOLTER: Yeah. Like, I'm kind of worried about how she's going to handle the public schooling system. She doesn't really have the background for it.
CORNISH: If the president doesn't hold up his end of the bargain, so to speak, and you feel like he hasn't performed, can Democrats capture your vote again?
CORNISH: You're done.
HOLTER: Yeah. I'm kind of done voting for Democrats. It's - they want to hand out too much free stuff, and nobody wants to work anymore. And our system is being taken advantage of because of it.
CORNISH: That's Wisconsin voter Brandy Holter. But elections experts say voter shifts aren't always permanent. Those Reagan Democrats - well, Bill Clinton jockeyed Ross Perot for them in 1992.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BILL CLINTON: It's not over till it's over, and we need your help all the way till the end.
CORNISH: Al Gore made Wisconsin's 3rd District one of his first stops in 2000.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
AL GORE: Thank you, La Crosse. Thank you, Wisconsin.
CORNISH: And so did Barack Obama in 2008.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BARACK OBAMA: Now, La Crosse, I know many Americans are wondering what happens next.
RON KIND: Anyone - to be successful in electoral politics, first of all, you've got to show up, and you've got to listen.
CORNISH: Democratic Congressman Ron Kind represents Wisconsin's 3rd District today. He was one of several people to point out to us that Hillary Clinton did not visit Wisconsin after the primaries. Instead, she sent surrogates, like her running mate, Tim Kaine.
KIND: Put me in the camp as the Democratic Party needs to do a better job, especially reaching out in rural America and being there, listening. I think a lot of the ideas and proposals that we have to offer can help, but without communicating that and without working with people on the ground, they may be unaware of it. And let's face it. Most of our electoral success in recent years has been East Coast, West Coast. I don't want our national leadership at, you know, the Democratic Party to think that the heartland is just flyover country.
CORNISH: If you believe that this was an economically driven election, do you think that the Democratic Party put too much emphasis on issues that affect populations in urban areas, like immigrants, like people of color?
KIND: Well, you've heard that criticism that we've become very much an identity politic party and not speaking to the needs of the communities where we're underperforming. And I think that's something - there's some reality to that. But I think we also need to do a better job of explaining that when we're talking about economic opportunities, when we're talking about growth, we want to expand the pie. This isn't a zero-sum game.
CORNISH: So what does that mean? Do you actually think the quality of life is worse in your district than, say, in Milwaukee?
KIND: No, I think when people are looking to find a good-paying job that will support not just themselves but a family and thinking even further out as far as what prospects their children have in this area, there's a source of concern. We've had intense globalization over the last few decades, a much more interdependent global economy. A lot of people are asking themselves, how do I fit in? Am I going to have the tools, the skills, the education in which to compete in this global economy? And I don't think either party has really set up an agenda that speaks to those raw concerns that people have.
CORNISH: Do you think that voters in your district and voters in similar districts are really swing voters, right? Are they Democrats that just happened to choose a Republican? Or are they actually, more or less at this point, when you look at the party platforms, really Republicans?
KIND: I think we're looking at performance-based measurements. And, listen; it's all on Donald Trump. It's on the Republicans now in Congress. They have complete control of our state government in Wisconsin, too. So the idea of blocking and just blaming everything on President Obama or Obamacare or what have you - that ain't going to fly. They're going to want to see some results being produced. And you know, how Republicans are going to approach the reform of the health care system without it adversely affecting their lives back home is going to be I think a key task.
CORNISH: So all is not lost to you. You don't see this being a long-term shift the way that white voters in the South moved to the Republican Party or in the Great Plains moved to the Republican Party. Are we looking at a moment where in the Rust Belt, white voters are moving to the Republican Party?
KIND: No, I think it's too early to tell. I think there's still a lot going on here. And again, it's going to depend to a great extent on the performance of the Republican Party now. And if they fumble, if they pull up short as far as the expectations and what they promised that they were going to deliver, I can see the swinging back pretty quickly, including in 2018.
CORNISH: In the meantime, Ron Kind himself is now a target. Two weeks ago, the National Republican Congressional Committee placed his district on the list of 36 House seats they hope to flip in 2018.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOSLEY SONG, "JUST LIKE YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.