By WILL WEISSERT and SARA BURNETT
CHICAGO (AP) — Donald Trump won the White House in 2016 by breaking up the famed electoral “blue wall,” snatching the Midwestern battleground states of Michigan and Wisconsin, along with Pennsylvania, from Democrats. He lost the White House four years later when those same states flipped to Joe Biden.
Both parties are already zeroing in on the Midwest ahead of next year’s presidential election, each choosing to hold their national conventions in the region. Republicans will have their event in July 2024 in Milwaukee, the largest city in the swing state of Wisconsin. Democrats announced Tuesday that they would hold theirs the following month in Chicago, just 90 miles away, in solidly blue Illinois.
In picking Chicago over other finalists New York and Atlanta, the Democratic National Committee said, the party was “returning to the Midwest, a critical Democratic stronghold” and called Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota part of the “blue wall” crucial to Biden’s 2020 victory, as well as his party’s success in last fall’s midterm elections.
That overlooked Trump’s Midwestern success four years prior, but the DNC also noted that Chicago embodied the “formidable coalition” of voters that will be vital to Biden in his expected 2024 reelection campaign.
“We’re seeing the importance of those states and the recognition by the Democratic Party that we must win them,” said Democratic Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker, who was a leading advocate for Chicago’s bid.
The Midwest wasn’t the only part of the country that boosted Biden in 2020. He flipped two Sun Belt states, Arizona and Georgia, and captured Pennsylvania, which is often considered part of the “blue wall” but is not located in the Midwest. Still, the selection by both parties of Midwestern convention sites shows the region’s enduring political importance — even though it’s no guarantee of support.
“The Midwest is the place to be,” said Cam Savage, a Republican strategist who has worked with top GOP elected officials around the region. “You’re looking at Pennsylvania to Wisconsin — and more or less everything in between — as key battleground areas in any national election these days.”
It was the second election cycle in a row that Democrats looked to the Midwest for their convention. In 2020, the party selected Milwaukee to host but ended up holding it virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic.
This year, it was up to Biden to pick a site, and he said Chicago would be a “showcase” for his administration’s overseeing post-pandemic economic growth and falling unemployment.
The nation’s third-largest city, Chicago is also heavily pro-union, demonstrating Biden’s commitment to organized labor, which played a key role in helping him clinch the Democratic primary and presidency in 2020.
“Atlanta could have been strategic as well. But it doesn’t allow the party to really show off all of the principles that it is supposedly standing for, and they can do that in Chicago,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants. She signed a letter to the DNC from top labor groups and union workers urging them to choose Chicago.
Pritzker stressed his state’s strong defense of abortion rights as an important factor. Other Democrats worried about Georgia’s Republican-controlled Legislature and the state’s relaxed gun laws. That’s despite Chicago being plagued by gun violence, potentially exposing Democrats to GOP attacks about rising crime rates in cities around the country.
Lisa Hernandez, the Illinois Democratic Party chair, said that the bid went beyond Chicago and her state, calling the convention site the “gateway to the Midwest’s blue bastion.” Her party noted that Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota voted Democratic in every presidential election but 2016 over the last 30 years, and that each state reelected its Democratic governor last fall.
Organizers of Chicago’s bid also argued to White House officials from the start that it represented the Midwest as a whole. That hasn’t always been a positive for Democrats, though.
Few places better illustrate the Midwest’s ever-shifting electoral loyalties than Wisconsin, where both Democratic Gov. Tony Evers and Republican Sen. Ron Johnson won reelection in last fall’s midterm elections.
Democrats, meanwhile, are still celebrating Judge Janet Protasiewicz’s victory last week in the Wisconsin Supreme Court race, which gave liberal justices control of the court for the first time in 15 years. They’ll likely have the opportunity to counter an 1849 statewide ban on abortion triggered by the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision, as well as congressional district maps that had favored Republicans.
That same night, however, Republican Dan Knodl won an open seat in the Wisconsin state Senate, giving the GOP a supermajority in the chamber.
“Wisconsin is always going to be 50/50, right down the line,” said Democratic strategist Pete Giangreco, who worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns and is advising 2024 U.S. Senate candidates in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan. “But you’ve got to have the blue wall first, or the Georgias and the Arizonas don’t matter.”
Giangreco, who also was part of Protasiewicz’s victorious campaign, noted that progressive Brandon Johnson’s win over a moderate Democratic rival in Chicago’s recent mayor’s race may have boosted the city’s convention bid.
Johnson, a former Chicago Teachers Union organizer, was endorsed by progressive leaders including Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. The 47-year-old, who is Black, won by building a multiracial coalition that included young people and labor unions, and he brings a new sense of optimism to the city — a combination of factors that Democrats need to recreate in 2024, Giangreco said.
“It’s very clear Brandon brought younger people into activism, into the electorate,” Giangreco said. “It certainly didn’t hurt our chances at all that you have a mayor of the city who’s dynamic and young and part of a movement that is an important part of our party.”