WASHINGTON, D.C. – To hear Democrats like U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown tell it, General Motors’ 2019 closure of its its Lordstown plant showed that President Donald Trump had betrayed Ohio’s workers. Brown said Trump sold them a “phony populism” during his 2016 presidential campaign and urged them not to sell their homes because jobs would return to the Mahoning Valley under his presidency.
Voters in Mahoning County, the population hub closest to the Lordstown plant, apparently disagreed with Brown.
On Tuesday, Trump became the first Republican since 1972 to win its presidential vote. Unofficial results showed Trump with 50.3% of the Mahoning County vote compared with 48.3% for former Vice President Joe Biden. In smaller Trumbull County, where the Lordstown plant is located, Trump won 54.56% of the vote. Trump also carried Trumbull County during his first campaign. Trump won Ohio by around eight percentage points in both 2016 and 2018.
The day after the election, Brown said he was disappointed that voters in the Mahoning Valley sided with Trump, who he described as “the worst president in our lifetimes” because he will leave office with fewer jobs than when he took office.
“The President’s a really good salesman,” said Brown. “He’s found really fertile ears in places like the Mahoning Valley, but really all over the state and many parts of the country. But, in the end, watch what he does, don’t just listen to what he says. He failed the country. To be an incumbent president in the middle of a pandemic and lose decisively in the popular vote and ultimately maybe in the Electoral College tells you about his weak leadership and his incompetence.”
Trump campaign spokesmen did not respond to requests for comment on his showing in Mahoning County, but Ohio Republican Party Chair Jane Timken attributed victory there to superior Republican organization, ground game and get out the vote efforts. During a post-election panel discussion, Timken observed that Republicans won every single countywide race in several longtime Democratic bastions around the state, including Mahoning County. Although some parts of the state that were formerly Democratic are turning Republican, Timken predicted Ohio will continue to be a battleground, noting that Brown won re-election 2018.
“I think we’re successful in Ohio because I think Republican policies have done well for Ohio,” Timken said at the discussion hosted by ImpactOhio.
University of Akron political scientist David Cohen says demographics in the Mahoning Valley have shifted steadily since 2012, with Trump coming close to carrying it in 2016 after President Barack Obama carried it by a wide margin in 2012. He said white working class voters without a college degree who used to vote Democratic are rapidly becoming Republicans and becoming “a core part of the Trump base.” He said Trump’s promises to improve the area’s manufacturing base are important to them, and they like his brash personality.
Youngstown State University political scientist William Binning likens Trump’s popularity in the region to that of Jim Traficant, a populist Democratic former congressman who represented the region until he was expelled from the institution after a criminal bribery conviction in 2002.
Traficant, who died after a 2014 tractor accident, frequently delivered speeches on the House of Representatives floor that aired his grievances with some of Trump’s favorite targets: Mexico, China and the media. His performances appealed to the concerns of blue collar workers in the Mahoning Valley as its jobs began to disappear, and non-college educated workers who used to be able to get jobs at local steel mills and factories could “barely get by working at Walmart and Best Buy,” says Binning.
He believes Traficant “laid the groundwork for Trump” in the Mahoning Valley, noting that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan seemed tailor made for people who’d like to go back to the days when their parents and grandparents could easily get good jobs. Even if the jobs Trump discussed didn’t materialize, Binning says residents of the area like that Trump expresses their grievances.
He says a memorandum that Trump issued shortly before the election that denounced the treatment of salaried Delphi retirees whose pensions were slashed when the company went bankrupt and ordered several of his department heads to review the matter appealed to the region’s Delphi retirees. The day before his first presidential debate in Cleveland, Trump invited the CEO of a new electric vehicle company that moved into GM’s old Lordstown plant to the White House, where he highlighted its new pickup and pronounced the Youngstown area to be “absolutely booming and really great.”
Binning, who chaired Mahoning County’s Republican party during the Reagan administration, agrees that the Mahoning Valley has politically realigned and is no longer Democratic, noting Republican gains during the past three elections. He says the Republican Party has done a better job building up excitement and recruiting good candidates, and many of its residents agree with the party’s conservativism on matters like like guns, abortion and LGBTQ issues.
“This part of Ohio has changed,” says Binning. “It has become a Republican part of Ohio. It used to be a big Democrat part of Ohio.”
Binning notes that Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of the Niles area, a former Traficant aide who won his ex-boss’ congressional seat, was re-elected Tuesday by his smallest-ever margin, defeating GOP former state legislator Christina Hagan by 7.5 percentage points. Hagan got more votes than Ryan in Trumbull County, where Ryan resides, as well as Stark County. Ryan was able to prevail with majorities in the district’s Mahoning, Summit and Portage County sections.
Binning said those results don’t bode well for Ryan’s future re-election prospects.
“We took an 18-year Democrat incumbent down to a single digit win in a decades-long Democrat stronghold district with half the financing and against every odd,” Hagan said on Twitter after the election.
Ryan outperformed Biden by several percentage points in all the counties in his district, which means some voters supported him as well as Trump. He says the Biden campaign focused most of its resources in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which it believed would be more critical to its chances of winning the Electoral College, and took a chance in Ohio toward the end of the campaign. He said BIden’s past support for trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement “probably hurt him a little bit with my constituents.”
“They didn’t invest in Ohio in a way that could really move the needle,” Ryan said of Biden’s campaign. “Trump was aggressive on economic issues like trade, renegotiating NAFTA and China, and that is what resonates in our area – jobs and being a fighter for workers.”
Ryan says his own job-building efforts in the district include diversifying the area’s economy by providing federal dollars to develop “additive manufacturing” industries which rely on 3D printers to build components, and an energy incubator in Warren that includes a battery research lab. He says the area can also build a new economy around electric vehicles and charging stations to outcompete China with new ways of manufacturing. He expects Biden will facilitate that if he becomes president.
He says that Traficant and Trump both presented themselves as people who would “take on the Man,” but Ryan argues that Traficant “would never sell out to corporate America” as Trump did, by fighting labor unions at the National Labor Relations Board and trying to “take health care away from people” by filing a lawsuit to overturn the Affordable Care Act.
“Jim was a populist from the workers’ side,” says Ryan. “That is how Trump came off in the election, but he didn’t govern that way. That is where the difference is with Jim and Trump.”
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