If the 2016 election taught us anything, it was a hard lesson in not taking any demographic, any region for granted. Election Night unfolded in a way few foresaw, as Michigan and Wisconsin- two states that voted for Gore and Kerry- tipped Republican. In a way, there is a certain sense to it- these two states have been devastated by deindustrialization, kneecapped by the decline of labor unionism, and are case studies in white flight from city centers. They, of all places, would be vulnerable to economic nationalism, and vague promises of restoring America to greatness. These are areas that would see some corners of modern progressivism as smug and unconcerned with their livelihoods.
That- to employ Midwestern sentence structure- needs fixed. I’ve chosen thoughtful, uniquely midwestern candidates who can channel much of populism’s hopefulness and authenticity without it’s bleaker elements of nativism and insularity.
Illinois- 06: Chicago’s redoubtably Republican suburbs have shown signs of cracking- especially against populist nominees. For example, although Romney carried the district in 2012, it swung hard to Hillary, and suggests that it’s historic business-friendly conservatism may be fraying. (For reference, Dupage County, where part of this district is situated, was once called “the Orange County of the Midwest” was carried by Clinton.) All of this means that Peter Roskam might very well be in trouble. Wheaton College, the intellectual center of modern evangelicalism, is located within this district, and I believe that the successful candidate will need to be conversant in the suburban Christianity that is slowly, tentatively, recognizing the message of social justice inherent in the gospels. I therefore pick Karen McCormack as my choice to run, although she hasn’t made any overtures in that direction. As a Wheaton sociologist, she studies the effect of home foreclosure on families- a matter of no small importance to this district. Moreover, she helped start a Peace and Social Justice minor at Wheaton, and is an expert at persuading evangelical audiences on the necessity of peacemaking, economic fairness, and empathizing with those in need.
Illinois- 12: The 12th takes up much of southwest Illinois, hugging the Missouri border. While in earlier times, this district was heavily Democratic, it moved decisively to Donald Trump, favoring him by ten points over Hillary Clinton. Yet, it’s listed as dead even on the Cook PVI, and I believe that former lieutenant governor Sheila Simon can make this race competitive. Governor Rauner’s travails have made people forget Governor Quinn’s. Her reputation for getting things done and her deep connections to Illinois politics- she’s former senator Paul Simon’s daughter- give her an added advantage.
Illinois- 13: This is another theoretically dead-even district that is nonetheless historically Republican. As a strong proponent of getting more scientists to run for office, I support the unlikely candidacy of Leellen Solter, who is the director of the Illinois Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois, Champagne-Urbana.
Illinois- 14: The 14th consists of Chicago’s exurbs, up to the Wisconsin border. Steve Chirico, the new mayor of Naperville, would be my pick to represent this area. His success as a small business owner and his keen focus on teamwork and cooperation has the potential to translate into some crossover votes from this district’s Romney supporters.
Indiana- 02: For the last couple of years, Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, has been touted as perhaps the nation’s premier up-and-coming Democrat. I’m going to save him for a later installment, and suggest that Jackie Walorski be challenged by Brendan Mullen. Mullen ran for this seat in 2012 and lost to Walorski by a percentage point and a half. This West Point vet has the potential to win this seat in a Democratic year and keep it Democratic. He’s a good fit for this working-class, post-industrial district. Like Senator Joe Donnelly, who once held this seat, he is cautiously pro-life and opposed to most forms of gun control.
Iowa- 01: Midwestern, rural, religious, and overwhelmingly white, Iowa took a sharp dive from being slightly more Democratic than the nation as a whole in the last two elections to going for Donald Trump by nearly 10 points in 2016. Despite being rated D+5 by Cook’s PVI index, this district is held by a Republican, Rod Blum of Dubuque. More than any other state perhaps, Iowa needs to build a Democratic bench to challenge its Republican governor and two Republican senators in what is still by many metrics a swing state. She’s the same age as Taylor Swift, but state legislator Abby Finkenauer could have what it takes to win back this district. She’s wise beyond her years- focused, driven, a gifted orator, skilled at crafting a narrative, and learned on a few key issues, such as student debt.
Iowa- 03: I love that Iowa is one of the least gerrymandered states in the country. It makes all four of its districts compact and competitive. The 3rd covers Iowa’s southwest quadrant and is listed as dead even on the Cook PVI. My pick is former Iowa House member Ed Fallon. Fallon is a politician for people who don’t really like politicians. The Des Moines resident is a solid progressive, a multi-instrumentalist, and a former community organizer. He made a noble try at the Democratic nomination for governor in 2006, falling to the well-funded Chet Culver, whose dad had been a senator from Iowa in the 1970s. He has lately been active in climate change activism and was a strong supporter of Sanders during the Iowa caucuses.
Michigan- 03: Historically, this Grand Rapids-based district is about Republican as it gets. Gerald Ford was once the congressman from this area, as was one of my favorite Republicans of the 1980s, Paul Henry. Presently, the district is represented by a big wheel- the young Tea Party acolyte Justin Amash. How to win such an uphill battle near Battle Creek? I’d look to Rosalynn Bliss, the new mayor of Grand Rapids- and the first woman ever to serve in that office. She is technically non-partisan (which helps in a Republican district) but a lot of signals- her admiration for Debbie Stabenow, her background as a social worker- suggest a left-of-center orientation. Her record can also appeal to erstwhile social conservatives- she helped shut down a number of the region’s strip clubs.
Michigan- 06: Taking up southwest Michigan, this district leans ever so slightly Republican, and could be won with the right candidate. Enter Kalamazoo native Eric Fanning– a defense specialist who served as Obama’s final Secretary of the Army, the acting Secretary of the Air Force and as chief of staff to the Secretary of Defense.
Michigan- 07: Southeastern Michigan- as well as the capital of Lansing- are encompassed by the 7th district. This is prime Rust Belt territory- it went from supporting Obama by 6 points in 2008 to supporting Trump by 17 points in 2016, a remarkable change for only eight years. Nevertheless, where the lash is strongest, the backlash is greatest. Before losing his seat to Tim Walberg in 2010, Mark Schauer had a promising career ahead of him- and he’s probably chomping at the bit to resume that career. He made a good fight of his gubernatorial race against Rick Snyder in 2014, losing by only four points against an incumbent Republican governor in a heavily Republican year. He’s hitting all the right populist notes, and his opposition to right-to-work will serve him well in heretofore heavily-unionized Michigan.
Michigan- 08: The 8th covers much of Lansing and some of the Detroit exurbs.For a while, Suzanna Shkreli, a first-generation Albanian-American was making a race of it, before incumbent Mike Bishop pulled ahead in this very Trump-friendly district. As buyer’s remorse afflicts the upper midwest, Shkreli deserves a second chance to take this seat. At only 29- and already an assistant prosecutor of Macomb County- she’ll have a long career to look forward to.
Michigan- 11: The suburban parts of Wayne County are covered by this district- which has a notably high 8% Asian population. David Curson has what it takes to win the 11th- in fact, he’s done it before. When its previous representative, Thaddeus McCotter, left office, Curson won a special election before opting not to run for a full term in 2012. Although he’ll be 70 years old- a tough age for a freshman congressman- his work with United Auto Workers harkens closer a more wholesome idea of what made America great- full employment, workers’ rights, and a robust labor movement.
Minnesota- 02: Angie Craig made a good race of this in 2016, losing to Jason Lewis by only 1.8%. I would be inclined to look elsewhere next time, however. Why not Ally LaTourelle? Her work with BioEconomy Partners has helped make Minnesota a center for clean energy and economic development. Her message is one that would resonant in the suburban areas of the Twin Cities, where her district is located. Her credo that environmentalism and economic development can reinforce- rather than short-circuit- each other is a winning message.
Minnesota- 03: This district also covers the Twin City suburbs and a piece of St. Paul. While I’ve tried to include as few scions as possible (which is harder than it looks), I’m going to make a glad exception here. David Wellstone is the son of Paul Wellstone, the progressive icon who perished in a plane crash over a decade ago. The elder Wellstone remains an icon among the left today- his conscientious vote against the Iraq War, and his legendary grassroots campaigning remain models that can be used today. Paul is back in the game and starting to engage in politics again, most notably as a mental health advocate. And if he follows his father’s playbook, he can help spur the next chapter of the DFL’s good, solid work in Minnesota.
Ohio- 01: This is a forbidding congressional district by all outward signs. Steve Chabot has held it for 20 out of the last 22 years. He was beaten in 2008, though, and he can be beaten again- and hopefully stay beaten. And P.G. Sittenfield is the man to do it. Only 32 years old, he serves on the Cincinnati City Council, founded the city’s Community Learning Center, and is a board member for a food bank. He’s popular, young, and is widely regarded as one of the most promising young Democrats in a key swing state.
Ohio- 10: Covering a chunk of southwest Ohio, the 10th is a mashup of Rust Belt and Appalachian tendencies. It’s challenging, but I’ll bet Dayton mayor Nan Whaley could win. Her work to revitalize the downtown and bring in business investment will impress independent voters, while her work to make the city more bicycle friendly will surely make the city’s hipsters and Bernie Bros delighted. More importantly, she’s committed to a diverse, open, welcoming Dayton- and it has helped make the city an emblem of Rust Belt revival.
Ohio- 16: John Boccierei was elected to this district in 2008 and was voted out in 2010. But his opponent, Jim Renacci, is a bastion of free-market conservatism that is an increasingly difficult sell in this region. Boccierei’s work in the Ohio state legislature and his tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq still make him a candidate to beat.
Wisconsin- 06: There are suburbs aplenty in this district, which covers the outlying areas of Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay. Town politics and bread-and-butter issues play big here, creating an opportunity for Manitowoc mayor Justin Nickels. Nickels is a wunderkind- he was first elected mayor when he was 22 years old, and just turned 30 this month. Yet he is a serious policy wonk, and can get a message out effectively in an environment when Wisconsin’s suburbs are tilting strongly toward a Scott Walker-ish right.
Wisconsin- 07: This is a gigantic district, nearly taking up the northern half of the state. In times past, this was the domain of long-time congressman David Obey, who opted not to run in 2010. Since then, the district is represented by Sean Duffy, a model of the Tea Party-aligned, Grover Norquist-affiliated Republicanism. A pleasant alternative is provided by state assemblyman Nick Milroy of Superior, Wisconsin- who is also a biology professor and a fisherman of some renown.
Wisconsin- 08: There aren’t many Democratic state legislators who represent an area other than Madison or Milwaukee. But 34-year-old Amanda Stuck is one of them, representing Appleton and specializing in environmental and housing issues. In a theoretically competitive state assembly district, she didn’t even get a challenger in 2016 and was re-elected unopposed.
Wisconsin- 01: Hold on a minute; I’m not quite done yet. If we are really going to think seriously about winning the House of Representatives, we need to consider a challenge to Paul Ryan’s district, which might be thought of as Milwaukee’s suburbs and Chicago’s exurbs. On paper, this district is only slightly more Republican than the nation as a whole; in 2008, it voted for Obama and in 2012, it only went for Mitt Romney by about five points- despite Paul Ryan being on the ticket! And don’t think this is impossible- sitting Speakers have lost re-election campaigns before. Given the toxicity of Trump’s policies in well-educated and upwardly mobile suburbs, and given Paul Ryan’s heretofore ineffective attempts to rein the president in, Paul Ryan can and should face a serious, well-funded, conscientiously progressive challenge. I have two sterling candidates in mind. Wisconsin will rue re-electing Ron Johnson to the Senate in place of progressive superhero Russ Feingold. Feingold is a master of grassroots campaigning and a conscientious man- the only senator who voted against the PATRIOT Act. As a Jaynesville native, he could run a very credible challenge to Paul Ryan. My other idea might take you by surprise, but makes sense the more you think about it. And that’s Mark Ruffalo, who is also a native of this part of Wisconsin. Buffalo has rewritten the book on celebrity political activism, following a Bernie-ish model of social media engagement and forming The Solutions Project to move the U.S. toward a clean energy future. Wisconsin was the cradle of modern progressivism in America- and either one of these men can nudge the Badger State back to its destiny by nudging Paul Ryan out of a congressional seat he takes for granted.