If the GOP gains in the Midwest were an anomaly, perhaps Democrats could afford to cater to their environmental base. But this wasn’t the first time that Democrats lost significant ground in the region. In 2010, they lost a whopping 63 seats in the House in part because of failed cap-and-trade legislation; over one-third of the seats they lost were in the Midwest. Republicans amped up their attacks on Obama’s environmental policies during the 2014 midterms—airing more than 26,000 spots citing the Environmental Protection Agency—and swept nearly every competitive Senate race on their way to the majority.
Take the Keystone XL pipeline as a stand-in for voter sentiment on the balance between protecting the environment and producing jobs. A March 2014 Pew Research Center poll, conducted during the Keystone debate, found that a 49 percent plurality of Democrats supported building the pipeline—even though the president and top party leaders opposed it. Among working-class Democrats (those who made less than $50,000 a year), support for the Keystone project outdistanced opposition by a whopping 22 points (54 to 32). When your party’s own voters are at odds with its elite, it’s a recipe for disaster. Donald Trump’s Midwestern sweep was the culmination of these long-standing trends.