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With the creation of the Heartland Caucus, Democrats look to the Midwest for a winning strategy

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The background: Michigan Democrats won the 2022 election handedly. For the first time in nearly four decades, they are taking over the Governor’s office, the state House and the state Senate in 2023. And that has many wondering if their strategy is a template for winning future elections nationwide.

The question: Are Michigan issues the key to helping Democrats win elections nationally?

The answer: Michigan Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Dingell sure thinks so. “Sometimes it’s easy to fly over the heartland and we want to make sure that we have a collective voice in the heartland,” Dingell recently told us. She wants to see a new Democratic caucus in Congress known as the Heartland Caucus. It would be made up of Democratic members from at least 12 Midwest states, and Dingell says the caucus would focus on a long list of issues facing the Midwest surrounding agriculture, unions, telehealth services for rural areas and the Great Lakes.

The idea is gaining traction after Dingell shared a map that has been getting a lot of attention. The map shows the power that coastal Democrats hold in Congress with leadership representing California and much of the East Coast but the Midwest being left-out. “This battle for the heartland and to make sure there’s more representation is something that, you know, I’ve talked about for years, for decades. I think a map that I put together that showed that the heartland in the Democratic Party had no representation in senior leadership or committee chairs got the attention of a lot of people,” Dingell explained.

Dingell says Republicans — especially Trump Republicans — have tapped into the anxiety felt by working class voters in the suburbs and rural areas and she says if Democrats want to build on their successes they’d be smart to focus on issues that Midwesterners care about. Take a look, for example, at how Democratic Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin won reelection in her mid-Michigan swing district that went for President Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

The takeaway: “Frankly, for the Democrats, I think they’d be wise to listen” to Dingell, says Michigan political consultant John Sellek. He says Democrats “had a lot of success when they thought this way,” and explains that Dingell and the caucus, “not only has the ability to bring the core of the country together on the Democratic side against the coastal leadership, but their efforts - if they’re intelligent and communicated in the right way - has the ability to have bipartisan appeal to the public which will probably pull even more voters into their camp.”

More Midwest love: In addition to the Heartland Caucus, Michigan voters could also see more influence in choosing a presidential nominee in 2024. That’s after Michigan Democrats, including Dingell, after decades of trying, were successful in getting the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee to move Michigan earlier in the presidential primary calendar. The full Democratic National Committee still has to vote on the change early in the new year and the state Legislature would still have to adopt it, but it’s one more example of the Midwest’s electoral prominence. As Dingell notes, “this is going to be one of the most competitive states in 2024 in the country and I am very pleased that the presidential nominating system is taking into account that we have an early state that is going to represent the diversity of this country,” she continues, “the President has said that there’s no road to the White House without going through the heartland.”

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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