Glory Days: In Michigan, Nostalgia For A Romanticized Past Outstrips The Reality of An Economic Rebirth

FLINT, Mich. — For a decade or more, when you drove through Michigan the most ubiquitous posting was the “For Sale” sign.Cars with phone numbers written on the windows. Entire blocks of boarded up homes. Craggy industrial parks with weeds poking through the parking lot. Billboards with space for rent. Each told its own tale of someone that found — or was looking for — better options elsewhere.

But this summer, as I took a post-Fourth of July trip across a state festooned with red, white and blue, a different posting dominated the roads from Lansing to Flint: “Help wanted.” A hospital outside the state capital advertised cash rewards for referring nurses. Trucking companies touted higher pay and more time at home. Auto part factories were raising wages — sometimes multiple times — and still struggled to find workers. Fast food joints had public wage duels with their rates posted next to the drive through.

On the surface, those signs point to a rebirth – one that both parties in Washington are eager to spark with their newly rekindled affinity for American industrial policy. Each claim they will be the one that brings back American industrial jobs, and with it the halcyon middle-class American lifestyle they afforded. And by the numbers, it’s starting to work. In February, an opinion piece from Bloomberg named Michigan as America’s “No. 1” economy, touting a revival of manufacturing jobs as the pandemic subsided.

But talk to the residents and it’s a different story.

Economic anxiety is rife. Union workers are taking second and third jobs to make ends meet. Auto factories keep stopping over chip shortages, leaving workers to file for unemployment. Retirees often choose between food and medicine after receiving pension cuts. And everywhere, people express a deep frustration that the jobs on offer today don’t offer the same pay, benefits and community cohesion that they remember from Michigan’s industrial heyday.

“My father came here from the South, with no education, got a job with General Motors and he was making the kind of money that, if he wanted to, he could take care of two or three families,” said Deon Evans, a 25-year veteran auto parts worker, who spoke with POLITICO in a union hall in Flint. “He could invest money, he could buy rental property … The average person today can’t do that. Now having a job really doesn’t seem like much. You’re still struggling as if you don’t have one.”

Those sentiments, expressed by dozens of voters over a two-week period in July, point to a contradiction at the heart of governments’ domestic manufacturing push. While incentives from Washington and state capitols have helped to jumpstart some factories, those jobs are not filling the social expectations — in health care, retirement, education and the like — that industrial employment set decades ago. Democratic leaders here fear that if they cannot revive some of those aspects of American social life through their spending plans in Congress, they’ll lose the region to the populism of Republicans, just as in 2016.

“It’s not just a nostalgia for jobs of a particular kind, although it’s easy to understand why people talk about it and think about it this way,” said Gabriel Winant, an assistant professor of U.S. history at the University of Chicago focused on the industrial economy. “It’s for the security and way of life that arose from, and ultimately depended on, industrial growth.”

Those aspects of economic security — which Winant and other scholars call “social citizenship” — formed the bedrock of American middle-class life for decades after World War II. Unions won generous pensions, health insurance plans and wages from companies, which also helped build schools, roads and city infrastructure through their tax payments. But today, in a more competitive global economy, corporations are unwilling or unable to shoulder many of those social expectations, so familiar to residents who lived through the glory days of American manufacturing.

“If you talk with people who are older, they’re probably going to say that we need those GM jobs back, because that’s what their parents and they grew up on,” said Phillip Thompson, pastor at Bethlehem Temple Church in Flint. “My mom retired from General Motors and they used to call it ‘generous motors,’ because you had a good job and a guaranteed pension. That’s gone. It is what it is.”

Democrats, in theory, have a solution. The Biden administration’s original Build Back Better agenda was supposed to address the shortcomings of the American manufacturing renaissance by shifting the provision of many aspects of social citizenship from corporations to the state — through expanded Medicare and Medicaid, drug pricing reform, paid family leave, elder care and more. Those, combined with lucrative tax breaks for companies to build new factories in the U.S., were meant to reshape the American economy so a wider swath of workers had access to the middle-class lifestyle the old industrial economy used to afford.

“This is the moment that we have an opportunity for a redo” as the economy emerges from the covid pandemic, said Todd Tucker, an industrial policy expert at the progressive Roosevelt Institute. “In a nutshell, that’s what the promise of Build Back Better — not so much the act, but the opportunity — was.”

Lately, that’s looked more like an opportunity missed. As their agenda ran aground in Congress, vulnerable Democrats ran into a wall of disillusionment in their midterm campaigns this summer. Again and again, residents expressed a deep disbelief that the new jobs on offer can rebuild the industrial-era communities they’ve come to romanticize with the passing years.

“We have not been in a place where we can call ourselves middle-income people, I would say, since 1999,” said Ommie Ruffin, who retired from GM in that year and has lived in the same Flint neighborhood since 1968. “Around Fint, we would like to see some of that comeback. But I doubt it will.”

While Democrats were able to resurrect some of that agenda in the party-line Inflation Reduction Act that passed Congress in August, the slimmed-down bill eliminated many of the party’s social spending priorities — like the child tax credit, money for early education, child care, elder care, housing and community college — even as it approved more than $60 billion in domestic manufacturing incentives. Michigan Democrats fear that leaving those issues unaddressed will mean that the uneven economic recovery in towns like Flint and Lansing will continue, feeding the politics of resentment that will cost them their jobs and deliver working-class communities for the Republican Party.

“There’s a consequence” to not passing the agenda Democrats ran on, said Rep. Dan Kildee, a Flint Democrat who is in a tight reelection campaign this year. “The consequence is that the American people don’t get to have a government that is a reflection of their will. And when that happens, the party in power pays a price.”

Deep in an old autoworker neighborhood in northern Flint stands The Cathedral of Life Church, housed inside an old elementary school. In fact, it’s the old elementary school of its leader, Bishop Christopher Martin, whose chambers are in an old classroom nestled in the back of the building. The sports banners have long been lowered from the modest gymnasium, replaced with giant affirmations of faith. It’s a Pentecost Sunday, and a dozen old women have donned the traditional white robes of the pentecostal faith, dancing and shaking as the power of the Lord — and the music of an impressively well-rehearsed band — moves through them.

“It’s hard to pastor today,” Martin thundered from the altar. “We don’t have the glory days of the ‘80s, when GM was fruitful, Flint was bustling, the economy was large, they was handing out money in 14 GM plants. There were dealerships all up and down Clower Road, stores all over the place, Smith Bridgman downtown” — a reference to one of the nation’s oldest department stores.

Affirmations rise from the audience. Everyone knows or remembers themselves, what this place used to be. Some of them, like Martin, could have even attended this elementary, back when Flint had more than ten times as many students in its school system as it does today.

“No,” Martin continued, “we pastor now in a society that’s been tainted by crisis after crisis after crisis: the economic collapse of the ‘80s, the drug infestation, and the rise of gangs in the ‘90s. And this decade — amen — the 21st century has got political upheaval like never before.”

Back in his chambers, Martin gave a brief history of Flint’s industrial decline.

“General Motors went from 14 plants in the ‘80s and ‘90s, if you will, to two,” he said. “And when you go from 14 plants to two, and you employed 80,000 people, and now trying to employ maybe 4,000 or 5,000, that had a huge effect on the neighborhood. We lost entire neighborhoods over decades, with General Motors pulling out.”

“It really destroyed the fabric of Flint,” he continued. “We went from a city of hundreds of millions of dollars in annual budget to a city of less than $100 million annual budget, which has caused a crippling effect on just our pension system. We’re struggling now just to make pension payments because of what that did.”

It’s a story countless Flint and Lansing residents repeated with their own variations — and a healthy dose of romanticism — as residents recalled not just the employment, but the security and community that those jobs afforded.

Kevin Owens, a deacon at the church, the band’s bass player, and a local YMCA coordinator, had a front-row seat to the decline. Calling himself a “child of the shop,” whose parents migrated up from the South to work in the Michigan auto factories, he wistfully recounted the life those jobs afforded him.

“That was a blessing in and of itself, to be able to go into a plant and get you 30 years, 35 years, your watch, your pension, your health insurance for your family, your own piece of property, you may own a vehicle,” he said. “That was huge.”

For Owens’ family, the “shop” meant home ownership in a neighborhood of Flint previously off-limits to Black families. It meant he could go to private catholic school as a child. But when the plants started to leave, the revocation of the social citizenship they afforded was sharp and swift.

“My father pulled me into a sit down with him and he told me that there were things that he just wasn’t going to be able to do anymore because “Chevy in the Hole” — that’s what his plant was called — was one of the ones getting ready to go,” Owens said. “Whereas shop kids, we’ve seen bikes, we’ve seen savings bonds from the government, no longer was that going to be something you could have, and you had to worry about finances. So I’ve been a worrier about this city, financially, for a long time.”

Two miles south of the church, on the corner of a potholed street on the north side of Flint stands the Neighborhood Engagement Hub, a nonprofit that serves the remaining residents of the formerly middle-class enclave. The inhabited houses in this neighborhood of modest mid-century builds are tidy and well kept up, but few are renovated. And many stand empty, loose planks hanging from porches, or have been leveled, leaving overgrown lots. Across the street from the hub are two abandoned buildings with towering murals of MLK, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey and others, painted and preserved with precision.

Inside, a group of residents and community leaders assembled to talk about Flint’s economy gave knowing, sometimes pitying nods at the reporter asking them about the city’s industrial heyday. The history is well worn here, as are outside caricatures of it.

Ommie Ruffin can’t wait for everyone to finish introductions. She launches into her rendition of Flint’s industrial past, the colorful scarf tied in her hair bobbing as she nods along to her story.

“When we moved here, we had a beautiful neighborhood, a beautiful school just across the street with students. It was just really beautiful,” she said. “But when GM began to pull out you can see people begin to lose their homes. And if no one purchased them, they just … sat there for years and years deteriorating, and you go from a beautiful neighborhood to a neighborhood you’re really scared to live in.”

Connie Edwards, a retired teacher whose parents migrated from the South to work in the plants, nodded along in agreement. Her black hair pulled back into a tight bun, exposing the gray roots, her eyes widened as she remembered her old community.

“General Motors carried Flint,” she said. “We had the best education system, we had the best community recreation system. We were the model city for community and parks and swimming — everything, we had it here. But then after [the factories] started going down in the ‘70s, the schools went down, the parks went down, everything went down.”

Sitting back in a white tag collar shirt and cufflinks, Pastor Phillip Thompson tried to break through the nostalgia. While the old days were good, he said, both the residents and politicians who focus primarily on the employment aspect of American manufacturing are missing the point. Because the jobs don’t cover the provision of other social services, they alone won’t bring back the middle class.

“The whole conversation about bringing manufacturing jobs back, it’s really political talk. I mean, it sounds good, it’s nostalgic, and people reach for nostalgia when they don’t have anything else,” said Thompson, pastor at the Bethlehem Temple church in Flint. “But what we need are economic policies that can remove some of the barriers for people to get into the middle class. We know child care is an issue, affordable childcare. We know that housing is an issue, transportation is an issue, medical costs — all of those things right there. We can do substantive things to address them.”

Leave Michigan for long enough and the locals can tell. You drop the nasally vowels, start wearing collared shirts, even to the local bar. You’ve gone “coastie,” as my friends back home would call me, shedding the comfortable provinciality of the midwest for the customs and culture of America’s metropolitan centers.

It was hard to think Rep. Elissa Slotkin wasn’t feeling a bit of a coastie when she convened a group of Lansing auto industry employees at UAW Local 724 in mid-July. The Democrat’s smooth, CIA-trained demeanor chafed against the gruffness of her cargo short-clad audience as she tried to find a silver lining to an economy that’s worn the vitality out of its participants, their eyes drooping at the corners in that familiar face of stress-induced fatigue.

These are the voters Slotkin needs to turn out in November if she’s going to retain her seat in Congress against State Sen. Tom Barrett — a square-jawed, gun-toting Republican veteran who seems typecast to run against her. But the workers — granted anonymity to speak freely in the meeting — barely murmur their approval from behind their “pop” cans when she tells them there’s a “once-in-a-generation correction” in worker power allowing them to demand better wages and conditions on the job. Has that played out for them?

“Yes and no,” says one woman, her gelled hair falling in waves down her back. While wages are rising, she said they don’t seem to be outpacing increases in everyday costs.

“They had to jack the wage up from $11.75 to $13.75 and now $16 because they couldn’t get anyone,” said a male employee from a parts supplier. Still, he said, they struggle to find people, and he didn’t feel much better off.

Others, chastened by decades of outsourcing, worried that they would make themselves uncompetitive with non-union states and countries. “We’re going to price ourselves out,” another worker warned.

At some points, resentment bubbled to the surface. Some of the people driving trucks to the auto parts plants “can’t even speak English,” one older male employee complained, pulling on his dirty knee brace in between swigs of Coke. And the new employees coming in the door? “They don’t give a damn” about the union, he said, and are happy to skip paying dues now that Michigan is a right-to-work state. That statement sparked concurring grumbles and nods from around the table. “They just don’t understand the history” of the union, a mulleted parts worker said of “these kids.”

Back at her campaign headquarters, Slotkin said she was encouraged by the rising wages and the return of some factory jobs. She’s counting on Democratic support for the industrial economy to help her retain her seat against Barrett, who has voted multiple times against state-level tax breaks for new auto factories. Around town, giant red billboards tick off the number of votes he’s taken against the auto assistance — “on his way to work” at the state capitol, she pointed out.

Still, Slotkin’s political career is in jeopardy. She’s running in a redrawn district that Biden would have carried by less than a point. Leaked polling from the Barrett camp showed him ahead this summer. And Slotkin worried that even amid their industrial policy push, Democrats weren’t doing enough to address non-employment aspects of the economy.

“Often, because of our housing market here, people are paying more for healthcare than they are in their mortgage,” she said. “So if you’re gonna take an approach to defend and expand the middle class, you’re gonna go after their biggest bills, and their biggest bills are the price of healthcare and price of prescription drugs. That to me, is one of the most universally popular things I’ve heard because everybody is struggling, particularly with the price of prescription drugs.”

But there, Slotkin’s practiced eyes flash with frustration. While Democrats’ signature Build Back Better package had policies to control drug prices and expand healthcare coverage, she complained that those focuses were lost in the “Christmas tree” that the bill became. For that, she blames the president and congressional leadership.

“I think that if you’re for everything, you’re for nothing, that if you don’t prioritize what you really care about, and get those two or three things done that are going to make a transformational difference in people’s lives, then people don’t know what you’re about and nothing ends up happening,” she said. “I think that’s my problem is when people say, Biden cares about this issue, and I’m sure he does. I know he genuinely cares about all of these issues. But you’ve got to have your top three. And even if his top three were not exactly my top three, I just want to know what the priority is.”

“When you don’t have a frame, you sort of lose what you’re doing, you lose your point of reference,” she said. “And I think that that is what happened in the way that Build Back Better went down.”

Even in rural areas in Michigan, voters feel a deep nostalgia for the industrial economy. On an evening canvassing run in Potterville, a small town outside Lansing, voters told Barrett that they, too, felt a desire to bring back some of the manufacturing jobs lost to decades of outsourcing.

Jill Martin, who retired from the health insurance industry, said she voted for Trump in part because he promised to do just that.

“I felt like he had America-made stuff more in mind than what is being projected now,” she told Barrett from her front step. “It seems like the America First is gone, and maybe it’s because I’m an old person, but this globalist — whatever it’s called now — is just not something that I’m still backing. I’m still backing America first.”

“It seems like the whole rest of the world, and the Democratic Party, want to see Americans lower their standard of living, so we can bring up the standard of living in other countries,” she added. “And I don’t think that’s the way to go about it. I don’t think we should have to lose anything to enhance” our lives.

Here, too, Martin’s concerns went beyond just employment and crossed into another aspect of social citizenship — healthcare. After working for decades in the insurance industry, she retired in frustration, saying the system is “just rampant with things that are wrong.”

“It paid me a good wage, but contrary to what people think it was terrible insurance, even working for an insurance company,” she said. “I had seen them just take more and more control, and all the plans and policies we would write took more and more rights away from the doctors and patients and gave the insurance companies the right to choose your care for you. That to me is just scary, and I don’t like it.”

Martin said she was “totally against” Obamacare, until she retired and got coverage through the exchanges the law set up. “I am glad I had that,” she said. But she still winced at the idea of a socialized healthcare system, saying her insurance industry experience made her wary of any large entity controlling care. “The more bureaucracy that got involved, the less the person’s choice got to be, and the more the insurance company got to call the shots,” she said.

As we walked, Barrett acknowledged that the renewed focus on industrial policy puts him in a tough spot. But instead of tax breaks or incentives for particular industries, he said he favors a more classic Republican approach of cutting taxes and regulations in hopes that industries will be attracted by lower costs.

“I voted against this big incentive deal for General Motors to build an electric vehicle plant here in Michigan in my district, that the Democrats are beating the crap out of me over,” he said. “And I voted against it, because I don’t think it’s fair to take tax dollars from people in my district in my community, and pay $160,000 per job that General Motors is creating under this incentive.”

“Every dollar we … put into these tax credits is a dollar that can’t go into roads, can’t go into schools, can’t go into fixing problems, paying for police services, and all the other things that we do,” he added. “It’s my belief that industries work best markets work best when the government gets out of the way. When the government gets in and micromanages these industries it ends up working worse, not only for our taxpayers, but usually for the industries being promoted.”

The idealized American class that Michiganders recalled wasn’t some natural beneficence of the industrial economy, other union workers were eager to remind. It was wrested from the same corporations that the locals lionize, often through dramatic confrontation.

Such is the history of the UAW Local 659 in Flint. It was this division of the autoworkers union that first sat down on the job in late 1936, locking the bosses out of the factory until — after a bloody police confrontation and weeks of tension — GM recognized their union. It was one of the first official union recognitions following passage of the National Labor Relations Act and paved the way for the United Auto Workers union to win wages and benefits that defined the American middle class for a generation.

The pride is still evident outside the hall. The sit-down strike is commemorated on the fading union local sign, which sits across the street from the factory they captured from the bosses. At another local next door, a decades-old sign sticks out of a thicket of weeds, warning drivers that foreign automobiles left there will be towed. I parked my VW out on the street.

Inside, Deon Evans’ voice is soft and smooth as he recounts the economy that his family discovered when they moved to Michigan to work in the plants. But it breaks into anger when he talks about his neighborhood today.

“One thing that disgusts me, in the neighborhood that I live in, there’s probably two of us on my block that have jobs and we work,” he said. “The other people, they’re just home every day, they live off of state assistance, or whatever is coming to them. But it’s not working a job.”

The problem, he said, isn’t just the pandemic-era assistance programs, which kept many unemployed workers above water. It’s that the jobs they come back to aren’t offering a much better lifestyle than scraping by without a consistent paycheck at all.

“The problem is, they look at us get up every day and go to work, and they look at the status of living, it’s not really a whole lot different,” he said. “So it’s not encouraging people to get up and go get a job, if they’re going to be living the same way.”

The two other workers at the conference table give knowing nods. Christina Dupris, another plant worker says that she’s seen many colleagues try to take on new jobs closer to home, particularly as inflation drives up gas prices and other costs faster than unions can renegotiate contracts.

“For my members, a lot of them have some travel time, so they’re really concerned about the gas prices,” she said. “They’re looking for second jobs or looking for jobs closer to home. And unfortunately, they feel that their hands are tied. They feel that the higher-paid jobs are non-union, and then they have to make that decision to take a pay increase and lose out on benefits, because some of the non-union higher-paying jobs don’t have the benefits. But it’s closer to home and they’ve got to survive. They’ve got to be able to afford gas and food.”

“It sounds like the middle class is getting phased out,” she added. “There’s gonna be rich and poor, no middle class.”

Tim Hauck, a towering, bearded union truck driver, nodded his approval. For him and his coworkers, health care is a constant challenge.

“I think something needs to change with the health system. To me, that destroys my wages. I think I pay $100 a week for my family to be insured, and I think that’s ridiculous,” he said. “I think as a company, we should be able to do it cheaper than that. There are other companies that are doing it cheaper than that.”

“It’s pretty bad when a Michigan resident can go over to Canada and buy drugs for a 10th of what they cost over here. There’s something wrong with that. And if that means government regulation stepping in because Big Pharma and big corporations have no self control … maybe that is the answer,” he added. “But as soon as you start talking about that kind of shit, guess what the word socialism comes in, and everybody buttons up and runs away from it because nobody wants to live in a socialist country. I get that. But if these, you know powers that are in place, can’t self regulate, maybe they need to be regulated.”

More than just low wages, it’s the higher price for health care and other necessities — like child care and transportation — that makes it harder today for workers to secure a middle-class lifestyle than in the past.

“When Deon was referencing when his mom and dad came up, back then the middle class, they could afford that house, they could afford that vacation,” he said. “Now, we got guys over at these plants that are making 30 bucks an hour and living check to check. So, it’s a combination of a lot of things.”

Amid the economic upheaval, these workers said they found security in their union work, which they credited with pushing up pay for workers across the economy — even if they were still struggling to meet inflation.

“These unions, I think, bring the wages up,” Hauck said. “And then the rest of the companies that are-non union kind of gotta follow and suit within reason, because if they don’t, they’re not going to have employees. So absolutely the unions play a very important role in the economy and employees’ wages.”

But they felt even that security was under threat from the slow attrition of employees from their locals — both through workers relocating and those opting out of the union in the right-to-work state.

“I would like for our politicians to know, I would like for them to put some work towards getting rid of right-to-work here in the state of Michigan,” Evans said. “I think it’s crap. I think it’s destroying what we stand for, and we don’t need that. Because we’re on a rebuilding stage, trying to build this back up to what it used to be, and right to work was like a punch in the jaw, you know.”

“Where else do you provide a service that you decide all you don’t want? I want your service, but I don’t think I want to pay for it. So I’m going to opt out of the union,” Hauck agreed. “It’s just ridiculous. The whole concept is, and it was, put in place to break the union.”

Dan Kildee can’t be said to have gone coastie in his time in Washington. He’s a big guy, affable and plain-spoken, and could as easily be a shop steward from a Flint UAW local as the deputy whip for Democrats in Congress. But his demeanor is as practiced as it is practical experience. Kildee is from a political family, and his uncle, Dale Kildee, held this seat in Congress for 11 terms.

“Oh, I’ll always vote for a Kildee,” a white-haired woman says when the embattled congressman rings her doorbell on a canvassing run outside Bay City. “Good family.”

But Kildee, like Slotkin, cut a frustrated figure on his July campaign loop through his new district. The self-styled practical progressive — a member of both the Progressive and Problem Solvers caucuses in Congress — was as likely to highlight splits with his party as he was to pump their priorities. His ads tout his support for a gas tax holiday and funding the police, and his first stop in Saginaw, a small former auto town north of Flint, was to the city cops.

At a coffee shop in downtown Bay City, a small town 50 miles north of Flint, Kildee let loose at members of his own party who he said were blocking his legislation to cap insulin prices, along with other health care provisions in the Build Back Better package.

“It does make a difference what the priorities in healthcare are comprised of,” Kildee said after canvassing one day. “Not only is there a question of economics, that’s a moral question to me. There are people who have died. Because they had to ration their insulin, not because it was too expensive to make. They could see the insulin vial on the other side of the pharmacy counter. And it was literally within their physical reach, but beyond their economic reach.”

If Democrats can’t get some relief passed before the midterms, Kildee could still survive, coasting off his name and community familiarity. But if he loses, he said there’s “no question” that his fellow Democrats who preserved the filibuster instead of passing aggressive policy, will be to blame.

“I don’t know how somebody can consider themselves to be a conservative or a moderate, when they’re using the authority of government to stop the will of the people becoming policy,” he said. “That’s a radical view. That’s a dangerous view. And so, who’s the moderate here? A person who is standing behind the Jim Crow-era tool to stop somebody from getting life-saving insulin? I don’t think so.”

David Michael, like many of the UAW union members in Michigan, has more of a head for policy than politics. Throughout a tour through the newly renovated Lake Orion electric vehicle plant, he waxed on about the intricacies of union contract details and trade deals, like the one with South Korea that kept this plant going in the 2010s.

But when I asked if a man in a “Let’s go Brandon” shirt working the line was a Trump supporter. He seemed confused.

“Tim’s a Trump guy, yeah. How did you – how did you make that correlation? That’s weird, because he’s hardcore Trump.”

I ran through the NASCAR origin story of “Let’s go Brandon” — the more polite conservative substitute for the real message: “Fuck Joe Biden.”

Michael laughed. “Oh so I’m slow on that joke,” he said. “Brandon is a school district here.”

The UAW and GM both frame the Lake Orion plant as one of the nascent success stories in the American manufacturing renaissance — places where Michael said workers feel they make enough to support their families, even if the health care, retirement and child care options don’t live up to their romanticized recollections.

For decades, its history has run counter to the mainstream economic currents in America. Opened under President Ronald Reagan, the plant was slated to shut in the early 2010s until a trade deal with South Korea gave it a new market for small cars, reviving the facility for a few years. Now, it’s been converted as GM’s first all-electric vehicle assembly plant, the line refitted to hoist in massive battery packs into the chassis of the Chevy Bolt EV, instead of the old transmissions of internal combustion engines. It now employs 1,200.

Inside, Michael positioned the plant and his career as a comeback story. After the financial crisis, when the UAW acquiesced to allowing lower-paid, temporary workers for bailed-out automakers, Michael took a pay cut to come back to work. Now, he says veteran plant workers make $32/hour with benefits — “absolutely” enough to support a family in the area, he said, particularly with new profit-sharing checks from GM.

“We’re into profit sharing that my father never experienced, like his biggest profit-sharing checks, maybe 50 bucks, and he worked 30-some years for General Motors,” he said. “So now not only have we come out of bankruptcy, with a viable product has kept this plant running. Now we’re profitable. Now these small cars are actually contributing to the bottom line. So it took a while to get there, and now you’re seeing the gains coming back financially for the workers, who were able to get agreements that take us up to livable wages across the board for all the workers here.”

The GM plant, to be sure, is an outlier in many ways. Employees of the auto part factories that supply Orion — like the UAW members in Flint and Lansing — make considerably less than their counterparts at GM itself. And GM pits those suppliers against each other to keep their prices and wages down.

But even here, Michael said that the allure of Trump had caught on with many factory workers, — even him, for a time.

“Like the first couple months of that campaign, I’m like, this guy’s saying everything we want to hear,” he said. “So I was kind of riled up about it, like, this guy’s talking the real deal here.”

In the end, Michael said he didn’t end up supporting Trump in either election, despite voting for Republicans in the past, like George W. Bush’s reelection. But a full third of the union members at this plant did go for Trump, he said, particularly the “lower middle class white males.” (Michael is Black.)

In this plant, a full third of the unionized members went for Trump, said Gerald Lang, a union vice president and team leader at the Orion plant who spoke on behalf of Biden at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. He, too, said Trump’s message to the working class resonated with him at the start, and pushed Democrats to replicate it.

“When you hear the president coming out and talking directly to working class, lower middle class Americans, I mean, that, that hits me right in the heart,” he said. “I’m sitting here saying, okay, community and neighborhoods need to be prosperous. And where does that start? It starts with jobs.”

Throughout the two-week tour through Michigan, voter testimonials and interactions with candidates took on a familiar pattern. Residents would express a nostalgia for the social citizenship of the mid-century industrial economy, often expressed in terms of health care, time off and a freedom from financial anxiety, as well as employment. The local leader or politician would agree with them in principle, and later express frustration that they can’t force the government to shoulder the social burden that corporations once did.

For Slotkin and Kildee, the result is a deep frustration with the leaders of their own party, who they feel are sabotaging their own reelection campaigns by not prioritizing the kitchen table issues their voters care about. For Slotkin, part of the issue is that the party in Congress is led by members from safe districts on the coasts, with Kildee being the only Midwesterner in the leadership stack in either chamber.

“There are just very few Midwesterners in leadership at all,” she said, explaining that is part of why she voted for Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan (D) instead of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the 2020 Democratic leadership race. “They’re just not people who look like us and have our issues in mind. It’s like people from California, people from New York, like people from, you know, places that are super, super blue. So they don’t see the world exactly the same way we do.”

Additionally, historians like Winant say the decline of organized labor helps explain the struggle to rebuild social citizenship. Though unions were never able to spread those benefits to the entire population, like through a national healthcare system, their collective bargaining agreements with major corporations like GM set the standard for the industrial economy and middle-class life through the mid-20th century. Labor militancy also helped win workplace regulations like the eight-hour day, an end to child labor, safety standards and the like.

But after the decline of organized labor, with unions now representing less than one in ten workers, unions lack the influence in Washington to win major expansions in the provision of social citizenship in the Build Back Better package.

“The failure of BBB has to be understood in terms of the absence of sufficiently powerful social forces pushing for it,” Winant said. “There was (presumably) no corporate donor calling Manchin and [Arizona Sen. Kyrsten] Sinema to say, ‘listen if this doesn’t pass we’re going to have an even worse problem on our hands, so vote yea already; You need some version of that, much as the New Deal had.”

Today, the mid-Michigan voters can’t count on a powerful labor movement to bend Washington politics to their will, even if recent organizing wins at Starbucks and Amazon point to a revival in worker militancy in America. The winnowing down of the Build Back Better package to an Inflation Reduction Act that focuses on building industrial jobs, but ignores other social expectations, is emblematic of the weakness of workers’ voices in Washington, Winant says.

“BBB in its larger form might’ve really been a New Deal-like moment,” he said, “This is closer to Obamacare, if that: an adjustment on the margin that will matter for lots of people but doesn’t really change the game in a fundamental way.”

Whether that materializes in the future through an upwelling of labor organizing remains to be seen. But in the meantime, residents in mid-Michigan said Democrats can focus more on the economic planks in their platform, rather than the culture wars.

“The party is losing its brand to the Republican Party, because the Democratic Party emphasizes too much on the social agenda, and not the financial agenda,” said Bishop Martin of the Cathedral church in Flint. Instead of a “zeal” for abortion rights and LGBTQ protections — which he said he can’t support doctrinally — he urged the party to rekindle its focus on economics.

“We’re not going to physically fight it, but we can’t support that [social] agenda,” he said. “What do we all agree on? It’s that hamburger is too doggone high. It’s that milk is too high.”

That increasing economic insecurity presents electoral peril for Democrats, Winant said, and not just in this year’s midterms. “It’s the erosion of economic security that has led to the disaffection of the white working class from progressive politics in particular, and from politics in general,” he said, “with the broader effect of destabilizing democracy.”

But therein lies another contradiction for Democrats. Both Kildee and Slotkin are counting on a backlash to the Supreme Court’s abortion decision to drive Democrats to the polls this fall. At her campaign office, Slotkin gleefully noted that a petition to enshrine abortion rights in the Michigan constitution had garnered over 750,000 signatures — a record for a ballot drive in the state. That question will now appear on the November ballot.

There are deeper social issues associated with rebuilding the industrial economy as well. For all of the romanticized security of the post-war era, the provision of social citizenship was only truly open to a sliver of the American workforce — the largely white factory workers and their families. Occupations dominated by nonwhite workers and women — services, agriculture, healthcare and the like — were left out of that compact. Instead, their labor was marshaled to help provide the cushy lifestyle for factory workers, through caring for children, attending to medical needs, or producing the food industrial workers needed.

Those are aspects of the economy that Kildee is adamant he does not want to revive, even as he tries to bring the manufacturing economy back.

“We don’t want to go back to a time when a big percentage of the population were locked out of the economy,” he said after wrapping up a visit with the Saginaw police. “But we can take from that experience is that we can build things here, we can make things here, we can do it in a way that gives people a decent job, a good life, a wage that allows them to not just support their families, but have some security in their future.”

Whether Democrats can muster the political will to build that type of economy is an open question, Kildee acknowledges. But the UAW’s Lang, like many leaders here, said if they can deliver on some of those policy aims, that would drive his members to the polls.

“Where are they at on lower-middle, working-class issues that affect the pocketbook, the kitchen table type issues that need to be discussed?” Lang asked. “If there was an opportunity that there was a promise that was followed through on, yeah, I mean we’d like that. But it’s just not happening.”

When Senator Leahy laughed with Raul Castro

On Tuesday, Leahy, who is retiring this year after representing Vermont in the Senate since 1975, released “The Road Taken,” an engrossing memoir that covers his long career, from his politically fraught vote against the Vietnam War to his account of rallying his fellow senators back into the chamber on Jan. 6 after they fled the mob that stormed the Capitol. In between, you meet dozens of politicians, Supreme Court Justices, presidents, world leaders, musicians, and Hollywood celebrities.

Leahy dishes on the deal Hugo Black told him he cut with Earl Warren, that time he declined a call from Bill Clinton because he was at a Sting concert, that time Dick Cheney told him to go f*** himself, his role as a secret emissary between Raul Castro and the White House, how he enjoyed teasing Barack Obama for his love of the spotlight, and he nerds out on two of his great loves, Batman and the Grateful Dead.

On Monday, we sat down for a couple of hours with the senator in his president pro tempore office — the position makes him third in line of presidential succession — and downloaded the best of his war stories from 48 years in the Senate. This is a must-listen for political junkies and history buffs.

Oh, and Leahy made some news about Joe Biden and 2024 when we asked him whether he wanted Biden, his longtime friend and Senate colleague — they complete each other’s sentences, he joked — to run for reelection.

“That’s going to be his decision,” Leahy told us. “If he does, I’ll support him.” Not the ringing endorsement we might have expected.

On Jan. 6
“[In the secure location with other senators,] somebody pointed out that we could meet in the room we’re in — the Senate could vote to meet anywhere we wanted. … But I stood up, [and] I said, ‘NO.’ I got really angry. I said, ‘I’m the dean of the Senate. I’m the longest-serving member. We can’t meet in private with what’s going on. If it takes till midnight, wait till the Senate chamber is secure and go back in there and let the American people see us, and make everybody stand up and vote and show we’re there.’ And I got really wound up. I got a standing ovation from Republicans and Democrats. They said, ‘You’re right.’ And we went back in there and continued. But [I remember] feeling glass crunching under my feet. … And I thought, ‘What is going on? … Why did the outgoing president urge them to do this?’ It went against everything I’ve ever believed in.”

On couriering messages back and forth between Obama and Raul Castro
“I met with Raul Castro a lot and in fact, brought messages back and forth between Raul Castro and the Obama Administration. … Unsigned, unaddressed, plain letters. But they knew who they were from. … President Obama was up for reelection. I was down there. … Castro said, ‘Can I talk to you privately?’ through a translator. And he said, ‘Is President Obama going to be reelected?’ He had seen some polls that looked iffy. I said … ‘’’ve seen all those polls. … He’s going to be reelected.’ He said, ‘Good. I want him to. … He’s an honest man. I like him and I can work with him.’ Then he kinda looked around, chuckled, and he said, ‘Of course, I’m not going to say that publicly before the election, because that would defeat him.’”

On his unlikely friendship with arch-conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.)
“We talked a lot about photography. We would show each other photographs. I have my photographs around here in this room, and he had great ones in his room. And in 1980, I had the second-closest election in America. And I was speaking at something in Vermont about a week later — somebody [in the audience] obviously disagreed with me, [and] said, ‘Leahy, didn’t the closeness of that election teach you nothing?’ So I figured there’s a lesson in there. So I called the man who had the closest election, and said I’m going to ask him what it is about our philosophy that people didn’t like. I said: ‘Senator Goldwater, what is it?’ … And he loved it.”

On what Jerry Garcia, Leahy’s guest in the Senate dining room one day, after the Grateful Dead guitarist had a strange encounter with Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.)
“I never had an experience like that when I used to drop acid.”

Ethics board: South Dakota Gov. Noem may have ‘engaged in misconduct’

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — A South Dakota ethics board on Monday said it found sufficient information that Gov. Kristi Noem may have “engaged in misconduct” when she intervened in her daughter’s application for a real estate appraiser license that it could take action against her.

The three retired judges on the Government Accountability Board determined that “appropriate action” could be taken against Noem, though it didn’t specify the action.

The board voted unanimously to invoke procedures calling for a contested case hearing that would give Noem, who has denied wrongdoing, a chance to publicly defend herself against the allegations related to “conflicts of interest” or “malfeasance.”

The retired judges also referred a complaint that Noem flew on state-owned airplanes to political events to the state attorney general’s office for further investigation. That puts the investigation under the oversight of the interim attorney general, Mark Vargo, who was appointed by Noem.

Both complaints were brought by then-Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg, a Republican who has since been impeached and removed from office over his conduct in an unrelated car crash in which he killed a pedestrian.

The board handled the complaints only by case number and did not refer to Noem directly in either case. Ravnsborg provided the case numbers to The Associated Press.

The board’s moves potentially escalate the ramifications of investigations into Noem. The Republican governor faces reelection this year and has also positioned herself as an aspirant to the White House in 2024.

Noem did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

‘We got rolled’: How the conservative grassroots lost the fight with Biden because it was focused on Trump

In years past, it would have been a political Waterloo moment for Republicans: President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats racing frantically to finalize sweeping legislation to hike taxes on corporations and spend trillions on climate change and health care subsidies.

But instead of mounting a massive grassroots opposition to tank or tar the Inflation Reduction Act, conservatives and right-wing news outlets spent the past week with their gaze elsewhere: the FBI’s search of Donald Trump’s Palm Beach mansion.

Hundreds of them gathered instead outside Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in South Florida to protest what they viewed as an egregious example of federal government overreach. Back in Washington, conservative activists did rally against the bill and targeted vulnerable Democrats in ads. But even the main organizers conceded that they had little time to muster the opposition-party gusto of years past.

“Everything was moving so fast, the tax provisions were being debated on the fly, so there was very little time for groups to do that in-depth grassroots pushback like we saw during Obamacare,” said Cesar Ybarra, vice president of policy at conservative grassroots organization FreedomWorks. “To create buzz in this town and for it to penetrate across America, you need more time. So yeah, we got rolled.”

Far from a singular lapse, last week’s split-screen of the Mar-a-Lago search and the passage of the IRA provided a telling portrait of pistons that move modern Republican politics. Whereas conservative activism has, in past cycles, been driven by opposition to Democratic-authored policies or actions — from Obamacare to TARP— the modern version has been fed by culture-war issues and, more often than not, Trump himself.

“I think anytime you have FBI agents setting a new precedent by raiding a former president’s home, that’s going to get a lot of attention, compounded by Liz Cheney getting annihilated in her primary,” said former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who set the prior template for policy-centric midterm catapults with the GOP’s famed Contract with America in 1994.

For Democrats, the current paradigm is a boon, politically. The party hailed the passage of the IRA as a major victory they plan to capitalize on moving into the midterms. They argue that uniform Republican opposition to the bill was hypocrisy — Trump once championed several of its provisions. They view the popularity of the IRA and absence of sustained pushback as a guarantee that this won’t be an electoral albatross like Obamacare was for the party in 2010.

“You’re not having town halls with people screaming about Medicare drug negotiations. It’s very hard to object to a bill that invests a lot of money in clean energy,” said Matt Bennett, the executive vice president for public affairs at the Democratic centrist think tank Third Way.

Republicans argue that the bill will prove more beneficial to them in November, specifically the provision to hire and retain more IRS agents. And they quibble with the idea that the right wasn’t outraged or organized, arguing that the bill was pared back precisely as a result of activist pushback. Far from being two separate threads, they see the IRA and the Mar-a-Lago search as intertwined.

“The timing of the bill happening the same week as the former president’s residence was raided, and you had the split screen of, well, if they could do that to him, they could do that to you, and here’s this bill with 87,000 IRS agents being funded,” said Jessica Anderson, the executive director of the conservative Heritage Action for America. “I think we’re going to look back and see that it really lit a match for people with the distrust for government at an all-time high.”

Merissa Hamilton, an activist with FreedomWorks, said the increase in funding for the IRS has already been energizing grassroots efforts. Before the bill was passed, Hamilton organized protests with dozens of activists in front of the Phoenix office of Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz), one of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats.

“We feel even more detached from our representation than we ever have before because there was no time to get any public input,” said Hamilton.“It’s a big deal when you’re doubling the size of a federal agency. It screams something that’s designed to be punitive against people.”

But others in the party conceded that policy fights are no longer driving activism, at least to the degree they once did. In a Twitter thread, Brian Riedl, an economist with the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, said the right’s more recent apathy on economic policy “is partially a focus on culture & troll wars, partly a post-Trump identity crisis. And a lot of Democrats simply learning to avoid the economic policy prescriptions that most drive conservative rebellions.”

The money flow may tell an even more compelling story about a grassroots movement more geared toward Trump than congressional Republicans.

In the wake of the FBI’s search of Trump’s home, Trump’s Save America PAC reportedly raked in millions in the following days, according to The Washington Post. Elsewhere, meanwhile, the main Republicans running in marquee Senate races have struggled to build small-dollar donor networks, forcing the National Republican Senatorial Committee to slash ad spending and campaigns and operatives to panic.

Ohio Democratic Senate nominee Tim Ryan has brought in more than $9.1 million compared with GOP challenger J.D. Vance’s $1 million. Just over 9 percent of the money Vance raised for his primary campaign account between April and July came from contributions from individuals, and less than a fifth of that amount was from un-itemized small-dollar donors (those who gave less than $200). Of Ryan’s donations, 46 percent came from small-dollar donors.

In Pennsylvania, GOP nominee Mehmet Oz has largely self-funded his campaign, with less than 30 percent of his total receipts last quarter coming from individual contributors. Of that amount, just 18 percent came from small-dollar donors, compared with more than half for Democratic nominee John Fetterman, who brought in more than twice what Oz did.

And in Arizona, donations from individuals made up about 75 percent of GOP nominee Blake Masters’ total haul between April and July, versus 95 percent for Kelly. More importantly, the Democratic incumbent outraised Masters by more than $12 million last month, with 45 percent of the amount he raised from individuals coming in the form of small-dollar donations. Out of the $626,000 Masters raised from individuals last quarter, just 18 percent were un-itemized.

Those figures, combined with Trump’s continued fundraising success, suggest that much of the conservative grassroots energy remains behind the former president, and not the other members of his party. The passage of Biden’s signature bill hasn’t changed that dynamic, even as Republicans have vowed to campaign against the IRA as they head into the November midterm election.

“It’s one of those bills that is going to get more and more unpopular the more that people learn about it,” predicted Rep. Jim Banks, chair of the Republican Study Committee, who led efforts to educate GOP House members on the IRA before it was passed. “The more the voters learn about it before election day, the more severe the consequences will be.”

Olivia Beavers and Sam Stein contributed to this report.

There’s a Huge Divide Among Democrats Over How Hard to Campaign for Democracy

One Sunday afternoon in November, several of President Jimmy Carter’s former aides and advisers met on Zoom for a private call. Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of State, made an appearance, along with Dick Gephardt, the former House Democratic leader. Les Francis, a former deputy White House chief of staff in the Carter administration, was watching the waiting room for late arrivals while, from his log house in the foothills outside of Denver, Gary Hart, the former senator from Colorado, was having difficulty logging on.

For three or four years, the Carter administration veterans had been meeting like this to keep in touch. But more recently, as Republicans went from initial, brief discomfort with the Jan. 6 attack to rallying behind former President Donald Trump’s false assertions that the election was stolen, their conversations had begun to become more urgent, focusing on the state of American democracy. And the assessment was grim.

Trump had tried to overturn an election. Now, with the GOP widely expected to control the House and, potentially, critical statehouses in 2024, it appeared at least possible that a second attempt by Trump or some like-minded Republican to seize or cling to power undemocratically might just succeed.

“It’s time to ring the alarm bells, and it’s time to say to people, ‘Hey, wake up. There’s nothing written that democracy always has to exist,” Gephardt told them. “In fact, most writers on democracy say that the average life of a democracy in history is about 300 years. Well, we’re moving into the 300-year mark. So, this is an alarming situation.”

He said, “It’s scary as hell.”

Yet as members of the Carter group discussed the prospect of democracy’s collapse, there was another crisis that troubled them just as much: The fact that, as a voting issue, so few Democrats seemed to care.

Even after the experience of 2020 and the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — and even as Republicans in the midterms parrot Trump’s falsehoods — democracy has polled relatively low on the electorate’s list of concerns. The Jan. 6 committee hearings were encouraging. But Democrats competing in elections this year have not been pressing the issue anywhere near as hard as other concerns.

Of the more than $300 million spent by Democrats on broadcast advertisements this year throughout the country, ads that mentioned Jan. 6, the insurrection, democracy or stolen elections accounted for less than 4 percent of all spending, according to an analysis compiled for POLITICO by the ad tracking firm AdImpact. That’s less than Democrats spent on subjects ranging from energy and the environment to education, roads and infrastructure, abortion, health care, Trump and guns.

And the problem was even worse than that. In some cases, Democrats were themselves taking anti-democratic positions, spending millions of dollars in Republican primaries to elevate hard-right candidates they viewed as more beatable opponents in the fall. It didn’t seem to matter that some of those candidates were election conspiracy theorists — or that Democrats, if their own candidates faltered in November, could be helping them win.

To some members of the Carter group, the discussion surrounding democracy was beginning to feel like the early days of the climate movement, when scientists and some Democrats spoke urgently about a looming crisis, but were often mocked or ignored. Starting late last year, I was granted access to some of their Zoom calls and was in contact with some participants more directly, and the question that kept coming up was how to mainstream their concerns about democracy — and do it more quickly than the climate’s still-halting march into the political consciousness.

“It’s that tired old metaphor of the frog and the water,” Bo Cutter, a veteran of both the Carter and Clinton administrations, told me recently. “If you raise it with people who are … actively involved in policy and politics, you tend to get sort of a patronizing pat on the head and a, ‘Well, America has always come through in the end’ kind of thing.’”

“It’s incredibly hard for people to come together around something like this,” he said. “There’s just so much else on people’s minds.”

Earlier this year, when I visited Francis, the organizer of the Carter group calls, at his home in Camino, Calif., in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento, he said he’d been heartened by the amount of coverage democracy was getting on Sunday morning talk shows and in national newspaper opinion pages.

But it was mostly talk. In the midterm campaign, the Democratic Party was pinning its hopes for November not on some upswell in reverence for democracy, but on public outrage over the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade and, to a lesser degree, cooling inflation and President Joe Biden’s improving legislative record, including the recent passage of a major tax, health care and climate change bill.

It’s possible the strategists making those decisions have it right — that they value the nation’s democratic enterprise just as much as their predecessors but have concluded the only way to protect it is by keeping Democrats in as many offices as they can. If accomplishing that means focusing ads on issues voters care more about than democracy, or intervening in a Republican primary, there may not be much downside.

One Democratic strategist who advises major party donors told me, “Most Americans can’t even spell democracy.”

Whether they can or not might fall beside the point. If anything, the Democratic Party’s prospects look marginally better today than they did just a few weeks ago. Democrats are still widely expected to lose the House, but perhaps not by the margins they once feared. And they may hold onto the Senate.

But to Francis, a former executive director of both the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party was missing the longer view. He sat back in his home office chair and groaned.

Democracy, he said, “is more important to the survival of the country than, frankly, daycare for kids or prescription drug prices.”

“This may be generational,” said Francis, who is 79. “But for people of my generation who came of age politically in the 1960s, and we were involved with civil rights, anti-war, student rights, all these things, we just are having a hard time believing that this is happening, it’s happening in our lifetime, and it’s happening on our watch.”

The midterms are now less than three months away. Trump may announce his 2024 campaign any day. And Republicans in this year’s primaries have been nominating gubernatorial and secretary of state candidates who, if elected, could influence the outcome of the next presidential election, overseeing the machinery of the election and its certification at the state level.

The worst-case scenario, said Hart, a two-time presidential candidate, would be “the 2020 election quadrupled: Every state count challenged in state courts and federal courts, all 50 cases going to the Supreme Court, and who knows how this Court’s going to rule on things like that.” Cutter described that prospect as a “doomsday scenario” with more than trivial odds.

None of this is news to Democrats. Biden recently sat for a conversation with historians at the White House at which comparisons reportedly were drawn to the run-up to the Civil War. And if Democrats were going to do anything about it, it would largely be on them, with majorities of Republicans still clinging to the false belief that the last election was rigged. To several of the Carter group people I spoke with, the party wasn’t doing nearly enough.

“The question we all have is, ‘Is there time to fix it?’” Francis said. “I have to say I’m doubtful.”

He said, “We still haven’t reached critical mass on recognizing the severity of the problem.”

Ever since the 2020 election, a hodgepodge of Democratic and nonpartisan groups has been focusing more intently on issues surrounding the health of our democracy. Major institutions like the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP have engaged in efforts to combat state-level voting restrictions. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee, is chairing a super PAC opposing the 147 Republican members of Congress who went in with Trump and voted against certifying the 2020 election. Run for Something, a Democratic-candidate recruiting group, announced a long-term plan in April to find and support thousands of candidates for local offices overseeing elections. And in Michigan — a critical swing state and home to one of the GOP’s more overt efforts to overturn the last election — a leading democracy and voting rights group announced this month an independent expenditure effort that will run digital ads and focus volunteer efforts on defeating election deniers.

Jamie Lyons-Eddy, deputy director of the Michigan group Voters Not Politicians, said of the public’s recognition of threats to democracy: “I feel like this is moving really quickly, what’s happening in the country and people’s awareness of it.”

And there are high-level conversations going on. A group called “Keep Our Republic,” whose board includes Gephardt and Hart, has been holding briefings in Pennsylvania in recent months, including at Villanova University. The Safeguarding Democracy Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, is planning early next year to host a symposium: “Can American Democracy Survive the 2024 elections?”

“That’s all we talk about is democracy, and we share articles — anything anybody runs across about a threat to democracy,” Hart said.

Everyone he knows in Democratic politics, he said, “is traumatized by what is shaping up to be possibly the greatest threat to America in our history, and that dominates all of our conversations.”

The value of panels and other forums, he said, is “raising the understanding of the threat.”

The problem is that little appears to be breaking through. Americans typically say democracy matters to them, with 52 percent of Americans listing improving the political system as a top priority, according to Pew. But that’s still low on the list of Americans’ concerns, lagging behind the economy, health care, education, Social Security and defending against terrorism. Last month, in a New York Times/Siena College poll, only 11 percent of voters listed the state of democracy and political division as the most important problem facing the country. In some polls, democracy barely registers at all.

Even worse for Democrats, it isn’t their voters, but Republicans, who seem most concerned about the state of the nation’s democracy. According to an NPR/Ipsos poll released ahead of the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, nearly two-thirds of Americans agreed with the idea that democracy is at risk of failing. But Republicans were slightly more likely to agree strongly with that idea than Democrats. They’d already suffered through an election they thought, wrongly, was stolen. And Trump, in their view, had been wronged not only by election administrators, but all the system’s institutions — the House, in its two impeachments of him, the press, in its coverage of his behavior, and most recently, the FBI, with the search of his residence in Florida.

For Democrats hoping that pointing out a Republican’s anti-democratic behavior might move large portions of the electorate, the picture hasn’t improved much since before the 2020 election, when researchers at Yale University used hypothetical and real-world scenarios to test how important democratic principles were to voters. They found candidates who violate democratic principles could typically expect to lose less than 4 percent of their share of the vote.

“Americans value democracy,” the researchers wrote, “but not much.”

It is that lesson — not the one advanced by the Carter groups of the Democratic Party — that Democratic political professionals appear to have internalized.

One day after Blake Masters, an election denier, won his Senate primary in the closely watched swing state of Arizona, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee released an ad introducing Masters as “too dangerous for Arizona.” But the positions it highlighted were his views on Social Security, abortion and the Democratic Party — not an election he falsely maintains Trump won.

Arizona Democrats are running ads depicting Kari Lake, the state’s Republican nominee for governor and a leading election conspiracy theorist, as “radical” — but for her views on abortion, guns and education. In Wisconsin, Democrats are hammering Sen. Ron Johnson on Social Security and health care.

In a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee memo this month, the DCCC called Republican candidates’ positions on abortion “the top testing negative in battleground polls.”

At the center-left group Third Way, Matt Bennett said that what Democrats “would really like to do is go out there and pound Republicans for being anti-democratic people who don’t want you to vote. And while I believe that is the most important issue of our time — the assault on our democracy — I also believe that it is absolutely not politically salient for most voters. They don’t think about it, and I don’t think they can change that.”

The challenge for Democrats, he said, “is that the major catastrophes of our time … are not political winners for us. They’re extraordinarily important and just ignored by most voters.”

When I asked Bennett, a veteran of the Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton and Wesley Clark presidential campaigns, if Democrats should try to change that, he said, “It can’t be done.”

“The climate movement has tried to change that for years, and they’ve made, at most, marginal gains in that regard,” Bennett said. “People do care about climate change, sort of, but they don’t vote on it.”

Democracy, he said, “is in the bucket with climate change.”

It’s that comparison — between democracy and climate — that comes up repeatedly in conversations with Democratic strategists.

“It’s exactly the same thing,” said Ken Martin, chair of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and head of the Association of State Democratic Committees.

Voters, he said, are “just thinking about how the hell you put food on the table and how you keep your job.”

Even on the Carter group calls, there is a recognition that the issue may not resonate as much as members of the group would like it to.

For many voters, said Greg Schneiders, a former Carter aide and Democratic pollster, “if the choice is a benevolent autocrat on your side or a representative of the coastal elites and the ‘deep state’ who might obey all the niceties of a functioning democracy but isn’t on your side, yeah, they’ll take the autocrat.”

He said, “If you can’t show that living in a democracy actually ends up with a better result for you personally than living in an autocracy, then you’re asking a lot of people … It’s a tough sell.”

As a result, even some true believers in the risk to democracy are approaching it in less abstract ways — not dissimilar from when climate change advocates suggested talking to the public less about climate than the immediate public health or economic risks it posed.

When I asked Skye Perryman, the president of Democracy Forward, about the resonance of democracy in the midterms, she mentioned health care, the minimum wage, education, the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and economic unrest all as issues of concern to voters.

“What we see every day is people deeply concerned about democracy and about the broader promise of democracy — what are their wages going to be, what is their economic opportunity going to be, can they educate their kids, are they going to be able to raise their kids in safe communities? These are broader democracy issues,” she said. “There is a movement that is seeking to eradicate and undermine the very foundation of our democracy … But that same movement is also engaged in a range of conduct that is harmful to people and communities, and that is a democracy issue, too.”

Democratic messaging about democracy itself may pick up once Trump announces he’s running again for president, as is widely expected, especially if Biden seeks a second term.

Biden, who was in the Senate even before Carter got to Washington, is steeped in institutional concerns. He cast his 2020 campaign broadly as a return to democratic norms, and in a preview of his likely messaging in 2024, he said of Trump last month: “You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-democracy. You can’t be pro-insurrection and pro-American.

If the electorate’s attention to threats to democracy can be fleeting, said John Anzalone, the longtime Biden pollster, “the fact is, in some ways we forget democracy worked.”

“The fact is that we had a threat,” Anzalone said, referring to the 2020 election. “America rose up, and it kicked its ass.”

Still, he said it “wouldn’t surprise anyone” if Biden or Democrats running in some midterm elections make it more of an issue as the campaign season unfolds.

There may still be time for that. Most of the party’s paid messaging will not come until after Labor Day. Democrats in some races are issuing fundraising appeals based on their opponents’ statements about elections, and they have found criticizing Republicans for election denialism effective when wrapped into a broader critique of a candidate as “extreme.”

On the call in November with the Carter group, Gephardt, who is 81 and living in Florida, said, “Us old people don’t have much of an audience … And we shouldn’t. We’re has-beens. But we love this country, we love this democracy, and we’ve got to play the role of Paul Revere.”

But that was in November. This spring, the Carter group met less often, disrupted by a run of deaths and memorial services for members of the group or people close to them. Between March and May, among other people, Albright and two former House representatives — Vic Fazio and Norman Mineta, also a former transportation secretary — passed away. There was a memorial service in May for Walter Mondale, the former vice president who, before his death last year, had been a regular on the calls.

By the time the group resumed its regular meetings earlier this summer, the anxiety some members had about democracy in the fall was no less severe. In some ways, they were even more dispirited. (Carter was aware of the group’s meetings, Francis said, but has yet to participate in one. He has publicly warned the country is at risk of “losing our precious democracy,” while the Carter Center, long involved in monitoring elections abroad, turned its focus to the United States for the first time in 2020.)

It’s conventional wisdom among pro-democracy activists globally that one strategy for protecting the ballot is to boost pro-democracy candidates regardless of their party. But instead, in a handful of states including Michigan, Maryland and Pennsylvania, Democratic groups had been meddling in Republican primaries, spending millions of dollars elevating pro-Trump hard-liners they believed would be easier for Democrats to defeat in the fall.

It may have been smart politics. In Maryland, the candidate helped by the Democratic Governors Association, Dan Cox — a state lawmaker who organized buses to Washington for the rally preceding the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — is running in such a heavily Democratic state that he is almost certain to lose. By helping to sink Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan, one of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee may have given Democrats a better chance of flipping a congressional seat there.

Last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California defended such interventions, describing them as political decisions “made in furtherance of our winning the election.”

And there’s an argument to be made that she’s right. In 2012, then-Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri was all but written off before she intervened in the Republican primary to elevate a weak opponent, Todd Akin, whose campaign imploded after his remarks about “legitimate rape.” One Democratic National Committee member told me, “The practicality of it has been proven in several races.” And given the significance of party affiliation in Washington, he said — when it comes to elections, but also everything else on the Democratic agenda — it may be worth it if it helps a Democrat win.

Criticism of the practice may also overstate the risk. There’s a likelihood in some contests that Republicans would have voted for the hard-liner in the primary regardless of anything Democrats did. Highlighting a Republican’s Trump-ian credentials may help him or her in a primary, but it can also serve to define them at a critical moment early in the campaign, blunting any effort they might make to walk back their positions in the general election.

“Having them defined early means there is a subset of voters who are never going to consider them” in the general election, said David Turner of the Democratic Governors Association. “It’s educating them about how extreme they are.”

Still, there is a queasiness within the Democratic Party about it. For Democrats who had been elevating concerns about democracy, the interventions in Republican primaries — in some cases on behalf of election deniers — seemed this year to be dicier than in the past. Moreover, it undercut the idea that Democrats were treating democracy as an existential concern.

In a sign of the fracture within the party over the practice, about three dozen former Democratic House and Senate members, including Gephardt and Hart, signed on to an open letter criticizing it this month.

Hart called the meddling “beneath us” and “the worst kind of political manipulation.” And at his home in California, Francis said, “It plays into the cynicism of the public who thinks it’s all just a fucking game.”

“It’s not a game,” Francis said. “Governing and democracy is serious business.”

Last week, Francis said he was thinking of ways to “start inventorying what is going on on the pro-democracy side, what activities are underway, where’s the leadership, who’s doing the public opinion research and the messaging, where are the gaps.”

“Somebody needs to pull them together, it seems to me,” he said.

Yet Francis worried Republicans were way ahead of Democrats on the issue. While Democrats were still talking about raising the public’s awareness, election denialism had become one of the chief motivating forces on the right, with Republicans nominating candidates in this year’s midterms who reject the results of the last election and could have enormous influence over future ones.

“What we’re doing is such a drop in the bucket,” Francis said. “The question is how to turn this into a movement. And it hasn’t yet, not in the same way that it has turned into a movement on the right.”

Francis said he doubted anything meaningful could be accomplished before the midterm election. And he wasn’t optimistic, either, about 2024.

“No,” he said. “No.”

He paused, then added, “I’m deathly afraid of where we’re going, and where we’re going to end up.”

Dems mount $10M ad campaign to sell landmark law — and skirt a November wipeout

Democrats passed their landmark legislation in time for the midterms. Now they need to sell it to voters — and the first phase of that effort is taking shape.

In plans shared first with POLITICO, a trio of Democratic groups — Climate Power, the League of Conservation Voters and Future Forward USA Action, a nonprofit backed by several major Democratic donors — is dropping $10 million on a national TV ad campaign to define the legislation in the minds of voters. It’s the largest paid ad effort to bolster the legislation so far, as an array of Democratic groups and candidates kick off a 90-day sprint to promote the package and defy a brutal electoral environment for the party.

“The magnitude, the scope and the importance of what Congress and Biden just did for climate change is transformational … and it is essential that people understand the magnitude of what just happened,” said Pete Maysmith, senior vice president of campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters. He predicted that Republicans would try to mislead voters about the bill, and “we can’t sit around and wait for that to happen. We need to aggressively tell this story.”

It’s a task the party has been particularly bad at in the past — most notably in 2010 after the passage of Obamacare — and there’s no guarantee this time will be different.

“There was no campaign to win the win” after passage of the Affordable Care Act, said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power, “whereas the other side spent $450 million to define it as a socialist takeover.” That cycle, Democrats lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats.

After President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law on Tuesday, White House cabinet officials fanned out across the country to stump for it, hosting events in California, Iowa, New Jersey, Arizona, Mississippi and Nevada on Thursday and Friday. Vulnerable senators are talking it up on the campaign trail, while Democratic TV admakers are rushing to cut ads.

“I know frontline members have already shot spots explaining their vote, touting what’s in the bill and basically saying — promises made, promises kept on lowering prescription drug costs and health care costs,” said Ian Russell, a Democratic admaker and former political director at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “You’ll see those ads proliferate for frontline Democrats.”

For it to stick in voters’ minds, Russell said, “you have to put money behind it,” he continued. “You have to sell it through ads.”

There’s more ad spending on the horizon, both from candidates and outside groups, a half-dozen Democratic strategists said. Building Back Together, a group led by former Biden campaign officials to support the president’s policies, will be rolling out a more than $1 million ad buy, particularly targeting voters of color, according to a spokesperson for the group.

The Democratic National Committee is also planning to launch its own TV and digital ad campaign boosting the new law, according to a committee official.

“This [spending] reinforces what Democrats in the House and the Senate are already talking about,” said JB Poersch, president of Senate Majority PAC, the flagship Senate Democratic super PAC. Among the provisions he said would resonate with voters: lowering drug costs by allowing Medicare to negotiate prices, instituting an insulin spending cap for Medicare recipients and shoring up the Affordable Care Act. “It helps to echo that relief is on the way.”

Senate Majority PACcut its own ad this week in Nevada that boosted Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) for efforts to “cap insulin costs at $35,” while her Republican opponent, Adam Laxalt, “called a plan to cut insulin costs ‘reckless.’” The law does cap insulin prices for Medicare recipients, but that provision does not extend to those with private insurance, a piece of the bill that was knocked out by Republican opposition.

The sales pitch is also coming from the candidates themselves, who can “in debates, on the stump, through TV ads, point to concrete things they’ve done,” said Ben Wikler, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. The legislation is “the proof point that speaks to the overall case that we’re making to voters right now,” he said.

Even as Democrats lean into their legislative accomplishments, the fundamentals of the election are bleak. Biden’s approval ratings are stuck in the low-40s and inflation, though ticking down slightly, remains high. And breaking through to voters is a tough task, evidenced by recent polling that found only a quarter of voters were aware that Democrats passed a $550 billion infrastructure package last year.

“For independent voters, until they see changes in how much money is leaving their pocket every month, this is going to fall largely on deaf ears,” said Robert Blizzard, a Republican pollster who works on a range of congressional races across the country. “This is merely a play to gin up support among their base.”

But the legislation has given the party a concrete legislative achievement to tout. One veteran of the Obamacare sales job debacle 12 years ago said that Democrats’ challenge is clear this time around.

“The key lesson here is the journey to fight for the success of a law doesn’t end with bill passage, but that kicks off a whole new phase where communications are equally as important,” said Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist. “It’s important to not only do that in electoral advertising, which happens in a specific period of weeks every two years, but you have to show up in voters’ feeds, on their connected streaming TVs, on cable TV, all on a repeated basis explaining what the law does.”

The ads airing as a part of the $10 million buy will appear on cable stations and streaming platforms. They’ll also run on two messaging tracks, leaning on the issues that are polling particularly well among voters, according to public polling. The first batch focus on how “Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress just passed a law that lowers costs for health care, medicine and energy bills by making corporations pay the taxes they owe, without raising taxes on any of us making under $400,000 a year,” the ad’s narrator says.

The second set of climate-focused ads are targeted to younger voters. They will air on cable channels like Comedy Central, MTV and AdultSwim, all with an eye toward drawing back in under 30 voters who have soured on the Biden administration, after turning out at historic levels for Democrats in 2018 and 2020.

“Storms are stronger, the fires are bigger,” the ad’s narrator says. “We are facing a climate emergency, and after decades of inaction, a president is finally doing something to fight it.“

Pence: ‘I would consider’ testifying to Jan. 6 committee

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Former Vice President Mike Pence hasn’t ruled out testifying before the Jan. 6 select committee investigating efforts by his former boss and his allies to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

“If there was an invitation to participate, I would consider it,” Pence told a packed room at the New England Council and Saint Anselm College’s “Politics & Eggs” event on Wednesday morning.

“I would have to reflect on the unique role that I was serving as vice president,” Pence continued. “It would be unprecedented in history for the vice president to be summoned to testify on Capitol Hill. But, as I said, I don’t want to prejudge ever any formal invitation rendered to us.”

In fact, the former vice president, who is typically reticent to talk about his experience on Jan. 6, 2021 — when rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to disrupt the counting of Electoral Votes and chanted “hang Mike Pence” — seemed uncharacteristically open to talking about it down the line, perhaps in the memoir he referenced that is scheduled to be released just after November’s midterm elections.

“The American people have a right to know what happened,” Pence said. “And in the months and years ahead, I’ll be telling my story even more frequently.”

The Jan. 6 panel has weighed whether to formally seek Pence’s testimony for months, with members at times suggesting they would like to bring the former vice president in to hear his version of events.

There is one piece of evidence that only Pence may be equipped to provide: His responses to Trump during their final phone call on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump apparently berated Pence for refusing to support his plan to block the certification of Joe Biden’s victory at the joint session of Congress that day.

But the committee has at other points indicated it may not need to hear directly from Pence, whose closest advisers have testified at length and provided the panel with some of its most significant revelations. The panel declined comment Wednesday morning.

Two of Pence’s top aides, Marc Short and Greg Jacob, recently testified before a Washington, D.C., grand jury investigating efforts by Trump and his administration to disrupt the transfer of power. Their testimony to the select committee helped form the basis of a federal judge’s assessment that Trump had likely committed multiple crimes connected to Jan. 6.

Trump loomed large over Pence’s return to New Hampshire and to Politics & Eggs, an all-but-required stop for those with presidential ambitions visiting the first-in-the-nation primary state.

Pence minimized mentions of Trump in his speech, listing off the accomplishments of the “Trump-Pence administration” before urging folks to refocus on the midterms “because elections are about the future.”

“We need to do more than criticize and complain,” Pence said. “We need to unite our movement around the bold, optimistic agenda that will give real solutions to the American people.”

Pence’s only formal acknowledgement of the now-chilly relationship between him and his former boss — “it’s fairly well known that President Trump and I have had our differences” — was laughed away by a crowd packed with big-name New Hampshire Republicans including Fred Doucette, who chaired Trump’s New Hampshire campaigns in both 2016 and 2020.

In his remarks on Wednesday, Pence seemed eager to carve an electoral lane for himself distinct from Trump without disparaging the former president, who remains enormously popular and influential within the Republican Party.

“There’s no question from Ronald Reagan to Donald Trump we have had our share of big personalities in this party, and I expect we will again,” Pence said. “But I must tell you, when I spoke to crowds large and small across this country, it was the ideas that created the roar, it was the commitment to those American values that brought people out.”

The former vice president is one of several high-profile Republicans – Trump included – to hint at a presidential campaign in 2024. Pence did little on Wednesday to dispel talk that he might mount a 2024 White House bid.

“I’ve never spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, but I may someday,” he said.

Pence’s message at times fell flat among the crowd of New Hampshire and Massachusetts bigwigs who gathered to see the former vice president. He received only a smattering of applause when he spoke of being a “small part of an administration” that appointed three conservative justices to the Supreme Court that sent “Roe v. Wade to the ash heap of history where it belongs.” Abortion rights are popular among voters in both states.

But he remains a draw for New Hampshire Republicans eager to help their party take control of the House and Senate this fall and hold onto power at the state house. Pence had several more stops in New Hampshire on Wednesday, including events with conservative candidates for the state legislature.

“He’s one of the top handful of nationally prominent Republicans, political Republicans, who can draw really good crowds of people,” Chris Ager, the Republican National Committeeman for New Hampshire, said in an interview ahead of Pence’s speech. “People want to hear what he has to say.”

Nicholas Wu contributed to this report.

Cheney to launch anti-Trump organization after primary defeat

Rep. Liz Cheney is wasting no time beginning the next phase of her bid to prevent Donald Trump’s return to office.

“In coming weeks, Liz will be launching an organization to educate the American people about the ongoing threat to our Republic, and to mobilize a unified effort to oppose any Donald Trump campaign for president,” Cheney spokesperson Jeremy Adler told Playbook exclusively.

The new group, which will serve as Cheney’s (R-Wyo.) primary political vehicle as she considers whether to run for president in 2024, does not have an official name yet. An informed guess: The Great Task, which was the name of Cheney’s final ad of the campaign. The phrase is from the last sentence of the Gettysburg Address, and Cheney also referenced it in her concession speech from Jackson, Wyo., on Tuesday night.

Cheney’s campaign filed paperwork early Monday converting her campaign committee to a leadership PAC and renaming it “The Great Task.” The move will allow Cheney to continue raising money and potentially distribute it to like-minded candidates.

Speaking on NBC’s “Today” show on Wednesday, Cheney said a 2024 presidential run was “something I am thinking about” and promised a decision in the “coming months.”

“I believe that Donald Trump continues to pose a very grave threat and risk to our republic,” she said. “And I think that defeating him is going to require a broad and united front of Republicans, Democrats and independents, and that’s what I intend to be part of.”

Cheney, who was seeking a fourth term, was defeated by Harriet Hageman, an attorney and former Cheney supporter who Trump selected last year as his chosen candidate to oppose her. Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, her vocal defense of that vote and her leadership role on the House committee investigating the attacks and Trump’s actions made her Trump’s top political target in the midterms.

Olivia Beavers and Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.

Redistricting, abortion supercharge state Supreme Court races

The U.S. Supreme Court may get all the attention. But some of the most consequential decisions for the next decade could come instead from their counterparts in the states, many of whom are facing voters in the fall.

Like many downballot offices, state Supreme Court races have often slipped out of the headlines in favor of the battles for Congress and governorships, despite how influential the elected justices are. Judicial elections often suffer serious voter dropoff from top-of-the-ticket races, with the big spending in these elections often originating with proxy fights over archaic business and labor law disputes, not the hot-button issues that voters typically focus on.

But with the nation’s highest court punting major policy decisions back to the states over the last several years — from partisan gerrymandering to abortion access — that is increasingly starting to change.

“You have seen fights shift to the state courts,” said Garrett Arwa, the interim executive director of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which has been heavily involved in both political campaigns for and legal battles in front of state Supreme Courts. “You have seen an increasing amount of money spent in some battleground state courts in the wake of these decisions.”

Thirty states have or will hold state Supreme Court elections this year, in a combination of traditional elections or a retention vote — an up-or-down vote to decide if a judge should stay on the bench. And some of the biggest state Supreme Court contests this year map alongside traditional battlegrounds, like Michigan and North Carolina, while others creep into redder or bluer territory.

For many of the biggest partisan players in the fight over state Supreme Courts, redistricting is still a north star for where to invest money.

“We are approaching these races through the mindset of how state supreme courts will affect the redistricting process for the next decade,” said Andrew Romeo, a spokesperson for the Republican State Leadership Committee — the leading GOP group in the fight over the courts — calling the NDRC’s extensive litigation a “sue until it’s blue” strategy. “Redistricting is the tip of the spear for our [judicial] strategy.”

Since the U.S. Supreme Court said in 2019 that the federal judiciary had no role in policing partisan gerrymandering, state Supreme Courts have increasingly weighed in — often throwing out Republican-drawn maps in states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina, but also dealing big blows to Democrats in New York.

And the Supreme Court’s recent decision that kicked abortion policy back to the states has also turned up the heat on state Supreme Court races.

“I think they’ll be some extra money and attention on both sides of the abortion issue on state Supreme Courts as well,” said Steve Stivers, the president and CEO of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce and a former GOP congressman. “It is going to be a very busy playing field from national money in states like Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan … courts that are on the bubble of potentially moving in one direction or the other.”

Here’s a look at four key states to watch.


Michigan will have one of the most pitched battles for control of the state Supreme Court, where liberal justices have a narrow 4-3 majority. The positions are technically nonpartisan elections in November, but the candidates are affiliated with parties.

This year, one Democratic-affiliated and one GOP-aligned justice are up: Richard Bernstein and Brian Zahra. Democrats also put forward state Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden, while Republicans nominated attorney Paul Hudson. All of the candidates on the ballot run in the same pool — and Bernstein and Zahra get a major advantage by being labeled an incumbent on the ballot.

Democrats flipped the balance of the court in 2020, breaking years of control for Republican-affiliated candidates. But, notably, the state Supreme Court took a more centrist pivot in 2018, and it also turned away a challenge earlier this year arguing that state legislative lines that were created by an independent commission favored Republicans.

The state Supreme Court has a significant question on abortion looming in front of it, with Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — who is also on the ballot this year — petitioning the court directly to overturn the state’s 1930s-era law that bans most abortions, with a separate challenge also working its way through the state’s court system.

“I think everyone is paying more attention to Supreme Court races through the lens of abortion than we probably would have otherwise,” said Lavora Barnes, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.

Republicans in the state also said they believe that there will be an increased focus on the races this year. But some argued that a constitutional amendment push in the state to enshrine abortion protections could serve as a release valve for the state Supreme Court and other races, turning those contests on other issues like crime and “the rule of law.”


Ohio Republicans control the state Supreme Court 4-3, but three of their seats are up this year. Perhaps most consequential is the seat of retiring Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, who is stepping down because of an age limit.

O’Connor repeatedly broke with the other GOP-aligned judges during redistricting litigation this year, striking down both congressional and state legislative maps drawn by Republicans as illegal partisan gerrymanders. Now, two incumbent justices — Democrat Jennifer Brunner and Republican Sharon Kennedy — are running for the chief justice seat.

The two other races in the state pit Republican Justice Pat Fischer against Terri Jamison, and Justice Pat DeWine — the son of the sitting governor — against Democrat Marilyn Zayas. Both Democratic women are judges on lower courts in the state.

Liberal groups have found success in recent years on the state Supreme Court, with Brunner and the two other Democratic-aligned justices all winning their seats since 2018.

But this year, the Supreme Court races will be different. For the first time in the state, candidates will have party affiliation next to their name on the general election ballot — previously they were nominated by the parties, but party affiliation was not listed for the general election — and the race would be moved up the ballot to be grouped with other statewide offices instead of being listed down below.

“This changes for us for how we grapple with tactics, and how we communicate,” said Elizabeth Walters, the chair of the Ohio Democratic Party, who was critical of GOP lawmakers’ decision to make those changes. “A lot of the success in the past for court races, for both parties, is preventing rolloff down ticket. Making sure your voters vote the entire ticket.”

Stivers, the Ohio Chamber leader, said he expected his organization to be a major player in the elections, with the Chamber supporting all three Republican judges. And he said, while his group’s involvement was primarily due to major “corporate liability” decisions in front of the court, he didn’t expect to be talking to voters about that.

“I have a feeling we may not be talking about the business issues, because there are other issues that are much more motivating for people,” Stivers said. Beyond acknowledging the role that abortion politics could have in the elections, he expected much of his organization’s messaging to be about public safety.


Two seats are open on the Illinois Supreme Court, which currently has a 4-3 Democratic majority, and Democrats are using the issue of abortion to rally voters in an effort to hold on to their edge.

If primary voting is any indication, Democrats face an uphill battle. The two districts encompass 12 Illinois counties, only two of which pulled a majority of Democratic ballots in the state’s June 28 primary.

“The Illinois Supreme Court districts are trending Republican now,” said political consultant Frank Calabrese. “Republicans can win both Supreme Court elections given that 53 percent of the total votes for Supreme Court candidates during the June primary were for the Republican candidates.” That’s even though the two districts were redrawn in the most recent remap process to favor Democrats.

Illinois pro-abortion rights groups are ramping up get-out-the-vote efforts because of a concern that a right-leaning court could imperil abortion rights, even though Illinois law keeps abortion legal in the state despite Roe v. Wade being overturned.

A greater concern, says Calabrese, is redistricting down the road. “The state Supreme Court hears only about 60 cases a year and most are pretty boring to the greater public.” Redistricting, however, “is a partisan decision” that could be affected by a right-leaning court that pushes back at the state’s Democratic majority drawing boundaries, adds Calabrese.

Supreme Court Justice Michael Burke, a Republican running for a 10-year term in the 3rd District (after his current 2nd District was redrawn) faces Democratic Appellate Court Judge Mary O’Brien.

Former Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran, who opposes abortion, faces Democratic Circuit Court Judge Elizabeth Rochford. Republicans would need to win both races to shift the court right. Democrats need to win one of the races to keep their 4-3 majority.

North Carolina

North Carolina, too, has had a hotly contested state Supreme Court for years. But it is a state where Republicans have been clawing back ground, winning all three elections in 2020 to bring them to a narrow minority in a 4-3 court.

Now, Republicans have the chance to flip the court in 2022, with both seats up for election held by Democratic judges. Justice Sam J. Ervin IV — the grandson of the senator who led the Watergate investigations — is facing Trey Allen, a law professor. And two appeals court judges — Democrat Lucy Inman and Republican Richard Dietz — are running for an open seat.

The North Carolina Supreme Court has been in the middle of the redistricting fight over the last decade, repeatedly ordering Republican legislators to redraw maps, as they did once again after reapportionment in 2021.

That back-and-forth is now at the center of a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court that could radically reshape election law in the country. Republican state legislators argue that the U.S. Constitution allows for very limited — or in the most extreme interpretation, no — judicial review from state courts of election procedures in what’s known as the “independent legislature” theory.

And while that case is unlikely to be top of mind for voters, other recent decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court will be — especially Dobbs v. Jackson, which overturned Roe v. Wade and kicked abortion back to the states. North Carolina Democrats hope an increased focus on the judiciary could help stop their slide.

“I do believe you’re going to see a higher tension, higher emphasis placed by voters on these Supreme Court races in North Carolina,” said Morgan Jackson, a longtime adviser to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. “It’s a better thing for Democrats.”

But Republicans are confident in the state — and setting aside any potential retirements, they have several cycles to flip just one seat. All four of the Democratic controlled seats are up for reelection between now and 2026, but the three GOP-controlled seats won’t be up until 2028.

Facebook has a midterm strategy. Trump won’t be part of it.

Facebook will not move up its timeline for reviewing its decision to suspend Donald Trump, regardless of whether he announces he’s running again for president, a top company executive told POLITICO.

In sticking to its January timetable, Facebook has decided to keep Trump off the world’s largest social media platform even if he becomes a declared presidential candidate before then. The platform’s timeline will also be unaffected by the recent FBI search of Trump’s residence in Florida.

Trump is widely expected to run in 2024, with an announcement possible before the midterms.

“We’re going to stay on that timeline,” Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Meta, Facebook’s parent company, said in an interview. Facebook blocked Trump following posts the company said violated its incitement of violence policy during the deadly riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The company later set a date of Jan. 7, 2023, for a decision on whether to reinstate him.

If Trump announces that he’s running for president in 2024, it may increase outside pressure on Facebook to make a call more quickly. Many Republicans have already argued that the company is unfairly silencing Trump on a platform used by millions of Americans, and Trump’s potential opponents do not face similar restrictions. Meanwhile, some of Trump’s critics have called for a permanent ban.

The debate over how to handle a potential Trump candidacy is also an indication of the new political struggles ahead for social media platforms both in November and in 2024 as they try to avoid a repeat of the misinformation that plagued the 2020 vote and helped fuel the violence in its aftermath.

Clegg’s remarks came as Facebook released a plan for addressing advertising and misinformation in the midterms — an approach that falls largely in line with its handling of the 2020 election.

It was the latest in a series of announcements by embattled social media companies about their preparations for the fall elections. Less than three months before the midterms, Twitter last week announced it’s starting to label false information about voting — which it last deployed ahead of the 2020 election — and Google updated its algorithms to prioritize search results from authoritative sources.

Meta and other social media companies have remained under intense scrutiny for their role in the spread of mis- and disinformation leading up to the 2016 presidential election, when Russian-linked accounts bought $150,000 worth of ads on Facebook alone to influence election results. As a result, Facebook, Twitter and Google’s YouTube have deployed new election-related disinformation policies — revised in the 2018 and 2020 election cycles — for fact-checking and labeling mistruths about voting and election results.

Those new policies were put to the test during the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Following multiple incendiary posts that day, all three platforms blocked Trump for violating their policies against inciting violence. Twitter permanently banned Trump and YouTube said it would indefinitely block his account.

Without access to his typical megaphones, Trump launched his own social media network, Truth Social, though he’s failed to amass the following he previously had on Facebook.

Facebook’s approach to the midterms will be familiar to anyone who was using the site in 2020. As it did that year, the company will block new political, electoral and issue-based ads during the final week of the midterm campaign. But unlike in 2020, Clegg said the company won’t allow any edits to ads or how they are targeted in the final week.

The company plans to lift the restriction a day after the election. This differs from the 2020 election, when Facebook didn’t accept new political, electoral or issue ads until March 4, 2021 (except for those in a Georgia Senate runoff) to prevent confusion and abuse following the presidential election and Jan. 6 insurrection. Clegg said Facebook isn’t planning to extend the ad ban this time, but “if circumstances change then we need to change our posture as well, and we obviously reserve the ability and the right to do that.”

Also, as in 2020, the company will remove misinformation related to voting — including posts about incorrect dates, times and locations for voting, as well as mistruths about who can vote and calls of violence related to voting, registration or an election outcome. It is working with 10 fact-checking partners in the U.S. to address viral misinformation, including five covering Spanish-language content. This marks an increase from just three Spanish-language groups in 2020 and appears to be an acknowledgment that false content also spreads in non-English languages on the platform.

“I think there was quite rightly a lot of scrutiny about how we tackle viral information in Spanish, as well as English,” Clegg said.

Clegg, a former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom, cast Facebook’s preparedness for the midterm elections as a world apart from 2016, when Facebook and other social media companies were pilloried for allowing Kremlin-linked trolls to abuse their platforms. He said the company’s “state of vigilance” is “far, far in excess of what we deployed the last time there were midterms, in 2018. But I think it’s appropriate given the circumstances as they’ve changed since then.”

“Is it perfect? Is it foolproof?” Clegg asked. “Politics mutates all the time, the way people campaign mutates all the time. … My crystal ball is no clearer than yours about exactly how things are going to unfold. But in terms of policies, commitment, resources, headcounts, ingenuity, I think we are just … I would go as far to say we’re basically a different company to what we were back in 2016.”

Trump has maintained his lie that the 2020 election was stolen, which has been an animating factor in Republican primaries across the country.

Asked if he considers the former president more or less of a risk to public safety than the company did at the time the ban was enacted, Clegg said, “Look, I work for an engineering company. We’re an engineering company. We’re not going to start providing a running commentary on the politics of the United States.”

Of Trump’s ban, he said the company “will look at the situation as best as we can understand it” but that “getting Silicon Valley companies to provide a running commentary on political developments in the meantime is not really going to … help illuminate that decision when we need to make it.”