This is it: The first major political test for Republican President Donald J. Trump is just around the corner. Although the president isn’t on Tuesday’s ballot, he has said the midterm elections are about him – a referendum on his first two years in office.
Indeed, the outcome of the congressional, gubernatorial, statewide and legislative races around the country will tell a lot about the state of the nation’s politics. If Republicans retain control of the U.S. House and Senate, maintain or increase their advantage in the governorships, legislatures and statewide offices, Trump will be inspired to double down on his slash-and-burn style of governing.
But if Democrats take over the House – the Senate is a greater challenge – and make gains in state races, it will be a repudiation of Trump’s presidency.
The stakes are high, but none higher than in predominantly Democratic Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
Democrats are still licking their wounds from the 2016 presidential election when then political newcomer Trump, a billionaire real-estate developer from New York City who had taken the Republican Party by storm, carried Trumbull County and came close in Mahoning.
The results sent shockwaves through the state. No one thought that a GOP nominee for president could defeat popular Democratic Party insider Hillary Clinton in the Valley.
In Trumbull County, Trump pocketed 48,152 votes, while Clinton, wife of former President Bill Clinton who had carried this region by huge margins, received 42,130 votes.
In Mahoning County, Clinton won by 3,380 votes – 56,188 to 52,808.
Such a small win was no better than a loss because of the importance of this region to the Democratic Party’s political fortunes statewide.
It has long been acknowledged that a Democratic candidate for president or governor must emerge from Mahoning and Trumbull counties with at least 60 percent of the vote to have a realistic chance of carrying Ohio.
Clinton won Mahoning County by 49 percent of the vote – and Trump carried Ohio.
That’s why the election Tuesday in the Mahoning Valley is being watched so closely.
The question that looms is this: Will the Democratic voters who switched over to the GOP in 2016 to vote for Trump return to the fold this year?
The question has major implications. For one thing, the Democratic nominee for governor, Richard Cordray, is depending on a significant vote from Mahoning and Trumbull counties to carry him across the finish line.
Cordray is going up against Republican Mike DeWine, currently the state’s attorney general and an entrenched party insider.
The race is much closer than it should be, given that Cordray has not held statewide office for eight years.
And yet, the Trump factor remains the great unknown.
Will the strong support the president enjoys in the Valley among blue-collar workers, especially white men, transfer to DeWine, a much more ideological Republican than Trump?
The president has held political rallies around the country on behalf of Republican candidates for Congress and state offices. He is scheduled to be in Cleveland on Monday.
Given that his base of support has remained firm since the 2016 election, traditional Republicans have put up with his incendiary language and his attacks on America’s allies, global trade, immigrants, Muslims, women, minorities, LGBTQs, the mainstream press and Democrats to be in his good graces.
Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail have shown a disturbing fear of the president, and that has enabled Trump to ride roughshod over them. His supporters revel in his political arrogance, while Republican Party insiders shiver at the thought of being on his enemies list.
There has been a lot of soul-selling among Republicans this election season, but it remains to be seen whether such subservience to Trump pays off.
In the Mahoning Valley, there are two prominent politicians whose futures will depend on the outcome of the election: Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras and Trumbull County Democratic Party Chairman Daniel Polivka.
Betras and Polivka are still licking their wounds from Trump’s beating in the 2016 presidential election and know that this will be an election in which they either redeem themselves or give up the reins of power.
If they aren’t able to deliver at least 60 percent of the vote for Cordray, who has proven to be a much more substantial candidate for governor than the 2014 Democratic standard-bearer Ed FitzGerald, their effectiveness as party chairmen will be called into question.
Trump has said this year’s election is a preview to the 2020 presidential sweepstakes, which he has every intention of entering. In fact, the president predicted last week that he will win re-election by a landslide.
The Democratic Party still does not have a consensus candidate who can reverse the exodus of working-class Democrats to Trump.
It is instructive that two years ago when Trump received 48,152 votes to win Trumbull County, Valley Congressman Tim Ryan of Howland, D-13th, garnered 56,633 votes.
In Mahoning County, Ryan, who has become a national political figure because of his challenge of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, received 60,780 votes, compared with Trump’s 52,808.
The argument was made recently in this space that Ryan, who is climbing the seniority ladder in the House of Representatives, would be the ideal running mate for billionaire businessman Michael Bloomberg, who is being touted for a presidential run in 2020.
Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City and head of a global corporation that bears his name, is at least five times richer than Trump.
The president has claimed that he’s worth $10 billion and that he started his career as a real estate developer with only a $1 million loan from his father, Fred.
However, the New York Times revealed that Trump actually received hundreds of millions of dollars from his developer father through creative accounting and sleight-of-hand financial transactions and avoided paying millions of dollars in taxes.
Only someone like Bloomberg, who knows the business world from the inside and is a pillar of the New York business community, can make the case that Trump is a political snake-oil salesman who has bamboozled millions of voters.
Ryan would provide the Democratic presidential ticket with the crucial Middle America connection, especially in the Rust Belt.
How the congressman performs in Tuesday’s election will determine his future on the national political stage.
Likewise, how gubernatorial hopeful Cordray and the rest of the Democratic ticket fare in Mahoning and Trumbull counties will reflect on the tenures of party chairmen Betras and Polivka.