Stock and Lauck discuss “The Conservative Heartland: A Political History of the Postwar American Midwest”

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election there was widespread shock that the Midwest, the Democrats’ so-called blue wall, had been so effectively breached by Donald Trump. But the blue wall, as The Conservative Heartland makes clear, was never quite as secure as so many observers assumed. A deep look at the Midwest’s history of conservative politics, this timely volume reveals how conservative victories in state houses, legislatures, and national elections in the early twenty-first century, far from coming out of nowhere, in fact had extensive roots across decades of political organization in the region.

Focusing on nine states, from Iowa and the Dakotas to Indiana and Ohio, the essays in this collection detail the rise of midwestern conservatism after World War II—a trend that coincided with the transformation of the prewar Republican Party into the New Right. This transformation, the authors contend, involved the Midwest and the Sunbelt states. Through the lenses of race, class, gender, and sexuality, their essays explore the development of midwestern conservative politics in light of deindustrialization, environmentalism, second wave feminism, mass incarceration, privatization, and debates over same-sex marriage and abortion, among other issues. Together these essays map the region’s complex patchwork of viable rural and urban areas, variously subject to a wide array of conflicting interests and concerns; the perspective they provide, at once broad and in-depth, offers unique historical insight into the Midwest’s political complexity—and its status as the last real competitive battleground in presidential elections.

1. What is your elevator pitch for The Conservative Heartland? How would you describe the book in two or three sentences?

Stock: The 2016 election reminded political observers everywhere of the importance of conservative politics in the Midwest.  But what many did not realize is that Midwestern conservatism is nothing new.  In our book, contributors examine conservative political tradition in eleven states over the course of a transformative period, 1945 to the present, when “new conservatism” came to change American politics forever.

Lauck: Since the election of the Midwesterner Ronald Reagan in 1980, the dominant political orientation of the United States has been conservative, especially in the interior sections of the country. Unfortunately, we know very little about modern conservatism in the American Midwest, which is often seen as the heartland of the nation. This book is a major step toward addressing that historical oversight.

2. What was your inspiration to research and write about the political history of the postwar American Midwest?

Stock: Personally, I have been inspired to do political history by the grass-roots political work–stuffing envelopes and going door to door–that I did as a young girl in Minneapolis. My father was active in the Independent Republican Party and supported moderate IR candidates like Arne Carlson through the 1960s. Increasingly in the 1970s, however, IR politics began to change, with more far right candidates appearing in elections as hyper-local as those for the Minneapolis Park Board.  Since becoming a historian and moving to New England, I have continued to be fascinated with the region as a whole–even the question of how it became seen as a region in the first place. Most of my research and writing has examined the interactions between the federal government and the rural people.  I can still remember the arguments between my maternal grandparents, originally from Grand Forks, North Dakota, over the question of whether FDR had “ruined the country.”

Lauck: It is a bit annoying to hear coastal commentators opine about what is “really” going on in the interior of the country. I think it’s far past time for a deep and serious dive into the actual history of the Midwest and to get past stereotypes and anecdotes.

3. What was the most challenging aspect of compiling and editing the book?

Stock: We had far more terrific proposals than we had room for!  Also, we were looking for chronological, geographic, and thematic breadth so that was hard too!

Lauck: There is not much historiography to build on. We are starting from scratch in many cases.

4. How has the political influence of the American Midwest evolved over the past 100 years?

Stock: In one of our chapters, we show how the Midwest had been the most-frequently visited region of the country by presidential candidates throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Certain states like Ohio retained the reputation of being “bellwether” states even to this day.  But other Midwestern states, with fewer Electoral College votes, quickly became “fly-over states” in modern presidential campaigns.  And yet this too may be changing. It is quite striking to see how the Trump administration has returned time and again to small rural states with large percentages of his supporters, like North and South Dakota, to remind those voters that rural people are no less important to his coalition than urban voters.  Of course, the creation of the Iowa caucuses put rural, largely white, America front and center, but after the debacle of the 2020 primary I doubt it will continue to have that place of privilege, at least for the Democrats.

Lauck: Since the explosive growth of the Republican Party in 1850s as a Midwestern regional party to the Midwest GOP’s 50-year reign of dominance after the Civil War to the more recent rise of Reaganism the Midwest has been central to American politics. It is now the last swing region which will determine who captures the presidency this fall and in subsequent cycles.

5. How have single-issue voters influenced political trends in the Midwest?

Stock: I think that the rise of new conservatism cannot be boiled down to single issues–but there are some single issues that certainly made a huge impact in the region’s growing support for new conservatism in the 1970s and 1980s.  Support for the military is an understudied part of the appeal of the New Right in the Midwest; anti-abortion politics is better understood and, of course, seen as a critical component in this shift.  In our essay we also look at the impact of cultural issues like marriage equality, the increased numbers of evangelical Protestant congregations, and the appeal of often racially coded calls for “law and order.”

Lauck: Issues like farming, steel, and trade along with conservative social issues and defenses of American traditions have been major issues in the Midwest in recent decades and will likely remain so.

6. National attention turned to the Midwest after the surprising results from the 2016 Presidential election. Do you sense the region is being monitored more closely by political parties prior to the 2020 election?

Stock: Nearly every day (or at least before COVID 19!) major media outlets have published or broadcast pieces on Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ohio and their extremely important roles in the upcoming elections. It is now a truism that Hillary Clinton may have lost the 2016 election by neglecting to travel to Wisconsin.  No candidate will make that mistake this year!  Similarly, there are new articles examining the question of the Democrat’s supposed “blue wall” in the Midwest.  In our book we question whether there ever was a blue wall in the first place!

Lauck: Absolutely. The growing number of stories about Michigan and Wisconsin, for example, speak to that increased attention. The Democrats’ decision to have their convention in Milwaukee is no accident.

7. What is one thing you would like readers to take from your work?

Stock: That conservative politics have always been an essential part of Midwestern politics and that the region itself may be the last true battleground region in the country!

Lauck: There is a dense civic culture underlying the politics of the Midwest and people need to understand that and focus less on the day-to-day stories of polls and the horse race. People also need to understand that regions and smaller micro-places still play a role in politics and so we need to understand particular places better than we do. To do that we have to break out of the information bubble created by producers and editors in New York and Washington DC.

8. If you could have any one person read your book, who would it be and why?

Stock: I would like to go back in time and have Hillary Clinton read it in 2015!

Lauck: Both Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Pete Buttigieg of Indiana. They could have teamed up, formed an all-Midwest ticket, and fought a good fight for the region. They dropped the ball and left the Democrats with an old Washington insider who hails from Delaware. They should have played the regional angle better and emphasized they were fresh voices from a new generation.

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Catherine McNicol Stock is the Barbara Zaccheo Kohn ‘72 Professor of History at Connecticut College.

Jon K. Lauck is the founding president of the Midwestern History Association, editor-in-chief of the Middle West Review, and adjunct professor of political science at the University of South Dakota.

Huelskamp’s Defeat: Did Kansas Aggies Get their Revenge?

5726782ca3c5b_previewBy Christopher Bosso

The 1st Kansas is one of the nation’s largest and most rural House districts, stretching from the suburbs of Topeka over 300 miles westward along the Nebraska border to Colorado and curling south another 200 miles to the Oklahoma state line.

The Big First is also Agriculture: vast fields of wheat and grain sorghum interspersed with “concentrated feeding operations” of thousands of head of beef cattle. Not surprisingly, those representing the 1st in Congress, including Representative (later Senator) Robert Dole and Representative (later Senator) Pat Roberts, were devoted to and left indelible fingerprints on agricultural policy – and to making sure that Kansas got its fair share of federal funds.

In 2010 the district’s voters elected state senator Tim Huelskamp to fill a seat left empty when fellow Republican Jerry Moran won the Senate seat vacated when, Sam Brownback, also a Republican, became governor. Huelskamp beat out five other Republicans with 34.5% of the vote in a hotly contested primary, after which he went on to an easy general election victory in a district that voted Democrat only once (1953-1955) in its history.

Huelskamp grew up on a farm in Fowler – 2010 population, 590 – and like many future members of Congress had an early fascination with politics and public policy. He returned to Kansas in 1995 after finishing his doctorate in political science and jumped into politics, getting elected a year later as one of the youngest state senators in decades. He was reelected three times with ease, largely on his conservative values on issues like abortion and same sex marriage as well as his views that government was too big and too expensive. Perhaps reflecting training in a Catholic seminary, or maybe just because he is contrarian by nature, Huelskamp also showed a willingness to criticize fellow Republicans he thought weren’t hewing to those values, to the point that in 2003 he was removed from the key Senate Ways and Means Committee for clashing with party leaders. His reputation with voters for his uncompromising defense of his – and their – beliefs, aided by the support of national conservative groups, enabled Huelskamp to enter Congress in 2010 as part of the “tea party” wave that gave Republicans control of the House.

Huelskamp promptly claimed the district’s “traditional” seat on the House Agriculture Committee. However, anyone who thought that he went to Washington to promote Kansas agriculture were soon disabused. To the surprise of no one who paid attention to his career, Huelskamp fast became a thorn in the side of House Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans leaders. He also refused to compromise on cutting federal spending, even when the all-important Farm Bill was up for reauthorization. In fact, despite pleas by Kansas agricultural groups to support passage, Huelskamp and fellow House conservatives blocked action on the Farm Bill throughout the 112th Congress (2011-2012).

In December 2012 Speaker Boehner, furious at Huelskamp’s obstinacy, booted him from the Budget Committee and, to make the lesson hit closer to home, the Agriculture Committee. The Big First now had no seat on Agriculture for the first time in (recent?) history. Huelskamp, along with the other three members of the Kansas House delegation – the most conservative in the country – also famously voted against the final version of the Agricultural Act of 2014 – the Farm Bill! – despite pleas by Kansas agricultural leaders to support the compromise measure.

All of this should have hurt Huelskamp at home. Boehner certainly hoped that Big First voters would elect a more agreeable Republican. But they didn’t: Huelskamp survived a primary challenge by an underfunded opponent and won easy re-election in 2014. So did his three compatriots, no doubt because they adhered to the set of values on which their supporters sent them to Congress in the first place.

It’s August 2016. Huelskamp again faced a primary challenge. This time he got thumped, losing by 13 points to political novice Roger Marshall. Barring a cataclysm in November, Marshall will be the Big First’s next representative.

Many saw Huelskamp’s ouster as the revenge of Kansas Agriculture. Indeed, former Huelskamp allies at the Kansas Farm Bureau and Kansas Livestock Association supported Marshall, as did the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Association of Wheat Growers. Not surprisingly, Marshall pledges to regain the 1st’s rightful place on the House Agriculture Committee.

Yet Huelskamp’s loss may have more to do with Republican Party politics than with the power of agriculture interests. The primary was like the Spanish Civil War – the warm-up for World War II – with each combatant backed by outside powers using the two as proxies in a bigger fight. Huelskamp had the support of National Right to Life, the National Rifle Association, and conservative groups like Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity. Marshall, no liberal, was backed by what passes these days for Establishment Republicanism – notably the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These groups poured nearly $3 million into the race, most of it fueling an arms race of television and radio ads. The money mattered: few challengers can beat an incumbent, even one with Huelskamp’s negatives, without it.

While Huelskamp alienated voters, he lost only because he faced a well-funded opponent in a one-on-one race funded by outside groups with their own agendas. Agriculture got its revenge, but only as a result of that larger war within the Republican Party.

Christopher Bosso is professor of public policy at Northeastern University. His areas of interest include food and environmental policy, science and technology policy, and the governance of emerging technologies. His newest book, Framing the Farm Bill: Interests, Ideology, and the Agricultural Act of 2014 will be published by UPK next year.