DUBUQUE — Inside Knicker’s Saloon, a factory worker hangout here, Jesse Oberbroeckling has just finished his shift at the John Deere plant when he reveals his regret.
Like many union workers, Oberbroeckling voted twice for former Democratic President Barack Obama before backing Donald Trump and other Republicans in 2016.
Now he has buyer’s remorse — and plans to support the Democratic challenger to Rod Blum, the Republican congressman in this blue-collar, Eastern Iowa district.
“Trump is for the rich,” said Oberbroeckling, 37, sipping a rum-and-coke. “Blum’s for big business. They said they were for the workers, but they’re not.”
Poll encouraging for democrats
That sentiment should encourage Democrats, who saw their once-reliable labor vote help send Trump to the White House after he vowed to revive Rust Belt factories with tariffs and ailing coal mines with environmental deregulation. Now — with coal still struggling and Trump stoking a trade war — many union workers have soured on the president ahead of November’s midterm elections, a Reuters/Ipsos poll shows.
Between March 2017 and March 2018, union members’ approval of Trump fell 15 points, to 47 percent. In more than two dozen interviews with union members, many blasted Trump’s tax cut, arguing most of the benefits will flow to corporations and wealthy people.
A loose coalition of union leaders, Democratic strategists and political action committees aims to seize on that shift by directing money and campaign workers to about 30 competitive races in union-heavy districts. The party needs to gain 23 seats to retake the U.S. House.
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But falling support for Trump is no guarantee Democrats can restore the party’s historic dominance of the union vote. Nearly half of members polled still approve of the president, and their support for congressional Democrats has declined slightly from two years ago.
The 2018 poll was conducted online and included more than 1,400 union workers nationwide.
Union membership has fallen by half since the early 1980s, to 10.7 percent of U.S. workers last year. But members still can sway close elections because they are concentrated in specific regions and vote at high rates.
“If we don’t win them back, we will never win here,” said Abby Finkenauer, the leading Democrat challenging Blum in Iowa’s 1st District.
Blum’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
TARGETING FARM, FACTORY TOWNS
Democratic strategists are targeting blue-collar enclaves of the Midwest, along with districts covering California farmlands, New York industry towns and Montana wilderness. They aim to trash the Republican tax cut, along with Trump’s failure to back a minimum wage and his attempt to repeal Obamacare.
In Iowa’s 1st District, Finkenauer tells audiences at union halls that her father was a union pipefitter-welder and that only a Democrat can improve their wages, health care and pensions.
Blum’s website says lower taxes and cutting business regulation will create jobs.
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, said the party will appeal to union voters with Trump’s tariffs, anti-immigration efforts and the tax cut they argue helps all workers.
In interviews with Reuters, union members criticized the tax cut, along with Republican moves in some states — including Iowa — to curtail collective bargaining by public employees. And while Trump’s trade talk attracted many union workers to his campaign, some now worry his policies may protect some blue-collar jobs at the expense of others.
Ken Jones, a retired mechanic and Teamster member, backed Trump because he thought Clinton was “crooked” — borrowing Trump’s signature insult — and that Trump might curtail illegal immigration, create jobs and fix Obamacare.
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“Now I see he’s not going to do anything,” said Jones, of Oklahoma, who plans to vote Democratic this fall. “The working man don’t get nothing out of it.”
Other union members, however, continued to praise Republicans.
“The economy is doing better,” said Otis Evans, 47, of the United Auto Workers in Michigan. “Trump’s straightforward and candid.”