TOLEDO, Ohio — Representative Marcy Kaptur, the working-class daughter of this working-class town, is on the brink of a milestone: If she is elected to her 21st term in November, she will become the longest-serving female congressman. Barbara Mikulski’s combined House and Senate record.
But for Ms Kaptur, 75, a famously pro-union, old-school usurper, the political ground has been washed away from under her feet. A new Republican-signed district has robbed her of reliable Democratic votes on the outskirts of Cleveland. The national Democratic Party has saddled it with an agenda to phase out internal combustion engines and the fossil fuels they power, which are bad in the region that brought the first Jeeps into mass production.
And Donald J. Trump rattled the foundations of the Democratic labor profession, with his trade protectionism, thunderous denunciations of China, and his belief in job creation at all costs.
As Republican voters head to the polls Tuesday to select Ms. Kaptur’s opponent for the fall election, some of her oldest, strongest allies in the union world have their doubts — about Ms. Kaptur’s future, and more broadly, the future of the Democratic Party in the industrial heart.
“Listen, Marcy is a friend,” said Shaun Enright, executive secretary and business manager of the 17,000-strong Northwest Ohio Building Trades Council. “But I have to join, whatever the election cycle, and say, ‘This is the most important election of your life. You have to vote.’ And I’m tired of doing it. Members are tired of hearing it.”
Ms Kaptur’s longevity was to underscore the truth that union families knew their friends and would not abandon them. Democratic senators like Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Manchin III of West Virginia have hammered it. Representative Tim Ryan is testing it with his run for an Ohio Senate seat that has hitherto revolved around worker occupations.
Mr. Trump would have won Ms. Kaptur’s newly drawn district by three percentage points, but in the parts that overlapped the old map, Ms. Kaptur outperformed Joseph R. Biden Jr. by six percentage points, giving some hope – at least numerically – that her name recognition, long track record, and general popularity still managed to earn that 41st year in Congress.
“My agency has now given me the opportunity to make a difference,” she said in an interview, boasting of her seat on the powerful credit committee and her chairmanship of the subcommittee that hands out energy and water financing.
But her struggle to reach that historic milestone bears witness to what Republicans and some union leaders here have been saying since the rise of Trumpism: Labor politics has changed forever. There are fewer union voters and those who remain are less democratic, said Jeff Broxmeyer, a political scientist at the University of Toledo. Since 1990, the percentage of Ohio workers represented by unions has fallen from 23.2 percent to 13 percent.
“The organizational capacity of the Democratic Party in northwest Ohio is the organizational capacity of organized labor, and organized labor has been greatly diminished,” he said. “Now we are at the endgame.”
The State of Jobs in the United States
The number of job openings and the number of employees who voluntarily left their jobs in the United States remained close to record levels in March.
The state legislature chopped off the tail of Ms. Kaptur’s oddly-drawn district along Lake Erie — nicknamed the Snake on the Lake — then expanded it west through rural Ohio to the Indiana border. That, Professor Broxmeyer said, meant Republicans “come for the last Democrat.”
It wasn’t too long ago, 2012, that Barack Obama won Ohio’s union families, 61 percent against Mitt Romney’s 37 percent. But Mr. Trump won 54 percent of those same voters in 2016, and then 55 percent in 2020. While on the coast, forecasters worry about the former president’s lingering hold on the Republican Party, in northwestern Ohio, the party embracing Trump-era protectionism. , immigration exclusion and anti-environmental awareness is warmly welcomed.
“A lot of those union workers aren’t happy with their unions right now,” said Craig Riedel, a state representative who is running in the Republican primary to challenge Ms. Kaptur. “They realize that many of those union bosses are part of the democratic machine, and often they look at a political vision of their unions that conflicts with theirs.”
Union leaders agree that it will be much more difficult to document disagreements between local Democrats and their national parties when Trump-aligned Republican candidates use the same anti-China, anti-trade rhetoric that Ohio Democrats use. Erika White, president of the local Communications Workers of America in northwestern Ohio, said Mr. Trump had given voice to the anger of white workers, even though he failed to keep his promises.
Ms. White, who is black, said she spends much of her time listening to the frustrations of the white men who make up about half of her union.
“I personally can’t stand the guy, but you think about his persona,” she said of Mr. Trump. “Where people are, I don’t know if they’re afraid of accountability or where we’re going, but instead of personal responsibility they say, ‘I’d rather blame you for all my problems, and then I won’t be alone. blame it, I will be mean and aggressive.’”
Ms. Kaptur sees it too, and sees the allure of Mr. Trump, despite the fact that he has not delivered any tangible benefits.
“For the most part, our party is very coastal oriented,” she said, adding: “Our part of the country just doesn’t have a lot of voice, and so in part what it reflects is that vacuum of people feeling left out , and I can understand that.”
A burning problem in Toledo is a natural gas and crude oil pipeline called Line Five that runs across the bottom of the Great Lakes from Canada to Ohio and supplies a refinery here that employs 1,200 union workers.
The Democratic administration of Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has called it a “ticking time bomb” that must be shut down, and environmental allies say workers must face reality: As the auto industry switches to electric vehicles, oil pipelines and refineries are no longer needed.
But what the National Democrats see as a planetary necessity, union leaders like Mr. Enright see as an immediate deadly threat, and they fully expect the politicians to get them back to fight for their jobs. That means keeping Line Five open and switching to electric vehicles in the lowest gear possible.
“Democrats say they’re the ones who work for people’s wallets, but how do I tell my members that this is the guy who works to help your wallet, when that’s the guy who shuts down the pipeline to your refinery?” asked Mr. Enright.
An issue like Line Five is easy for Republicans in the race. It unites unions and companies without alienating any other constituency.
“I mean, it’s 1,200 direct jobs and thousands of indirect jobs, including union workers with high-paying jobs, and Marcy Kaptur has kept quiet,” state senator Theresa Gavarone, a leading Republican in the race, said as she shook hands with Archbold High School in rural areas. west of the newly drawn district.
Ms. Gavarone has used the Line Five issue to become allies in construction unions, and she used those allies to break away from Mr. Riedel, who is openly opposed to unions.
Ms Kaptur reacted defensively, but she also showed the countercurrent she is facing. As chair of the Energy and Water Credit Subcommittee, she said she had done everything she could to protect and relocate the pipeline. But she also leads the Great Lakes Caucus in the house, and protecting the largest freshwater body on Earth, she said, should also be a priority.
That Mr Trump never seemed to suffer from such conflicts frustrates her, and it does not seem clear to her how to overcome its appeal in a region exhausted by globalization and left behind, first by free trade, then by the changing priorities of environmental protection and an information and technology economy.
But she is perfectly clear about the position of her constituents.
“He was able to break through the despair that comes with economic opportunities being snatched from under you like a carpet, and he was able to do it even though he didn’t do anything for them,” Mrs. Kaptur bellowed. “These are people who have worked hard all their lives, and then an earthquake happened. It’s not their fault, and for the most part Washington never saw it.”