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How Democratic candidates are trying to woo Midwest cities

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From housing to transportation, issues confronting the nation are surfacing in the Heartland

The colorful skyline of Des Moines, Iowa is seen in the foreground of farmland and a bright blue sky.
Des Moines is hosting the final Democratic debate before Iowa’s February 3 caucus.
Getty Images

Although media coverage might have you believe that Iowans will caucus based on whatever food-impaled-on-a-stick presidential candidates might have consumed at the Iowa State Fair, the region is facing complex challenges when it comes to housing, transportation, and infrastructure. With the first candidate face-off coming on February 3, here’s a look at key national issues that are endemic to the Midwest.

Although the Midwest isn’t more rural than anywhere else in the country—one in five U.S. residents lives in what’s defined as rural America—what makes the region unique are its “micropolitans,” cities and towns of 10,000 to 50,000 residents that are being heralded as economic catalysts for the surrounding areas. The region’s small- and mid-sized cities are seeing changes, too, as both employers and residents are coming to town in search of more affordable housing and better quality of life.

With two frontrunning presidential candidates who call the Midwest home, the remaining candidates must capitalize on this opportunity to establish how they’d best address the region’s needs. Here are some ways several of the candidates may seek to win over Heartland voters—both at the debates, and as the first wave of caucuses and primaries rolls into view.

Pete Buttigieg’s infrastructure plan

Pete Buttigieg unveiled a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that seemed fine-tuned to address specifically Midwestern issues like those the former South Bend, Indiana mayor faced in his own city. Among the investments Buttigieg would make include a public transit overhaul that’s specifically focused around his commitment to rural communities, like making sure federal “smart city” transportation grants also go to municipalities outside of cities, and upgrades to public services like water and internet that specifically address decades of racial inequality and federal disinvestment.

Bernie Sanders’s climate justice

No candidate has a climate strategy more comprehensive than Sen. Bernie Sanders, and his $16 trillion Green New Deal plan is heavily focused on transitioning workers into new roles in the “just and equitable” economy. This is a big deal for the Midwest, where clean energy jobs are skyrocketing. Another huge component of Sanders’ plan centers on helping the country’s most marginalized communities recover from climate disasters, like the catastrophic flooding that devastated the Midwest last summer.

Elizabeth Warren’s rent relief

The affordable housing crisis is hitting small towns and rural areas hard, too. As part of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s already robust housing plan, new provisions for renters added in November focus on protecting renters’ rights, including a national small-dollar grant program that would prevent families from being evicted because of financial emergencies. One particular area of Warren’s plan that will resonate with renters is regulating corporate landlords, which have proliferated in many Midwestern communities still reeling from the foreclosure crisis.

Andrew Yang’s freedom dividend

The looming threat of automation is a huge issue for industries like car manufacturing, which is almost all consolidated in the states of Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. In fact, more than half of all U.S. industrial robots are in operation in the Midwestern region. Andrew Yang’s universal basic mobility plan, which would give every American $1,000 per month, is meant to offset the impacts of automation, and might play well with the country’s workers who are most worried about losing their jobs to robots.

Amy Klobuchar’s agricultural platform

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar is the only candidate besides Buttigieg to hail from the Midwest, and accordingly has her own designated “plan from the Heartland.” In it, Klobuchar proposes changing how farm subsidies are managed, introducing new tax credits for manufacturing, and providing better disaster aid like crop insurance, all with the stated goal of helping the agriculture industry become less carbon-intensive and more environmentally resilient. She also highlights elements of her other plans, like high-speed rail and internet access, that would help boost farm-focused economies.

Joe Biden’s high-speed rail strategy

One aspect of former vice president Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion climate plan would be transformative for the Midwest: “the construction of an end-to-end high speed rail system that will connect the coasts, unlocking new, affordable access for every American.” Although “Amtrak Joe”—which he was nicknamed for commuting by train between Delaware and D.C. when he was senator—has been a longtime advocate for rail, his proposal has echoes of an Obama administration effort to funnel $53 billion into rail investments nine years ago that never came to fruition.