CHESTERTON, Ind. — When Democratic Rep. Frank J. Mrvan was first elected in 2020, he won easily in this working-class district that’s been in Democratic hands for nearly a century.
Campaigning at the Northwest Indiana Area Labor Federation’s annual awards dinner last week, though, there was an edge in Mrvan’s voice.
Republicans are targeting the district — a union-heavy Democratic stronghold outside of Chicago — this year for the first time in decades in their campaign to retake the House in November. Conservative outside groups have invested millions of dollars into turn-out-the-vote efforts and TV ads bashing Mrvan, forcing Democrats to hustle to hold onto the seat.
“When you vote for and advocate for working men and women, you get powerful enemies,” Mrvan told about 100 union members and their families Thursday evening, imploring union leaders to talk their members on his behalf.
“I’m asking you, with every fiber of my being and every sense of urgency I have, don’t let big corporations buy this district,” he said.
The race will test whether Democrats can halt Republicans’ gains with the White working-class voters — including union members — who played a crucial role in electing Donald Trump in 2016. President Biden did slightly better with White voters without college degrees in 2020 than Hillary Clinton did four years earlier, although he won only 33 percent of them.
Democrats have held onto Mrvan’s seat until now in part because of its diversity: The district was about 17 percent Black and 17 percent Hispanic under the old lines, and its boundaries changed little in redistricting. But Republicans are increasingly competitive with Hispanic voters without college degrees, 41 percent of whom backed Trump in 2020.
“This is an Achilles’ heel of the new Democratic Party,” said Chuck Rocha, who worked in the district while he was national political director for the United Steelworkers union and later became a senior adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns. “Our party is becoming a party that’s run by overeducated White folks, and we’re losing the messaging that made me join the Democrats in 1990 as a [union] rubber worker.”
Voters in Mrvan’s district — which includes the steelmaking cities of Gary and East Chicago and a swath of working-class and more affluent suburbs — have moved away from Democrats. Former president Barack Obama carried Mrvan’s district by 24 points in 2012, but Clinton won it by less than 13 points and Biden carried it by only eight points, even as Mrvan won by 16 points.
Former Democratic Rep. Peter J. Visclosky, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee who championed the district’s steel industry, held the seat for decades before retiring two years ago. Republicans made little effort to win it in 2020, but they see an opportunity to oust Mrvan this year while he’s still relatively unknown and voters are demoralized by inflation.
Republicans have rallied around Jennifer-Ruth Green, a Black Air Force veteran who’s raised more money than Mrvan over the past six months and has benefited from Republican air support.
Congressional Leadership Fund, the flagship super PAC backing House Republicans, is spending $5.5 million on TV ads attacking Mrvan. House Majority PAC, the super PAC charged with defending Democrats’ House majority, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee together have booked about $5 million in counterattacks.
“It’s gonna be close — closer than people think,” Randy Palmateer, the business manager of the Northwestern Indiana Building & Construction Trades Council, said on Thursday as he sipped a beer after Mrvan spoke at the union dinner. Two-thirds of the 47,000 union members Palmateer represents voted for Trump in 2020, he added.
Palmateer, who described himself as “a pro-gun, pro-life Democrat,” said he wasn’t excited about Biden or Trump in 2020. But Palmateer has come to believe that Biden has the strongest record on labor issues of any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. The challenge is communicating Biden’s accomplishments to his members, who lean conservative on cultural issues.
“Our members have no clue what’s going on,” he said.
Green has won over some union members who once voted for Democrats.
Scott Cranor, the grievance chairman at United Steelworkers Local 1014, which represents about 1,800 steelworkers at U.S. Steel’s mill in Gary, said there was a time when he would’ve cringed at voting Republican because he felt the party didn’t care about working people. But he voted for Trump in 2016, in part because of Trump’s pledge to impose tariffs on imported steel.
“It was a gamble,” Cranor said. “I didn’t tell my dad, because God rest his soul, he was a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat.”
Cranor, 58, felt validated when Trump followed through on the tariffs, which Biden has partially kept in place. He also aligns with Republicans on abortion, guns and border security, although he said he believes there are “a lot of problems with both parties.”
Some Democrats in the district acknowledge struggling with union members but say they’re returning to the fold. “We had become complacent and we had taken union support for granted,” said Jim Wieser, the Democratic chairman in Lake County, where most of the district’s voters live. “And we worked to repair that.”
Green declined an interview request, but Tim Edson, her campaign’s general consultant, made the case that Mrvan doesn’t realize how quickly his district is moving away from Democrats.
“He doesn’t necessarily feel the ground shifting under his feet,” Edson said. “This is the kind of guy who votes down the line with national Democrats.”
Democrats have hammered Green for opposing abortion rights; House Majority PAC included a clip of Green describing herself as “100 percent pro-life” in the super PAC’s latest TV ad.
But Mrvan seems most comfortable campaigning in the Visclosky mold. In a brief interview, he highlighted his support for the infrastructure law and the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill that Democrats passed in the first weeks of the Biden administration, as well as earmarks, which returned last year after Republicans outlawed them a decade ago.
“It’s not romantic, but it’s absolutely what’s necessary for economic development for our communities throughout all of our district,” Mrvan said.
But Republicans are arguing the same bills Mrvan is campaigning on have exacerbated inflation. The ads that Americans for Prosperity Action, a conservative super PAC, is hanging on doors in the district read: “Mrvan voted yes to trillions in wasteful spending, leading to record inflation and high prices for groceries and everyday goods.”
AFP Action has a team of more than 100 canvassers on the ground in the district and has hit more than 60,000 doors, said Josh Webb, a senior adviser to the group.
When an AFP Action canvasser knocked on Terry Wallace’s door in a neat suburban neighborhood of modest ranch and split-level homes on Friday, he assured the canvasser that he’d be voting for Green. Wallace, 71, a retired steelworker with a gray mustache, said he had been voting Republican since the 1990s, when he decided Democrats had gone too far left.
Still, Wallace wasn’t convinced that Republicans would succeed in winning over other union voters in the district.
“Most of them I know, they’re all voting Democrat,” he said.