Standing on his porch in Lee’s Summit earlier this month, Lance Potts, a retired union member, said he was still happy with the direction the country is headed under President Donald Trump.
But that doesn’t mean he’s voting for Josh Hawley in the battleground U.S. Senate race in Missouri. Hawley, the state’s Republican attorney general, is trying to unseat incumbent Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill.
“Even though I voted for Trump, the rest of the people I voted for were Democrats,” Potts said.
But whether other union members, once a reliable Democratic voting bloc, return to that party or side with Trump-backed candidates could help determine who wins the hotly contested Senate race.
Trump was the first Republican president Potts said he voted for, and he wasn’t the only union voter to flip. In 2016, Trump won the biggest share of union household votes of any Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan, according to exit polls compiled by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.
After labor households supported President Bill Clinton by 30 points in the 1990s and President Barack Obama by 18-and 20-point spreads in his two successful campaigns, Hillary Clinton won union homes by just 8 points.
But in a year where Missouri workers are energized by a decisive victory over Republicans’ right to work proposal, it’s not clear whether Hawley will benefit from Trump-aligned union voters.
For their part, union leaders and canvassers are hoping workers’ energy continues into the fall as they try to turn out votes for their endorsed issues and candidates, including McCaskill.
To union leaders, the momentum started in June when they flipped a Missouri Senate district that voted for Trump.
Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican, won re-election by more than 22 points the same year Trump won. But less than two years later, Democrat Lauren Arthur won the special election to replace him by 19 points, a win she attributed to labor voters and working families.
Arthur thinks that energy is still there.
“If anything, it’s stronger because so many workers realized that we have the power and that there are more of us than there are the billionaires or the corporate shills,” Arthur said.
Then there was right to work vote in August. A massive turnout effort run through a coalition of labor unions raised more than $16 million, mobilized a huge voter base for a non-presidential primary election and beat back the measure with 67 percent of the vote.
It wasn’t long into his conversation with Brian Simmons, the union leader who knocked on his door, that Potts mentioned the right to work vote.
Simmons, recording secretary for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers Local 778 union, is leading efforts in Kansas City to turn out union voters in the midterms Tuesday.
When he campaigned in Cass County in 2016, voters wanted to know about wedge issues and candidates’ support for Hillary Clinton, he said. But this time around, the conversations are easier and more focused on Missouri issues.
“I can tell you to date, I have not had a door slammed in my face,” Simmons said.
United Auto Workers Local 249 members, who gathered recently at their Pleasant Valley union hall before setting out to knock on doors, hoped right to work would galvanize labor voters to oust legislators who supported the law. Under right to work, employees could opt out of paying fees to cover the cost of being represented. Extra labor turnout could help McCaskill.
“The members on the floor — these kids in particular — absolutely know that if we don’t flip those seats that they can turn around and make us right to work in January,” Shirley Mata said of her fellow UAW union members.
Mata is a Kearney resident and leader in the UAW union.
Jim Rooney, chairman of the Platte County Republican Central Committee, said he thought voters saw the right-to-work vote as old news. He argued the union vote wasn’t monolithic or interested in just one issue.
“Right to work might be an issue with a lot of the union leadership but maybe not with the rank and file,” Rooney said, adding that union voters would look at the “whole picture” and vote against McCaskill, who he said doesn’t represent Missouri values.
He said he’s “betting that they will continue to lean less Democratic.”
Rep. Noel Shull, R-Kansas City, North, said he doesn’t hear much about right to work as he campaigns for his next term in the Missouri House. Shull’s district lies just to the west of the Ford assembly plant that employs United Auto Workers members.
“I don’t know that I’ve had anyone even mention it to me going door to door.”
And opposition to right to work doesn’t necessarily equate to support for Democrats. A sizeable portion of the votes against right to work came from Republicans, giving unions their startling victory.
So where do the union voters stand on Hawley and McCaskill?
To Potts, Hawley wasn’t tough enough on former Gov. Eric Greitens, who resigned this summer amid scandal, and was on the wrong side in the right to work fight.
And even though he still thinks Trump was “the best choice at the time,” Potts and his wife, Nancy Potts, said they’re voting for McCaskill.
To them, it’s choosing the “lesser of two evils.” That’s the way they felt two years ago when Lance Potts voted for Trump and Nancy Potts voted for Clinton.
Duke Dujakovich, president of the greater Kansas City AFL-CIO, said he thought the labor vote would swing back to the Democratic Party and boost McCaskill. But he said he thinks there are more Trump supporters out there than people realize and they can be quieter than Trump opponents. That was the case in 2016.
For his part, Hawley appears to have softened his language on right to work, saying Missouri voters should have the final word. His campaign had previously told the Washington Post “nobody should be forced to pay union dues.”
“It’s been voted on. It’s done,” he said at a campaign stop in Riverside. “The voters have spoken.”
Alise Martiny, business manager for the Greater Kansas City Building and Construction Trades Council, said she wasn’t sure members would trust that.
“I don’t know if we’re necessarily taking that to the bank,” Martiny said.
At a stop in Kansas City earlier this month, McCaskill argued she would be better for working people than Hawley.
“I was against right to work for less,” McCaskill said. “Josh Hawley was very much for it.”
Herb Johnson, a retired AFL-CIO lobbyist, said Trump is appearing to deliver on some labor priorities, like trade.
“I know he’s not doing it for the right reasons, but you know, it is the things that we were bitching about all this time, so I don’t know with regard to anything other than character, I don’t know if we’ve moved the needle back in the other direction or not with working folks,” Johnson said.
Yard signs union members see when they’re out knocking doors raise uncertainty that union voters will come back to the Democratic Party. UAW members this summer said it wasn’t uncommon to see yards with signs opposing right to work.
“But the problem with that, though, is in the same yard you have a Josh Hawley sign,” said Jay Bosler, a UAW member said.