LAWRENCE, Kan. — A decade ago, a Democrat was governor of Kansas. And Illinois. And Michigan. And Wisconsin. Since then, Republicans dominated, winning governor’s races across much of the Midwest and enacting conservative policies that reshaped the region in their image.
On Tuesday, there were signs of a shift back toward the politics that had long defined the region. Though Republicans remain the more powerful party in the center of the country, voters flipped governor’s offices back to Democrats in those four states and sent Democrats to Congress in several suburban districts that had long been firmly Republican. Moderation plays well in the Midwest.
The results suggested that the much-discussed demise of the Midwestern Democrat may have been exaggerated after President Trump’s victory in 2016.
What happened in the Midwest this week, bringing an end to total Republican control in three state capitals, was in some cases less a sharp shift on matters of national ideology and more a return to the once-familiar political middle.
For at least some voters, the choices seemed less about fiery debates over illegal immigration or who ought to be on the Supreme Court and more about meat-and-potato matters like repairing potholes and paying for schools. Some voters said they simply did not care for too much of one thing — red, blue or otherwise.
“I do hope it’s a turn toward more of a moderate coalition,” said Dorothy Hughes, 35, a Republican from suburban Kansas City, Kan. Ms. Hughes said she had voted for Laura Kelly, a Democrat who defeated Kris W. Kobach, an ally of President Trump, in the race for governor. She had grown troubled by her own party’s domination of the state, she said, and its increasingly strident conservatism. She was ready for something different.
“It benefits people in power to be challenged,” Ms. Hughes said. “They’ll come up with better solutions if they’ve got someone to contend with.”
Signs of Democrats’ strength spread through parts of the region. Democrats won several Republican-held congressional seats in the Midwest, including in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas and Michigan. They secured full control of the state government in Illinois by unseating Gov. Bruce Rauner, the Republican incumbent.
But there also were significant signs of Republican dominance. The party held onto governor’s seats in Iowa, Ohio and South Dakota despite close contests. It also held onto all but one state legislative chamber it had controlled in the Midwest. And races in this region helped Republicans maintain a hold on the Senate: They flipped three crucial seats in Midwestern states where Mr. Trump’s message resonated, defeating the Democrats Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Joe Donnelly in Indiana and Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota.
The mixed outcome raised uncertainty looking ahead to the presidential election in 2020. Both for Republicans who had begun to rely on the Midwest and for Democrats who had written it off, all bets were off.
“There’s an argument to make that the blue wall is being rebuilt,” said Lawrence R. Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, who described the results in Minnesota as “at least a mini-blue wave.” There, Democrats held onto the governor’s office and two United States Senate seats (including a special election to the seat from which Al Franken had resigned). Four competitive House seats from Minnesota districts were split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.
“This was all sort of a return to normalcy, which is political parity,” he said. “What I would call it is a pragmatic election.”
But Jennifer Carnahan, the chairwoman of the Minnesota Republican Party, attributed her party’s losses in suburban congressional and state legislative races to “a very motivated bloc” of Democratic voters registering their distaste for the president.
“I don’t think this was a vote on a middle ground,” Ms. Carnahan said. “I think it truly was a vote against the president, and it’s unfortunate because the president has done so many great things.”
Around the region, some Democratic candidates had tried to shape their campaigns with bluntly practical, local messages that steered clear of contentious philosophical debates and of President Trump. Some seemed to celebrate the universal appeal of such messages — and their back-to-basics simplicity.
“Fix the damn roads” became a rallying cry for the campaign of Gretchen Whitmer, the Democrat who was elected governor of Michigan. At one point, she filmed a commercial from behind the seat of her car, promising to improve the state’s roads and bridges.
In Kansas, Ms. Kelly promised to be “the education governor,” a pitch that appealed to voters across party lines and helped her run up large leads in several populous counties that Mr. Trump carried.
Though Kansas is reliably Republican in presidential elections, residents have long elected fairly moderate governors from both political parties. That changed eight years ago when Sam Brownback became governor and commandeered a hard-right shift in the state’s policies, including sweeping tax cuts that led to painful revenue shortfalls.
Tuesday’s election between Ms. Kelly and Mr. Kobach, a Republican whose style and policies are similar to President Trump’s, amounted to a choice between the state’s more centrist past and its very conservative present.
“It’s all gotten far too extreme,” said Rachael Pirner, 58, a Republican lawyer from Wichita who donated to Ms. Kelly’s campaign and voted for her. She saw Ms. Kelly’s win as a return to her state’s moderate roots, “a shift back to where we are really.”
“What happened in Kansas was a wave of common sense, a wave of bipartisanship,” Ms. Kelly told supporters on Tuesday night. “This wasn’t one side beating the other. It was Democrats and Republicans and independents all coming together to put our state back on track.”
In Wisconsin, Democrats held onto Tammy Baldwin’s seat in the United States Senate and they flipped the governor’s seat, removing Scott Walker, who had pushed the state sharply to the right over eight contentious years.
Mr. Walker, an astute politician, had long been a target of Democrats in the state, but they had failed to defeat him during three highly contested elections, including a recall attempt. After he took office in 2011, Democrats had often complained that his positions on issues like limits to union power and voter ID restrictions had polarized the state in a way it wasn’t used to.
In the end, though, it may not have been the polarizing issues that made the biggest difference at the polls. Tony Evers, the Democrat who won an extremely narrow race to be elected governor, talked mostly about protecting health care coverage, fixing highways and paying for education.
“I think Scott Walker became over confident and out of touch with the pressing concerns of the people in Wisconsin,” said Sally Mather, a retired social worker who said she had voted for Mr. Evers. “People were looking at their schools, they’re looking at their roads, and they’re saying, ‘Wait a minute, what about me?’”
Mitch Smith reported from Lawrence, and Monica Davey from Pewaukee, Wis.