The Hillary Clinton campaign is meeting with swing-state leaders of Eastern European descent, encouraging ethnic debate watch parties and phone banks, and scheduling conference calls with Clinton allies from her State Department days as part of an aggressive effort to capitalize on Donald Trump’s embrace of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his equivocal support for NATO.
For years, voters with Eastern Bloc roots embraced the Republican Party, viewing the GOP as an anti-communist bulwark and a champion of strength in the face of Russian aggression.
But the Republican nominee’s frequent praise of Putin and talk of conditional American backing for NATO members under attack has alarmed voters with close family ties to Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and other Eastern European countries, raising the prospect that they’ll bolt the top of the GOP ticket in November.
“The Latvians are primarily Republicans, as are Lithuanians, Estonians, and many Ukrainians, but Trump has put them in a real bind,” said Maris Mantenieks, a Latvian leader in Ohio’s Eastern European ethnic community. “Because in all honesty they don’t want to vote for [Clinton], and yet again they can’t express their Republicanism due to Trump’s positions.”
These voters, many of whom live in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, are deeply worried by an emboldened Moscow, and anxious over the possibility that the Baltic nations might be the next target of Russian adventurism. Trump’s lavish praise of Putin has exacerbated those concerns — leaving an opening that Clinton’s campaign is leveraging by emphasizing her willingness to get tough with Putin, and her unwavering support for NATO. Earlier this month, Clinton met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in New York— and her allies made sure to publicize the message that Trump snubbed him.
“From a policy perspective, one of the things Trump really opened up is conversations with groups that tend to lean more conservative, because of his dangerously pro-Kremlin ties…and anti-NATO perspective,” said John McCarthy, Clinton’s “director of heritage community outreach,” who is focused in part on cultivating support for Clinton from Eastern European-American communities in battleground states.
In Pennsylvania, according to the most recent Census data available, there are more than 100,000 people of Ukrainian descent; 820,000 of Polish descent — a demographic that tends to be more Democratic-leaning, but that cares about strong support for NATO; 46,000 Croatians, and thousands of Lithuanians, Latvians, Albanians, Estonians and people of other Eastern European ethnicities. In Ohio, there are around 40,000 Ukrainians, more than 400,000 Poles, and thousands of Americans of other Eastern European heritage.
While these groups don’t necessarily vote as monolithic blocs — for many, their ties to Eastern Europe are attenuated — it could be enough to make a difference in a tightly contested race, Democrats say.
“I believe in our community, in many Eastern European communities, there is a high percentage of … voters that do still take foreign policy seriously because of our own immigrant story, or their strong support for NATO, that would lead one to be a supporter and vote for Hillary Clinton,” said Steve Rukavina, a leader in the national Croatian community based in Pennsylvania and helping to organize ethnic engagement efforts for Clinton in the state, in conjunction with the Democratic National Committee’s National Democratic Ethnic Coordinating Council. “We believe that can make a difference in this election, in any swing state that could be very close. So we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
In Ohio, engaging Eastern European ethnic communities is a campaign staple, particularly in northeastern Ohio, which is home to significant Polish and Ukrainian communities. George Voinovich, the late Republican governor, senator and Cleveland mayor — himself of Serbian and Slovenian descent — prioritized establishing strong relationships with ethnic communities in the state, and GOP Sen. Rob Portman, up for re-election this cycle, is taking the same approach.
Portman has met with ethnic leaders in the state as many as 14 times in the last three years, and is a champion of a strong Ukraine, a country at odds with Russia and pro-Russian forces. He still looks poised to net strong support from the Ukrainian and Eastern European voters but community leaders have made clear to him that this year, support for Trump at the top of the ticket is a bridge too far.
At a breakfast meeting with local ethnic leaders last month — the day after a bombshell report dropped revealing extensive ties between Trump’s then-campaign chair and pro-Russia forces — Portman couldn’t escape talk of the GOP nominee.
Over Ukrainian cheese blintzes, leaders assembled around the table in Parma, Ohio, laid into Trump, sketching out their concerns about Trump’s lavish praise of Putin, and his equivocal support for NATO.
“There was a very strong anti-Trump feeling there,” said Mantenieks, who attended the meeting and said he had an extended conversation with Portman after the breakfast.
Added Erika Puussaar, an Estonian-American leader from Cleveland, “I’m very supportive of Rob Portman, our senator, because that’s very important to him that he supports NATO. I don’t think Donald Trump has any idea about how these smaller countries depend on NATO. That’s the only defense against Russia. These countries were invaded during the Second World War, they lived under Russian rule for 50 years, NATO is the only military protection they have.”
Yet she harbors serious reservations about Clinton, too, and is considering voting for Libertarian Gary Johnson — playing into Democratic hopes that Republican-leaning voters from ethnic communities won’t turn out for Trump.
Andrew Futey, who advises Portman on ethnic outreach and is himself a leader in Cleveland’s Ukrainian community, cautiously gave the Clinton campaign credit for their attempts at engagement.
“I think there’s an effort by her team to reach out,” said Futey, who also worked for Voinovich and is undecided on whether he will vote for Trump. “I just hope it’s genuine and that it’s real, and not taking advantage of a political situation, but I think it’s pretty clear her team is trying to reach out.”
In a sign his campaign senses the risk, Trump has launched his own attempts to reach out to Americans of Eastern European descent, addressing Polish Americans in Chicago on Wednesday.
“We want to be strong, which means we want more countries to follow the example of Poland,” Trump said, attempting to soothe concerns about his position on NATO. “If every country in NATO made the same contribution as Poland, all of our allies would be more secure. And people would feel even better about NATO.”
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor and a prominent Trump surrogate who attended the event, added that while Trump may push other countries to contribute more to NATO, he understands the “solemn obligation” to defend NATO members from attack.
Asked what else his campaign was doing to court ethnic voters, spokeswoman Hope Hicks replied only that, “The event [Wednesday] was a tremendous success. Mr. Trump was met with great support by the Polish-American community. “
Ulana Mazurkevich, a Ukrainian-American activist who has been working with the Clinton campaign in Pennsylvania, said she has no doubt that some ethnic voters will still back Trump — a man whose name she can barely utter because “I get all upset,” she says.
An incredulous Mazurkevich is bursting with stories about disagreements she has had with other Ukrainian and Polish-American acquaintances. But through one-on-one meetings, roundtables, door-knocking, handing out flyers at Ukrainian schools and working the crowds at ethnic events, she and other Clinton supporters are expecting to curb Eastern European-American tendencies to vote Republican this year.
“Especially with the Ukrainian community, the message is very strong and clear,” she said. “You have a choice: Do you vote for Putin, basically, or there’s another choice: Do you vote for Hillary?”