Germany’s social democrats were pinning their hopes on Hannelore Kraft as their answer to Angela Merkel. Now Kraft is struggling just to stay on as a regional leader and hopes of her party unseating the chancellor are fading fast.

After suffering humiliating defeats in two other state votes this year, the social democratic party may have to retain NRW if its new national leader martin Schulz is to mount a serious challenge to Merkel’s bid for a fourth term at the helm of Europe’s most populous country and pivotal economy.

Elections in NRW, home to around a third of Germany’s blue chip companies but also the rust-belt Ruhr region, have historically influenced federal politics. In 2005, a crushing defeat for then-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s SPD prompted him to call an early election that he lost to Merkel.