Washington — The unpopularity of President Donald Trump outside the Republican Party is helping to turn out Democrats eager to challenge GOP congressional representatives in Michigan and around the country.
Democratic Party organizers say they’ve heard from multiple candidates preparing to campaign in red districts where the party has sometimes struggled to recruit qualified candidates with the ability to raise serious amounts of money.
In Michigan, at least 14 Democrats have declared their candidacy in seven districts held by Republican congressmen. Others are seriously considering a race or waiting until later to officially jump in.
At least five Democrats are competing in southwest Michigan’s 6th District to run against longtime GOP Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph. Two Democrats each are running in the districts of Reps. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet, Mike Bishop of Rochester and Dave Trott of Birmingham.
Reps. Tim Walberg of Tipton, Justin Amash of Cascade Township and Bill Huizenga of Zeeland also are facing Democratic challengers.
“I’ve seen more interest than I’ve seen in years, and I’ve been involved up here for 30 years,” said Dan Bennett, who chairs the 1st District for the Democratic Party in northern Michigan, which hopes to defeat Bergman next year.
“I’m impressed with both of our candidates who have declared. Both have excellent records. Both are out there early and meeting and greeting and pressing the flesh.”
The number of Michigan Democrats entering the race this early reflects a national trend that is “extraordinary” and could position Democrats to seize a wave in their favor, if one emerges, said Michael Malbin, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute in Washington, D.C.
In the first six months of the year, 209 Democratic challengers had registered with the Federal Election Commission and raised at least $5,000, according to an analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute.
That’s more than double the previous high since 2003. At this point in the cycle in 2009, Republicans had 78 challengers with $5,000, Malbin said.
Not all of Michigan’s challengers were captured by the Campaign Finance Institute’s data, as they haven’t all registered with the FEC.
Malbin cautions that it’s still early, but the numbers remind him of the spike in recruitment among Republicans in 2009 that preceded the wave when Republicans regained control of the U.S. House in 2010 — the midpoint of President Barack Obama’s first term.
“There’s a feeling among Democratic activists and potential candidates that if they feel opposed to what’s going on, it’s not enough to criticize from the sidelines,” Malbin said.
“We do not know yet whether these are going to be strong candidates, but we’ll find more about that over the course of the coming months. But without the motivation to get in, you have nothing.”
Malbin and other political analysts warn that Democratic enthusiasm does not ensure defeat for GOP House members.
“Some of these Michigan seats — the numbers aren’t there. The money’s not there,” said Dan McMaster, a GOP consultant with the bipartisan Lansing firm Grassroots Midwest. “When there’s a serious threat, the incumbent congressmen are usually able to raise a lot of money and fight it off.”
McMaster noted that the races could hinge in part on national factors, such as the condition of the economy a year from now and Trump’s performance. At the moment, the economy continues to grow, but the Republican-controlled Congress hasn’t been able to pass the president’s high-priority issues of health care and tax reform.
Nationally, Trump’s job approval rating stands at 38 percent, according to a poll average compiled by Real Clear Politics. A late July poll of 822 likely Michigan voters found Trump with a higher approval rating in Michigan.
About 49 percent said Trump is doing an “excellent” or “pretty good” job in the White House, while 50 percent said he is doing “only fair” or “poor.” The statewide sample had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
“Michigan is still a Trump state,” Target-Insyght pollster Ed Sarpolus said about that survey. “It’s still a very close state, but any candidate on the Democratic side is going to have to face the impact of Donald Trump’s people out there. Will they show up and vote Republican?”
Some new Democratic challengers have raised much more than $5,000. Democrat Haley Stevens hauled in more than $323,000 in fewer than 10 weeks for the period ending June 30, raising more cash than District 11 incumbent Trott, who brought in $154,127.
Trott, a sophomore in Congress, ended the quarter with nearly $284,200 on hand. The millionaire representative could dip into his own fortune as he did in 2014, when he raised $5 million and donated $3.6 million of his own money.
Democrat Elissa Slotkin, a former Defense Department official, raised $100,000 in the first 72 hours after declaring her candidacy in July. She hopes to unseat Bishop, who brought in $274,875 for the quarter.
Both Stevens and Slotkin are Michigan natives who moved back to their home districts after having served in the Obama administration. Two Democratic candidates in western Michigan are physicians motivated to run in part by the health care debate: Matt Longjohn is hoping to face off against Upton, and Rob Davidson is challenging Huizenga in District 2.
Another physician, Anil Kumar, said he is considering a potential rematch with Trott after losing to him last fall by 12 percentage points. State Rep. Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills, also is reportedly considering that race.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting five districts in Michigan in 2018, including the seats of Bergman, Bishop, Trott, Walberg and Upton.
The group’s early efforts have focused on the high-profile vote that party strategists think makes these Republicans vulnerable – their support for the plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act that passed the House in late May.
Democrats such as former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer in Kalamazoo say the new energy is motivated by a drive to restore political balance and unseat Republicans who are “too extreme” for their districts.
“We’re not going to win every race, but what’s encouraging about so many quality candidates stepping up in so many competitive districts is it gives us the first real shot at winning back the U.S. House in several cycles, and also the chance to make gains in state capitols and win governor seats,” Schauer said.
Many Republicans, on the other hand, are experiencing the kind of August recess that Schauer experienced in 2009 when activists turned out in droves to town hall meetings to vent about the Affordable Care Act.
“To see this kind of momentum building so early bodes well for a change election in 2018,” Schauer said.
History would be on Democrats’ side. With few exceptions, a U.S. president’s party has lost seats in the House during midterm elections.
“The midterm backlash is what they’re counting on,” McMaster said.
But challengers like Slotkin and Stevens, who moved home to Michigan, might have to overcome a carpetbagger label, he said.
“Rarely can someone come home, stay home for six months, run for office and win,” McMaster said.
Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon disagrees, arguing that voters will recognize that both women worked in Washington while engaged in national service.
Indeed, he is particularly optimistic about districts held by Bishop and Trott where Trump didn’t have an “overwhelming” win.
“If things continue the way they are, I think the environment will be very good for Democrats, particularly with the opposition to Donald Trump among many voters in the state,” Dillon said.
“I think we have a chance.”
Staff Writer Jonathan Oosting contributed.