Lansing — Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has hired GOP political operative Scott Hagerstrom to direct his campaign in Michigan, Trump’s first effort to build a support network in the Great Lakes State with less than 80 days to go until the March 8 primary.
Trump’s campaign is expected to announce the hire Monday, ahead of the billionaire businessman’s trip to Grand Rapids for an evening rally at the DeltaPlex Arena, his second campaign to visit to Michigan this year.
Hagerstrom is a former state director of the conservative Americans for Prosperity, has worked on the winning campaign to defeat the Proposal 1 sales tax in May and spent 15 years as an aide in the Michigan House of Representatives.
As head of AFP, Hagerstrom directed a network of conservative activists who have, at times, flexed their political muscle in Republican primaries for state House and Senate seats.
“Scott will be a great asset to our team as we continue to build infrastructure beyond the early primary states and share my vision to make America great again,” Trump said in a statement sent Sunday to The Detroit News.
Trump’s hire of Hagerstrom comes as other GOP presidential candidates have spent months assembling endorsements from Michigan Republicans and hiring consultants to help them compete in the state’s March 8 nominating contest.
Hagerstrom declined to be interviewed, referring questions to Trump’s press office, which sent The News the statement.
“(Trump) is a proven success with the leadership capabilities to accomplish what those in Washington, D.C., cannot,” Hagerstrom said in the statement. “I believe in his message, his vision and his ability to make our country better than ever before.”
Trump has assembled an organized campaign in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to compete in the February caucuses and primaries. His campaign website includes information about organized efforts in 14 other states, but not Michigan.
The New York real estate tycoon has lacked the kind of on-the-ground staff and campaign infrastructure that GOP rivals Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, John Kasich and Rand Paul have built in Michigan over the past year.
“I don’t know how you run a campaign statewide without having some organizational structure in place,” said Paul Welday, a Republican political consultant from Oakland County. “These things just don’t happen by themselves. Eighty days is not a long time to build an infrastructure in a state the size of Michigan. He’s got his work cut out for him.”
In some ways, though, Trump has been able to get away with not building a campaign infrastructure or traveling as much as other candidates because the former reality TV star gets so much free airtime from his controversial statements about Muslims, Mexican immigrants and other GOP presidential hopefuls, said Greg McNeilly, a Republican consultant from Grand Rapids.
“He’s not keeping the hours of a normal candidate,” McNeilly said.
Supporters of other Republican hopefuls such as Cruz, Bush and Rubio had been hoping to exploit Trump’s lack of an early ground game here as they build coalitions crucial to winning at least 15 percent of the Michigan primary vote. That’s the threshold for capturing a portion of Michigan’s 56 delegates to the national Republican convention.
Nationally, Trump is carrying 34 percent of the likely Republican vote, about double what his next closest opponent, Cruz, has in an average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com.
“It’s been hard for people to get traction in this period of Trump,” said Attorney General Bill Schuette, chair of Bush’s campaign in Michigan. Among likely Republican voters, Bush has less than 5 percent of the vote in an average of national polls.
In Michigan, Trump is generating grassroots support from Republican voters who say they’re fed up with career politicians and who are attracted to his commentary about the state of American life and the economy.
“I think that Donald Trump is a unique fit for Michigan — there’s a high level of blue collar workers. He has a message that can appeal to a majority,” said Joe Sylvester, 30, of Bay City.
Sylvester is operating a “Trump for Michigan” Facebook page unaffiliated with the campaign headquartered in Manhattan.
“There is no campaign in Michigan right now,” Sylvester said. “He’s really running kind of an unprecedented campaign.”
Trump’s campaign said Sunday it will be hiring more staff and making more campaign stops in Michigan in the near future.
Sylvester doesn’t think Trump’s unusual campaign style should disqualify him from being a contender for the GOP nomination and presidency.
“I think the term ‘electable’ is used by political hacks to cut down people who think outside of the box,” Sylvester said.
Republican political consultants in Michigan who have helped run past presidential primary campaigns are skeptical Trump can transform his national media-driven campaign into a network of supporters that turns out GOP voters on March 8.
“Trump has generated a tremendous amount of interest, but do those people actually show up and vote in primaries?” asked John Truscott, a Lansing-based Republican consultant.
Truscott, who worked on George W. Bush’s unsuccessful 2000 primary campaign in Michigan, said if Trump has any organizational weaknesses, they will be exposed in the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses and the Feb. 9 New Hampshire primary.
“The ground organization in a primary really is where it makes a difference,” Truscott said. “You can do this in a month or two, easily. But you have to be starting now.”