Mackinac Island -- The elephant in the room was missing here as state Republicans gathered to discuss strategy ahead of the 2018 elections.
Not even a year has passed since Michigan GOP voters carried Donald Trump to the presidency, and yet there was little celebration of that feat during the Republican Leadership Conference.
And barely any mention of Trump himself.
“He’s the one who’s name must not be spoken,” said Dennis Lennox, a GOP public affairs consultant.
And that sure seemed true. Aside from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Republican National Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel, most speakers barely referenced Trump or his stunning win here, beyond boasting they’d “turned the state from blue to red” in 2016.
The attendees reflected that same curious avoidance in their first gathering since the return of a Republican president to the White House.
We expected this to be both a victory rally and an affirmation of the president. But Republicans seemed as ambivalent about Trump as they were leading up to the election.
We saw almost no signs or badges bearing Trump’s name. Few T-shirts. And only two of those red Make America Great Again hats, though we weren‘t even sure if it was one hat worn by two different guys at the same party.
That’s a big switch from GOP rallies off the island, where party activists act as if the presidential campaign is ongoing.
“At grassroots events, it’s everywhere,” said state Sen. Pat Colbeck, a gubernatorial candidate and Trump fan.
Colbeck said that some of those grassroots activists made it to the conference. But they weren’t noticeable at the Grand Hotel, where most of the weekend’s official program took place.
“You look around here, there’s nothing,” he said. “That’s the divide right now.”
West Michigan political consultant Greg McNeilly agreed there is still a Trump enthusiasm gap between tea party Republicans and the party’s establishment.
“At the state convention (held earlier in the year), the base sets the tone,” he said. “This weekend is more about the funders.”
State Sen. Phil Pavlov senses a more general weariness with defending the president.
“He has exhausted us,” Pavlov said. “For two years this guy has been sucking all the oxygen out of the room.”
Chuck Moss, a former state representative and Trump supporter, says even among Republicans Trump is too controversial to fully and publicly salute.
“I think they’re afraid Trump is still too divisive,” he said.
Moss believes Trump can win a second term and Republicans are distancing themselves at their own peril.
“They feel Trump is a third rail, but he’s a uniter,” he said. “These guys make a mistake by not embracing Trump.”
Trump was not completely AWOL from the island. The Michigan Conservative Coalition brought in a Trump impersonator. He was a little short, but aside from that it was a remarkable resemblance.