Mackinac Island —To run with Trump or to run away from Trump? That’s the question Republicans wrestled with as they gathered here this weekend for their biennial state party convention.
President Donald Trump presents a dilemma GOP office seekers haven’t experienced since 2008, when the unpopularity of President George W. Bush wiped out Republicans as far down the ballot as county commission races.
Trump’s approval is historically low, while the anti-Trump rage of Democrats is incredibly high.
If that dynamic doesn’t change, Republicans running in 2018 face an even tougher road than is typical for the party in power in a mid-term election. Most candidates I spoke with offer a nuanced response when asked about their Trump strategy.
“I supported the president and I continue to support him,” says Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Bill Schuette, who is the first candidate to receive an endorsement from Trump, which came via Twitter last weekend.
“But I’m also my own man, running on my own issues. This election is not about the president, but about the issues important to the people of Michigan, and that’s what I’m going to be talking about.”
That’s the same talking point offered by former State. Rep. Rocky Raczkowski, who is seeking the 11th District congressional seat being vacated by Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham.
“I support Trump, but I’m not going to be a rubber stamp for any president,” he says.
It may not be so easy to walk that line. Democrats will try to hang Trump around the neck of every Republican running for office. And Republican primary voters will expect loyalty to the presideent.
That two-step will be excruciating. Just one-third of the electorate supports Trump today, but those supporters are passionate and concentrated in the GOP base.
“If the president is against you, you can’t win a Republican primary,” says Rep. Fred Upton, who is weighing a U.S. Senate run and who didn’t back Trump last fall, but has worked to build a relationship.
Court the base with too much Trump love, however, and a candidate risks turning off general election voters. Given the national mood, running as a full-throated Trumpite doesn’t seem like a winning strategy.
But that’s what Lena Epstein intends to do. The former Trump campaign state co-chair switched from the Senate race to the 11th District contest, and says, “My support for President Trump has not changed. I believe in his policies, and in a president who puts America first.”
Former Gov. John Engler, who was on Mackinac this weekend, says GOP contenders should feel no obligation to defend the president.
“If you see something you don’t like, say so,” Engler says. “Trump doesn’t hesitate to call out Republicans. If he can dish it out, he ought to be able to take it.” Engler adds that if he were running, he’d invite Trump into Michigan to campaign.
Republican consultant Bill Nowling agrees candidates should worry less about the president’s popularity and more about standing for conservative principles.
“Republicans never get unelected by acting like Republicans,” Nowling says. “You don’t have to wrap your arms around Trump. But this is still a president who matters to the base.”
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