Michigan a key state in Sanders' strategy to reclaim Midwest

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Warren — Three years after a surprise win in Michigan’s Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders returned Saturday as an early front-runner for the party’s 2020 nomination with an eye on the general election.

Michigan is a key component of Sanders’ Midwest strategy as he and other Democratic candidates compete with each other and President Donald Trump, who flipped the state in 2016 and held a massive re-election rally last month in Grand Rapids.  

Sanders took the fight to Trump in Macomb County, a blue-collar region that helped propel the first-term Republican to the White House. He blasted the president as a “pathological liar” who has failed to honor promises to voters here.

The “biggest lie" was when Trump said he would stand with the working class, Sanders told a crowd of more than a thousand supporters at Macomb Community College.

“Standing up for working families does not mean giving huge tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country and the largest corporations,” he said, referencing the tax cut plan Trump signed in late 2017 that is projected to produce more modest savings for most residents.

The Independent U.S. senator from Vermont, a self-described democratic socialist, also ridiculed “establishment” Democrats who had once dismissed his calls for a single-payer government health care system and other liberal policy proposals as “too radical.”

“They are the ideas that Democratic candidates from school board to president are now supporting,” Sanders said, thanking Michigan voters for backing him three years ago. “Now our job is to complete what we started. We are going to turn our vision and our progressive agenda into reality."

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to supporters on Saturday at Macomb County Community College in Warren.

Sanders railed on CEO pay, health care costs, climate change and corporate greed in his roughly hour-long speech.

He called on Trump to go “back to the drawing board” with his proposal to rewrite the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was a key plank in the president’s message to blue-collar Michigan workers in 2016.

“Do not send it to Congress unless it includes strong and swift enforcement mechanisms to raise the wages of workers and stop corporations from outsourcing American jobs to Mexico,” Sanders said.

Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement calls for increasing from 62.5% to 75% the percentage of a car's parts that have to come from the U.S., Canada or Mexico to qualify for duty-free treatment. The USMCA also requires that 40-45% of an auto's content be made by workers earning at least $16 per hour.

Like Trump, Sanders pledged to fight companies that close American factories and ship jobs out of the country. That pledge has been difficult to keep for the president, but Sanders said he would use federal contracts as leverage.

“If a profitable company thinks they’re going to shut down here and move abroad and hire people abroad at two or three bucks an hour and then line up at the federal trough for federal contracts, they got another guess coming,” he said.

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who previously led the Michigan GOP, criticized Sanders' message in her home state. 

"Bernie Sanders is clearly too busy trying to put Michigan auto workers out of work by advocating for the Green New Deal to notice the BILLIONS of dollars in investment and THOUSANDS of jobs coming back to Michigan thanks to @realDonaldTrump’s America First policies," she said Sunday on Twitter.

Michigan attention

The Warren rally was Sanders' second stop of the day in Michigan and comes in the middle of a swing through Midwest states his campaign believes will be critical to the 2020 election cycle.

Sanders spoke at a union hall earlier Saturday in Coopersville, an Ottawa County city located northwest of Grand Rapids. U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, said the Vermont senator’s "socialist rhetoric may be enticing to some," but suggested that "in reality his policies would spell trouble for Michigan residents."

“Sanders’ Medicare for All proposal would strip 5.5 million Michiganders of their private health insurance, cost taxpayers a whopping $32 trillion, and limit health care choices while increasing wait times for patients to see doctors," Huizenga said in a statement. "This is precisely the wrong approach.”

Opponents say a single-payer health care system could cost trillions of dollars to implement, but Sanders and supporters argue it could ultimately drive down health care costs. Estimates on the price and viability of Medicare for All proposals have varied.

“Health insurance companies, whether you like it or not, the United States of America will join every other major country and guarantee health care to all of our people as a right,” Sanders said, calling current per-capita spending on health care “an absurdity.”

Supporters take photos of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Democrats are targeting Michigan early this cycle. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York held events in Metro Detroit last month. Sens. Kamala Harris of California Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota are expected in Detroit in May.

The Sanders campaign, in a memo shared with The Detroit News, argued that “Democrats clearest and strongest path to victory” in 2020 runs through Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Midwest states Trump turned red in 2016.

In his first six weeks as a candidate, Sanders received more than 14,000 contributions from Michigan residents, according to his campaign. He raised a total of $18.2 million nationwide in the first quarter, outpacing the large and growing field of Democratic presidential candidates.

Sanders won 2016 primaries in Michigan and Wisconsin but lost to eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by 12 percentage points. His Michigan victory, a one-point win that upended public opinion polling, came on the heels of large campaign rallies at college campuses across the state.

Macomb focus

Former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, won Macomb County by nearly 4 percentage points in 2012, but Trump carried it by more than 11 points. The 15-point swing helped Trump become the first Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan since 1988 as he beat Clinton by 10,704 votes, less than 1 percentage point.

Sanders narrowly lost Macomb County to Clinton in 2016, but he drew thousands to an outdoor winter healthcare rally in Warren in January of 2017, one of four visits he’s made to Michigan since the last presidential election.

“I don’t think he ever really forgot that,” Midwest press secretary Bill Neidhardt said of the turnout at that rally, calling the location of his latest rally a “deliberate” attempt to return to the blue-collar region. “Issues we see resonating across the Midwest are really felt (in Macomb).”

A populist candidate who has criticized income inequity, Sanders earlier this week addressed his newfound status as a millionaire, saying he “didn't know that it was a crime to write a good book, which turned out to be a best-seller.”

“Where We Go From Here,” his most recent book, was published last year. Sanders has vowed to release 10 years of tax returns next week.

In Macomb, Sanders criticized “billionaires buying elections” as he called for publicly funded campaigns and other election reforms.

“The underlying principles of our government will not be greed, will not be kleptocracy, will not be based on hatred or lies,” he vowed. Instead, a Sanders administration would be based on economic, social, racial and environmental “justice,” he told supporters.

Fans of presidential hopeful U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders wait to attend a rally at Macomb County Community College, Saturday, April 13.

Ashleigh Dubie, 20, a junior at Oakland University, said she supports Sanders “and the causes he stands for because switching around the political scene, especially from this toxic capitalism patriarchy right now, is super important to me.”

Dubie wore a “Midwest against capitalism” sweatshirt and, as she elaborated on her support for Sanders, pointed to another man’s sweatshirt with an image of Sanders getting arrested at 1963 civil rights protest in Chicago.

“What separates Bernie (from other Democratic presidential candidates) is his track record,” she said. “These are issues he’s been fighting for for decades, and that has a lot of weight and value.”

Angie Wilkins, 42, a laborer from Three Rivers who works for a pontoon boat manufacturer, said Sanders’ call for a single-payer health care system resonates with her. He re-introduced Medicare for All legislation this week in the U.S. Senate. 

“I get (insurance) through work, but I can’t afford the deductible, so I don’t use it,” Wilkins said as she and her husband waited near the front of the line for the rally.

Wilkins, who briefly moved to Florida and voted there in 2016, said she wrote in Sanders on her general election ballot even though she knew it would not impact the outcome.

“It didn’t count because he wasn’t in it, but I couldn’t sleep at night if I voted for either of the other two,” she said, referencing Trump and Clinton.