Trump looms large in Michigan Republican primary fights

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump appears at a July 31 campaign rally  in Tampa, Fla. The “Trump factor” will play an integral role among Republican primary voters.

He may not be running for governor, U.S. House or U.S. Senate, but Donald Trump is a central figure in Michigan’s Tuesday primaries.

His name is dropped by nearly every candidate — with scorn by Democrats and admiration by Republicans. Trump's endorsement is trotted out at every engagement, and most Republican candidates back his hot-button policies on immigration and taxes.

After Trump endorsed Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette in the Republican gubernatorial primary in September, Schuette has made the endorsement a staple of his stump speech. And it became a repeated point of emphasis in the two televised GOP debates.

Republican candidates benefit from their association with Trump during the primary, experts say. But it might be a liability if they make it to the fall election and the president's approval rating drops with more moderate and independent voters. 

“They have to embrace the Trump agenda because they are inextricably linked to Trump in the voters’ mind,” said pollster Steve Mitchell, president of Mitchell Research & Communication in East Lansing.

“If a Republican tries to run away from Trump and disagree with Trump on some issues he’ll probably lose two votes for every vote he gains,” he said.

Pollster Richard Czuba agreed that the “Trump factor” will play an integral role among Republican primary voters. The driver for voters is Trump, not the Republican philosophy, said Czuba, who is founder of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group.

The dynamic could be seen this spring when Lt. Governor Brian Calley was gaining ground in polling numbers in the Republican governor's race, he said.

But the situation changed in May when Trump held a Macomb County rally where he gave a shout-out to Attorney General Bill Schuette, calling him a “great friend” and the “next governor of Michigan," Czuba said

“It was like somebody threw gasoline on Schuette’s numbers,” he said.

But there is a potential down side to the endorsement. Schuette’s constant referrals to Trump's backing could diminish the novelty and lead voters to look at other issues that could tighten the race, Mitchell said.

“What Calley has to hope for is that that known factor is going to be factored out or at least mitigated by other information,” he said.

Weighing the Trump factor

The Trump factor has played a role in the U.S. Senate Republican primary, where Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler and Farmington Hills businessman John James have debated who is more worthy of Trump's support. Until late July, the president didn't endorse in the race.

Pensler attacked James as soft on immigration because he gave political donations to Detroit City Council member Racquel Castenada-Lopez, a sanctuary city supporter. James said he was only giving money in a nonpartisan race to a candidate who would represent the Detroit district where his family's business is located.

James countered by criticizing Pensler for saying about Trump at a forum: "I can't speak at fourth-grade level like he does." Pensler defended himself by saying he was complimenting the president, noting that he added that "I wish I could. I can't."

Last Friday, Trump endorsed James, who said he was "proud" to get the president's backing. Pensler admitted, "We'll continue fighting through but, yeah, I'm disappointed."

Democrats have used opposition to Trump as rallying cries in their own primary campaigns. 

In the governor’s race, former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer has promised she’d “stand up” to the president if he tries weaken health care laws. Former Detroit heath director Abdul El-Sayed has likened himself to a “215-pound middle finger” to Trump and promised to “De-DeVos” Michigan education, a reference to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

In congressional races, former state Rep. Ellen Lipton also has promised to serve as a check on Trump if she succeeds retiring U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin of Royal Oak. Lipton has denounced his administration’s policy of separating families at the border and calling for an end to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Suneel Gupta, running for the Democratic nomination in the 11th District, has an ad discussing how he is “so different” than Trump on their views on women, abortion and equal pay. “If you want to send a message to Donald Trump, send me to Congress,” Gupta concludes in the ad that has Trump's face on a body beside him.

 In a new ad, Lena Epstein, who is seeking the GOP endorsement in the 11th District, is attacking Democratic candidate Tim Greimel as “blindly anti-Trump” and “too liberal.”

Trump supporter Meshawn Maddock described the president's effect as a “Trump train” barreling through the Michigan midterm while Republican candidates run alongside and try to hop on.

“They honestly think it’s the difference between winning and losing, and I really think it may be,” said Maddock, co-founder of the Michigan Trump Republicans.

But some Trump voters are willing to be independent. Kelly Powell said Trump voters can “think for themselves” when choosing a Republican nominee for governor. Though Trump endorsed Schuette, the South Lyon native will be voting Tuesday for “grassroots” state Sen. Patrick Colbeck.

“We love Donald Trump, but that doesn’t mean we always have to select the same candidate that Donald Trump does,” Powell said.

Trump supporter Aaron Tobin of Oak Park holds a sign during a Trump Flash Mob event in Southfield during the 2016 presidential campaign.

In 2016, Aaron Tobin was a strong and early supporter of Trump and plans to vote for those in the primary election who reflect his loyalty. But the 57-year-old Oak Park man is backing Colbeck for governor.

“I’ve heard him (Colbeck) speak at least twice,” Tobin said. “I’ve checked out his platform and what he believes in. I believe he says what he means and will carry out what he says he is promising.”

A self-described “die-hard Trump supporter,” Jean Manz also wants a candidate who supports Trump, but she voted absentee for Calley. She said she was relieved to be done as candidates’ attack campaigns left her confused.

“Calley has the businessman background and, personally, I was trying to get away from permanent legislators or politicians,” said Manz, 73.

Liability in November?

Winning a primary with Trump's backing could turn tricky in the fall because the president's approval rating remains below 50 percent. And Trump sometimes takes controversial stands on issues that have generated a backlash, such as the separation of children from immigrant families illegally entering the country seeking asylum.

The “Trump factor” could drive up turnout among disgruntled Democratic voters in the general election, said Edie Goldenberg, professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan.

“What we’re talking about is the passion to turn out,” Goldberg said.

Some experts suggest the Trump-endorsed candidates pivot toward a more inclusive tone to reach more moderate conservatives and independents. Other warn against lukewarm loyalty.

But a softening of the Trump message may help the Republican gubernatorial nominee in November among moderate conservatives and independents, Czuba said.

“It’s going to be a very tricky pivot,” but necessary to win the general election, Czuba said. “Michigan gubernatorial elections historically and notoriously are decided by independent voters in southeast Michigan.”

Gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette, seen addressing the crowd at a Trump rally in  in Washington Twp. in April, got a big boost in poll numbers after Trump endorsed him.

If Schuette wins the Republican gubernatorial nomination, political scientist Matt Grossman speculated that he might adopt “a less Trumpian posture” by emphasizing his efforts to combat human trafficking, obtain justice for victims of the Flint water crisis and punish wrongdoing by state employees.

“He has that to fall back on,” said Grossman, director for the Institute on Public Policy and Research at Michigan State University.

For Maddock, the advice ignores lessons from 2016. If candidates hope to win the voters who elected Trump, they shouldn’t soften their message, not even for the independent vote, she said.

“I don’t think we need to appear to be more moderate,” Maddock said. “That’s not what Trump did.”

Staff Writers Melissa Nann Burke and Jonathan Oosting contributed

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