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Michigan GOP battles historic, emerging election obstacles

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump gestures as he speaks at a rally Tuesday in Southaven, Miss.

Lansing — New polling suggests a rough road ahead for Michigan Republican candidates in the midterm election, but party officials remain hopeful that a strong economy will help its candidates overcome obstacles in the final five weeks of the campaign.

More female voters and critically important independents are backing Democrats in key races, according to The Detroit News and WDIV poll of 600 likely voters. Many voters who remain undecided have a negative opinion of President Donald Trump, whose shadow continues to loom over the GOP ticket.

Trump’s divisiveness complicates an election that already posed challenges for Republicans: Midterm elections usually see the president’s party lose seats in Congress, and Michigan voters tend to favor change in the governor’s office after eight years under single-party control.

The dynamics are evident in Oakland County and Wayne County’s western suburbs, where college-educated white women “who really tend to be swing voters” have soured on Trump and have increasingly turned to Democrats, said Glengariff Group Inc. pollster Richard Czuba.

While Macomb County helped propel Trump to the White House in 2016, “the story in this election is what’s happening in Oakland and Western Wayne," he said.

Experts say a strong state and national economy could still help Republicans gain ground, but the positive economic indicators are being drowned out by Trump's bombast.

"In any other year, it would probably mean Republicans might be picking up seats in the midterm," said Dave Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University.

Republicans hoping to retain control in Lansing and Washington, D.C., see some signs of hope.

Party officials say internal polling shows various races tightening amid continued strength in some parts of the state Trump turned red in 2016. National polling numbers suggest U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh's contentious confirmation process is motivating GOP voters. 

“We knew that this was going to be a tough election cycle with just the normal headwinds that you have,” said Michigan Republican Party deputy chief of staff Sarah Anderson, who cited a palpable “anger and hatred for our president” among Democrats. “That’s why we started voter contact programs earlier than ever, and why (Chairman Ron Weiser) is raising money to provide all the resources we need.”

The Michigan GOP has contacted more than 2 million voters this cycle and has over 2,000 active volunteers across the state, Anderson said, noting that direct engagement with voters can help define individual candidates and overcome national trends..

"I also think that when push comes to shove, our message is just better," she said. "We're talking about the results we delivered... in Michigan."

While voters across the political spectrum appear highly motivated to vote this fall, Republicans typically have a "natural turnout advantage" in midterm elections because wealthier, whiter and older voters are more likely to cast ballots, Dulio said.

In 2014, roughly 38 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Detroit, a traditional Democratic stronghold, compared with 41.6 percent statewide in an election the now term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder won by 4 percentage points.

"That still leaves a lot of Republicans out there that the party and its candidates could turn out, including women who will vote Republican," Dulio said. 

Democrats were excited by strong primary numbers, “but we’ve got to have a much better turnout than in 2010 and 2014,” said state Party Chairman Brandon Dillon.

“We’re acutely aware that the only poll that matters is the one on election day, and we can’t let up,” Dillon said. “We feel like we have a good environment to make our case to voters, but we’ve seen it the past — whether it was Hillary Clinton or Gov. Jim Blanchard in 1990 — that polls a few months out don’t always mean that you win the election.”

Female appeal

While Republicans are working to attract female voters through targeted messaging on issues like health care, the economy and security, the president’s penchant for unpredictable and controversial comments can quickly upend the calculated efforts.

In the governor’s race, Republican Bill Schuette is running new ads touting his work to crack down on human trafficking, “but he’s trapped by Trump being disrespectful to a sexual assault survivor,” Czuba said, referencing the president’s dismissive comments about Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford.

Statewide, about 60 percent of women say they view Trump unfavorably compared with 33 percent favorably, according to the Sept. 30-Oct. 2 poll conducted by the Glengariff Group Inc.

In a generic ballot test asking respondents if they would vote for an unspecific candidate from either major political party, 51 percent said they’d generally vote for a Democrat while 32 percent said Republican, a 19-point margin.

Breanne Butter (center), of Detroit, raises her fist during closing ceremonies of the Women's Convention held at Cobo Center on Sunday October 29, 2017 in Detroit.
 (Max Ortiz/ The Detroit News)2017

Asked which party they want to see control the U.S. House, where Republicans current hold a 235-193 majority and a 9-5 edge in the Michigan delegation, Democrats held an 18-point lead among women.

The Trump factor could play a large role in the 11th Congressional District race to replace resigning GOP U.S. Rep. Dave Trott of Birmingham, Dulio said. Democrat Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills is taking on Republican Lena Epstein of Bloomfield Township, who "is a full-throated supporter of Trump" and co-chaired his campaign here in 2016.

Polls reflect a snapshot in time and do not predict election outcomes. Of those who responded to the poll, 46 percent identified as Democrats, 36 percent Republican and 17 percent independent. The numbers reflect the fact that "women in Southeast Michigan are so disproportionately Democratic right now that the sampling doesn't look traditional anymore," Czuba said. 

It's the economy

Independent voters can often decide the fate of elections in a state that is fairly evenly split along partisan lines, and like women, they appear to be breaking toward Democrats this cycle.

On the generic ballot test, independents favored Democrats by a 10.8-point margin. Asked which party they want to control the U.S. House, 36.3 percent of independents said Democrats, compared to 30.4 percent for Republicans.

Independent voter preferences align closely with their views on Trump. Nearly 53 percent of independent voters said they have an unfavorable view of the president, compared to 34.2 favorable.

A bright note for Republicans in the poll is that 64 percent of likely voters believe the national economy is headed in the right direction, providing an opportunity for candidates to focus on that message, Czuba said.  

"Economic messaging and good government message really does drive independent voters in Michigan, and particularly in a gubernatorial race."

Czuba noted a 1990 ad that that helped Republican John Engler defeat incumbent Democratic Gov. Jim Blanchard. As a metaphor for the economy, it showed a car driving off the cliff and suggested it was time to turn the keys over to someone else. 

"In this case, the economy is doing well, so why would you want to switch horses?"

Dulio agreed: Asking voters if they're better off today than they were four years ago is a question that "resonates with a lot of independents who aren't tied to the doctrine of a political party," he said. 

Against the tide

The poll, which has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points, showed Democrats leading statewide races, often by comfortable margins. And a majority of the undecided in nearly all of those races had negative opinions of Trump, suggesting an uphill battle for Republicans attempting to gain ground.

The lone exception was the U.S. Senate race, where incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Lansing held an 18-point lead over Republican Farmington Hills businessman and military veteran John James. Among undecided voters in that race, 47.5 percent view Trump favorably, compared with 37 unfavorably.

In the governor’s race, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer leads Schuette by 12 points. Among likely voters who have not decided, 47.5 percent have a negative view of Trump, compared with 37 percent positive.

The attorney general's race between Democrat Nessel and Republican Tom Leonard appears to be tightening, providing another spot of optimism for the GOP. Nessel leads by 7 points, down from 13 points a month ago.

But among the 24 percent of voters who remain undecided in that race, 52 percent view Trump unfavorably, compared with 37 percent favorably. The poll suggests similar numbers in the secretary of state race where Democrat Jocelyn Benson is leading Republican Mary Treder Lang by 13 points.

Leonard and Treder Lang, like many Republican candidates this fall, “are swimming against a strong anti-Trump tide with undecided voters,” Czuba said.