Pence: Ensure 'blue wave hits red wall right here in Michigan'

Grand Rapids — Vice President Mike Pence rallied with Republican candidates Monday in Oakland County and West Michigan, urging voters to help return GOP majorities at the state and federal levels to work with President Donald Trump. 

 "All that talk about a blue wave, let's just make sure that blue wave hits a red wall right here in Michigan," Pence said in Waterford Township, where he stumped for U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop of Rochester and Bloomfield Township businesswoman Lena Epstein, who is competing in the 11th Congressional District that covers parts of Wayne and Oakland counties. 

Laura Posthumus Lyons, Bill Schuette, Vice President Mike Pence and John James wave at the crowd as the V.P. campaigns with Republican candidates at the DeltaPlex in Grand Rapids on Monday, Oct 29, 2018.

The races are among the most competitive in the state and could be critical in Republican efforts to retain the U.S. House. Bishop's contest with Democratic challenger Elissa Slotkin of Holly is considered a toss-up, while political experts consider Democrat Haley Stevens a slight favorite against Epstein in the contest to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham.

Mid-term elections are historically difficult for a new president and his party. Polls in Michigan have usually favored Democrats two years after Trump became the first GOP presidential nominee to win the state since 1988.

"That's the conventional wisdom, that it's going to be tough to post a victory this year," Pence acknowledged in Grand Rapids. "But I think we all know what (Trump) thinks of conventional wisdom. We made history in 2016, and we're going to make history again."

Pence repeatedly touted U.S. Senate candidate John James of Farmington Hills, a military veteran and businessman who is taking on incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow of Lansing. He also praised Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Schuette of Midland and U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland. 

"I think so much of Bill Schuette and John James that I'd be here even if they were unopposed," Pence said to a crowd of more than 1,000 at the DeltaPlex in Grand Rapids.

Schuette would be a leader "that keeps Michigan growing and going forward," the vice president said, "and with John James in the Senate, we’re going to have a partner who will work with President Trump to move America forward.”

Pence urged voters to elect Republicans to keep the Trump administration's initiatives going, including tax relief, the fight against opioid abuse and immigration restriction efforts.

Before stressing the need to elect Republican majorities to build Trump's proposed wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, Pence started the Waterford rally by condemning the weekend massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed and another six were wounded.

The vice president called it "evil" and an assault on freedom of religion and promised that "justice in this instance will be swift and severe.”

“We will never allow violence or anti-Semitism to take hold in the United States of America. Ever," he said.

Pence also had Loren Jacobs, whom he identified as a rabbi, take the stage in Waterford to deliver an invocation that included mourning the deaths of Jewish synagogue members and the wounded. Jacobs is listed as the senior rabbi at Congregation Shema Yisrael in Bloomfield Hills, professing a belief in Messianic Judaism.

Trump is expected to barnstorm the country before the election to boost Republican candidates in various states but is not slated to come to Michigan before the Nov. 6 election, according to a person familiar with the president’s thinking. 

Michigan attorney general and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette, from left, U.S. Senate candidate John James, Vice President Mike Pence, congressional candidate Lena Epstein and incumbent and candidate for re-election U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, stand together on stage during a campaign event at the Oakland County airport Monday in Waterford.

Michigan Democrat Party Chairman Brandon Dillon and a small band of activists protested outside the Pence rally in Grand Rapids, where they hoisted a large inflatable prescription pill bottle and complained about escalating costs. 

“There’s been nothing by the Trump administration or Republicans in Lansing to actually try to hold drug companies accountable,” Dillon said. “When Democrats introduce legislation, they sit on it.”

He downplayed positive polls for Democrats, saying the party is not taking them seriously and is focused on turning out voters next week.

"We think the only one that matters, as cliché as it sounds, is on election day. We’ve seen this moving before and it had a bad ending for us," Dillon said. 

Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James greets the crowd at a rally featuring Vice President Mike Pence Monday at the Oakland County airport in Waterford.

James warmed up Pence at both rallies, touting his own story of military service and in private enterprise while bashing Stabenow's lengthy tenure in the Senate.

"We have replaced rights and responsibility with rules and regulations, and they’re choking us off from the American dream," James said in Grand Rapids. "That needs to stop, and it will stop when you send me back to Washington.” 

As for Stabenow, he said, "we have not been getting mediocrity. We've been getting failure, neglect, lip service and 11th-hour legislation."

Schuette, who worked the crowd in Grand Rapids before delivering opening remarks, predicted Republicans will "win it all eight days from now," despite recent polls that show him trailing Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer. He noted Trump outperformed surveys in 2016.

Schuette attacked Whitmer and her running mate Garlin Gilchrist II, telling loyal Republicans that his Democratic opponents have “extreme” views on issues like immigration.

“Michigan would be a sanctuary state,” he said. “When I’m governor and when Lisa Posthumus Lyons is lieutenant governor, there will be no sanctuary cities in the state of Michigan.”

Schuette and Posthumus Lyons said they would be best positioned to continue economic gains made under term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, who has not endorsed in the race.

“Are we going to go backward to the failed policies of Jennifer Granholm or Gretchen Whitmer?” Postumus Lyons asked, prompting shouts of “no.”

Samantha Bell, 28, a GOP political consultant from Lake Orion who attended the Pence rally in Waterford, said it was good to have the vice president in the region again "to fire up the base and let them know Vice President Mike Pence is watching the races, he cares about us as well as Donald Trump."

"It helps remind Republicans to vote," she said. "I think what it really does is reinforces the message that we can win this across the board. We just have to put in the work."

While Trump is not expected to campaign in Michigan before the election, activists called Pence's visit a sign of momentum for James, who has fired up the base but faces an uphill challenge in his bid to replace a longtime incumbent with strong ties to the farming community.  

“I think he’s going to work on the president’s agenda, and he is not going to be a never-Trumper like some of the Republicans are,” said Lori Perry, a 56-year-old stay-at-home mom who lives in Walker. “And I think Debbie Stabenow has been a do-nothing senator for 40-some years, and I’m tired of it.”

The Grand Rapids rally was interrupted when a spotlight bulb burst and created a small fire as James was introducing Pence. Staff at the DeltaPlex arena lowered the overhead lighting unit so a firefighter could blast it with an extinguisher.

The vice president later joked about the fire, calling James “a candidate who is on fire.”

Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed