Michigan Republicans eye 2020 obstacles as they prepare to elect new leader

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Michigan Republican Party chairman Ron Weiser is shown outside the state Capitol Friday, May 29, 2009, in Lansing, Mich.

Lansing — As the Michigan Republican Party prepares to elect its new leader, both candidates for the position have their eyes set on a 2020 victory for President Donald Trump and keeping the state House majority.

Former state lawmaker Laura Cox and GOP field organizer Gina Barr will attempt to woo delegates at the Michigan Republican Party convention Saturday in Lansing to replace outgoing Chairman Ron Weiser, who has not endorsed either candidate. Cox has received endorsements from many GOP elected officials and Trump's re-election campaign. 

After a tough 2018 election in which Republicans gave up the governor, secretary of state and attorney general offices, Weiser said he’s proud the party was able to maintain its majority in the state House and Senate.

Even in districts where Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won by double-digit margins, Republicans retained legislative seats, Weiser said.

“That I think says something about the quality of the campaigns that we’re running in those districts where that situation existed,” he said. Democrats have attributed the Republican hold on those and other legislative seats to partisan gerrymandering.

Barr hopes to maintain a GOP edge in the 2020 elections by expanding the party's base, a task she says she's fit to tackle given her history recruiting Wayne County voters for GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2014 and for Trump in 2016.

“We cannot continue to do things that we normally have done,” Barr said, noting that her main focus will be expanding the Republican base in underrepresented areas such as Wayne County.

“We also have to work on our messaging,” she said. “We have to reach out to more minority voters, millennials and we have to reach out to women as well.”

The 37-year-old Pontiac woman is a GOP field organizer in Detroit and Wayne County and served as head of the Republican National Committee’s Urban Engagement and Women’s Engagement.

Oakland County Republican field organizer Gina Barr, left, campaigns for Michigan Republican Party chair in northern Michigan.

While Trump's re-election is important, Barr said she wants “to leave no stone unturned” when it comes to seats further down the ballot. Nonetheless, Barr picked as her co-chair radio broadcaster John Akouri, a former co-chair for the Trump presidential campaign.

The favorite in the race for party chairwoman, Cox is a former Wayne County commissioner and state representative who snagged an early and important endorsement from Brad Parscale, campaign manager for Trump’s 2020 run. Her husband is Republican former Attorney General Mike Cox.

A former Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, the 54-year-old Livonia woman is used to “tough situations” and plans to bring that toughness to the 2020 campaign. While Trump’s re-election is a priority, Cox said she intends to win seats up and down the ballot.

“We as a party, as Republicans, we need to be more aggressive,” Cox said. “We need to make sure we put the Democrats on the defense. What we believe in and what we stand for will resonate with voters.”

The party needs to grow donor contributions and better use digital resources — such as social media, digital ads and “slicker websites” — to reach those less likely to utilize traditional media, Cox said.

Laura Cox, R-Livonia

“You want to increase your base, but you also want to make people who are hardcore Republicans energized as well,” she said.

Terry Bowman, president of Union Conservatives and an advocate of the state's right-to-work law, is running as Cox's co-chair.

The Trump campaign endorsement and others put Cox “in a position to win" given the importance Trump is expected to have in Michigan's 2020 elections, said Steve Mitchell, an East Lansing-based Republican strategist and consultant.

The 2020 election cycle likely will focus on Trump, Mitchell said, much the same as it did in the 2018 general election. Former President Barack Obama also was the focus in the 2010 and 2012 races, he said. National politics are expected to bleed into state races next year, Mitchell said.

While grassroots organizing is important, it’s difficult to do so without greater fundraising activities within the state GOP, he said. The 2018 Democratic wins have been referred to as a “pink wave” or “blue wave,” but Mitchell said the wins also signaled a “green wave” of support for Democratic candidates.

“The Republicans have to raise money,” Mitchell said. “Money needs to pour into these races in order for (Republicans) to maintain control of the House.”

The state GOP convention was preceded by the Feb. 2 Michigan Democratic Party convention, where delegates elected Lavora Barnes to replace Chairman Brandon Dillon. Both Dillon and Weiser decided to bow out of party leadership positions. 

But Weiser isn’t going far. He’ll serve as financial chair for the state House Republican Campaign Committee and the national financial chair for the re-election campaign of Republican U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. He hopes the next chairwoman will maintain GOP majorities in the House and state Supreme Court in 2020.

“With the way the government is divided right now between the legislative and executive branch, it provides the opportunity to come up with solutions that serve all of the people,” Weiser said.

The balance of powers between the Legislature and governor is imperative for Republicans to have more of a say in Whitmer’s prerogatives, Mitchell agreed, referencing GOP lawmakers’ overturning of a recent environmental executive order.

“If Democrats control the House, the Legislature would not have been able to defeat that executive order,” Mitchell said.


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