Lon Johnson predicts Mich. may be battleground in '16
Detroit — The chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party predicted the state could be a battleground in the 2016 presidential election if former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton win their party's nominations.
But Lon Johnson also warned Democrats that Michigan won't be "a layup" for the Democratic nominee in 2016 if the race for the White House becomes a showdown between two familiar names in American politics.
"If it is Jeb versus Hillary, we are in for a barn burner of a race," Johnson said at a meeting of 9th Congressional District Democrats from Macomb and Oakland counties. "It is going to be tough."
Johnson made the prediction at the Democrats' annual state convention Saturday before 1,300 convention delegates unanimously re-elected him to a second term as chairman. He faced no opposition, though his strategy for getting Democrats elected to major statewide offices again has been questioned by some party insiders.
The 2016 presidential election, still nearly 21 months away, was a central theme of the convention at Cobo Center as Democrats regroup following stinging losses in the 2014 midterm elections.
Aside from helping Sen. Gary Peters become the only new Democrat elected to the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, Democrats lost major statewide races for governor, attorney general and secretary of state and seats in the GOP-dominated Legislature.
Clinton and Bush are considered frontrunners for their party's nomination for president, if they both choose to run.
"It's absolutely critical — and I don't know who's she's going to be — but we need to elect a Democratic president of the United States of America," said Peters, who did not mention Clinton by name. "... Because the election of '16 is about the future. ... And we know as Democrats we are the voice of those who do not have a voice."
Some liberal Democrats want to see Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren challenge Clinton in a primary.
Democratic presidential candidates have won Michigan every election year since 1992. But in the past two midterm elections, Democrats have struggled with lower voter turnout as Republicans have gained a firm grip on all three branches of state government.
As he moves into a second term, Johnson is pushing for Democrats to champion new policy initiatives to better distinguish themselves from Republicans.
"We have to be the party that shows (voters) precisely what they're going to get," Johnson said at the 9th Congressional District meeting. "We cannot just be the party that hates on Republicans."
Johnson said Democrats have to be "open to new ideas and new people" in order to win back seats in the state House next year, compete against Republican incumbents in targeted congressional districts and keep Michigan a reliable state for the Democratic presidential nominee.
U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, echoed Johnson's comments about expanding the party's base of core voters.
"We are the big tent, but we have to invite people back in, and those who are in our tent, we need to keep them," Lawrence said.
To win in 2016, Johnson said the party needs to better engage voters on issues of national, statewide and even local importance.
Johnson cited recent attempts by oil companies to drill for oil and gas in suburban Macomb County as a lost opportunity for the party to use a local issue to highlight Democratic values.
"We didn't touch those issues," Johnson said in a speech to all 1,300 convention delegates.
Johnson floated other ideas Democrats could pursue to attract younger voters, including pursuing expanded passenger rail service beyond southern Michigan cities. He proposed wooing college graduates to stay in the state by promising to have state government repay one-eighth of their college loan for every year they remain in Michigan.
Other Democratic leaders touched on the party's messaging issues.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, said Democrats can't let Republicans steal their issues. He cited a recent speech Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan — the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee — gave on the country's growing income inequality gap between the rich and poor.
"They can't get away with hijacking our language. Words are cheap," Kildee said. "... They talk about income inequality, but they vote to keep the minimum wage at the poverty level."
To better engage voters not just prior to elections, Johnson said he wants to get precinct delegates involved in more local issues "to show what the difference is between the Democrats and the Republicans."
John Bendzick, a longtime precinct delegate from Dearborn, said the idea of deploying grassroots party activists was not Johnson's idea, but he's adopting it at their strong urging.
"He's just lucky to have a job," Bendzick said after Johnson was re-elected. "He's had to change his tune."
Oakland County Commissioner Nancy Quarles, who was elected vice chair of the state party, said it's important Democrats win back at least partial control of state government by 2018 to position the party for the next redistricting battle with Republicans following the 2020 census.
"If we don't do the right things for 2018, it's all over for Democrats," Quarles said at the 9th Congressional District Committee meeting.