Trump targets Michigan to end Democratic dominance

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Donald Trump’s campaign is seeking to end the Democratic Party’s 20-year grip on Michigan’s electoral votes as the presumptive Republican nominee seeks to heal a divided party and reshape the campaign map this fall.

A top Trump aide said Sunday that the billionaire real estate mogul is targeting Michigan in a face-off against likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. He successfully predicted in January that he would win the state’s March 8 Republican primary “because I protect the car industry.”

Trump’s campaign and even some of his critics within Michigan Republican politics argue the combination of his appeal to blue-collar workers and a high negative perception among voters of Clinton could be a winning combination.

GOP strategist Greg McNeilly, no fan of Trump, said Democrats will be working hard to paint the bombastic billionaire negatively in an effort to turn out their unenthusiastic base.

“It’s going to be fear and loathing in Detroit and Flint and every other urban center Michigan has. Democrats are going to run a scare-out-the-voter turnout,” McNeilly said.

But another prominent Republican strategist doubts that Trump can become the first Republican since 1988 to carry Michigan on Election Day.

“I think a combination of his rhetoric, his inability to bring people together, which is what you have to do in swing stages like Michigan, ... are going to put Michigan out of reach for him,” said John Weaver, who served as Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s campaign strategist until Kasich earlier this month ended his White House campaign.

Democrats are taking the threat of Trump turning a state like Michigan “very seriously,” said Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party.

“We believe Michigan is a state that whoever the Democratic nominee is, is going to have to be here early,” Dillon said. “They’re going to have to really make sure people understand the kind of things Donald Trump is saying — that he can make people’s lives better — is total and utter nonsense.”

While Trump has cleared the Republican field, Clinton is still battling Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party nomination. The battle is expected to last through the last set of big primaries on June 7.

Republicans see Clinton’s upset loss to Sanders in Michigan’s Democratic primary and Trump’s clear victory as another sign of weakness for the former U.S. secretary of state, McNeilly said.

“Republicans have a reason to be cautiously optimistic that there are some signs that it could be competitive, but it’s too early to know,” said McNeilly, adding he is “tepidly bullish” about Trump’s chances of winning Michigan.

Shaping a strategy

Paul Manafort, who is Trump’s national convention manager, was asked Sunday by CNN’s Jake Tapper which Democratic-leaning states would Trump make a play for.

“There’s a number of them — there’s Michigan, there’s Pennsylvania, there’s several New England states,” Manafort said. “New Hampshire for sure. Maine’s a possibility. Connecticut’s a possibility.”

“Connecticut?” Tapper asked.

“Yes, Connecticut,” Manafort replied. “... We’re in the process now of organizing the framework for the strategy for our general election campaign.”

Trump has the potential to attract Democrats who have been supporting Sanders’ campaign against Clinton, Manafort said.

Sanders and Trump have been appealing to similar groups of independent voters and blue-collar workers. Both men have railed against U.S. trade policies as favoring wealthy corporations and foreign countries over American workers.

When he campaigned in Michigan for one day, Trump held a rally in Warren, the epicenter of the Macomb County “Reagan Democrats” who helped catapult Republican Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980.

“We think there are a number of issues that allow us to expand the map,” Manafort told Tapper. “We think the Democrats are the ones who are going to have a very narrow way to victory, and we think we’re going to be successful.”

Repairing a coalition

Trump’s campaign is starting to build up its field operations in states that typically favor Democrats in general elections, including Michigan, according to the Associated Press.

“I will win states that no Republican would even run in,” Trump told the AP in a recent interview.

Scott Hagerstrom, a veteran Michigan Republican operative, served as Trump’s state director in the run-up to the March 8 primary. But in recent weeks, he was Trump’s state director in Nebraska ahead of that state’s May 10 primary, according to published reports.

The Trump campaign did not respond to a request from The Detroit News for comment.

Trump supporters in Michigan are focused on repairing the fractured Republican coalition that saw more than a dozen candidates come and go in the wake of Trump’s march to the nomination.

“I really think in another couple, three weeks, most everybody will be behind him,” said state Sen. Jack Brandenburg, a Harrison Township Republican and Trump delegate to the national convention.

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley became the highest-ranking Michigan Republican to fully embrace Trump after backing Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the primary.

“It is time for republicans to unify behind @realDonaldTrump,” Calley wrote Monday night on Twitter.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who was neutral in the primary, is “staying out” of presidential politics “for now,” spokesman Ari Adler said Tuesday.

Joseph Munem, a longtime Republican activist in Macomb County, said it’s still too early to tell whether Trump can end the Democrats’ streak of winning Michigan in six consecutive presidential elections.

“I really don’t like dusting off the crystal ball before Labor Day,” Munem said Tuesday. “Trump might have some kind of appeal (in Macomb County). But I don’t know if that’s going to be something that’s found throughout the rest of the state.”

“I think he has a very long way to go to beating Hillary in Michigan.”

Associated Press contributed.