Trump a win for Michigan’s GOP activists

Chad Livengood, and Jonathan Oosting

Cleveland — New York businessman Donald Trump’s ascent to the top of the Republican Party is the moment conservative grassroots activists have been waiting for after multiple elections of begrudgingly accepting presidential nominees favored by the GOP’s established leaders.

“We’ve done this over and over and over — hold our nose for bad Republicans,” said Meshawn Maddock, a Trump delegate from Milford. “The establishment has told us to get in line year after year after year.”

This year, it’s the Republican Party establishment that is getting in line, bowing to an unconventional celebrity billionaire nominee who will deliver his acceptance speech Thursday night before Republican leaders and activists inside Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena.

“I think people in this country, especially Republican voters, have sent a strong message that they’re looking for a new approach to governing,” said Matt Hall, a Trump delegate from Grand Rapids.

As Trump has taken the GOP on a year-long, roller-coaster power struggle, some Michigan establishment leaders who initially scoffed at his candidacy have slowly become believers.

“(Trump) said some harsh things, but he said what he thought Republicans wanted to hear,” said Grand Rapids businessman Peter Secchia, a former ambassador to Italy under President George H.W. Bush. “And when you watch biker Dick and truck driver Frank and you see all of these Joe the plumbers, you know that Donald Trump is speaking to them. We’ve been trying to speak to them for the 50 years I’ve been in politics.”

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Trump has defied traditional orthodoxy with a platform that is at once extreme and moderate. It includes building a wall along the entire southern border with Mexico and opposition to several free trade deals supported by Republicans but opposed by labor unions.

The businessman also has promised not to touch Social Security benefits, a standard Democratic position, even though the trust funds for the elderly aid program are projected to be depleted in 18 years.

“It’s hard to put Donald Trump in a box, to define him as we’ve traditionally defined people involved in politics, but he loves America,” said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who supported Ohio Gov. John Kasich during the primaries but has become an unequivocal Trump supporter. “He’s really determined to capture what has made us great and to really take charge of trying to create a world that is more secure and more prosperous.”

As a candidate, Trump has been unpredictable — turning on the charm in one moment and unleashing verbal assaults on fellow Republicans who oppose him in the next.

Unorthodoxy resonates

But Trump’s unorthodox approach is one of the qualities some voters like in Trump, said Chuck Yob, a former Michigan Republican national committeeman.

“They don’t know what Trump is going to do, but they sure as hell know what Hillary’s going to do,” said Yob, 79, who is attending his ninth national convention this week.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is expected to be formally nominated as the Democrats’ presidential candidate next Tuesday in Philadelphia, has sought to define Trump as “dangerous” and unhinged — a theme Democrats plan to trumpet this fall.

“This whole presidential campaign is more or less a vanity project for him to be able to have people support him even if what he’s saying is utterly offensive to many people and really scary,” said Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “You don’t have to dig very far below the surface to see the kind of xenophobia and misogyny he’s appealing to.”

This year’s crowded field of brand-name Republican politicians has complicated the party’s efforts to unify at the convention, where supporters of Kasich and Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz continue to voice their disdain for Trump.

Grassroots Republican activists were splintered in the primaries among Cruz, Trump, neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, among others. Some of the divisions have lingered in Cleveland.

“You had some of the grassroots who pushed Trump from the beginning, loved him from the beginning and some of the grassroots who have been some of his strongest resisters in accepting him,” said state Rep. Ed McBroom of Dickinson County, who is attending his first national convention as a Trump delegate. “Concerned people are not sure whether or not he’s going to stay true to conservative Republican values.”

Trump holdouts remain

Fifty-one of Michigan’s 59 delegates to the national convention ended up casting their votes for Trump on Tuesday night, more than double the 25 he won in the March 8 primary.

Michigan Republican Party rules allowed Cruz and Kasich delegates to change their votes because their candidates dropped out of the race in May when Trump was pulling ahead with an insurmountable number of delegates.

Barbara Bookout, a Cruz delegate from Grand Rapids, remained one of the holdouts Tuesday night on the convention floor.

“I’m a constitutional conservative, and I’m not sure he’s read the Constitution,” Bookout said of Trump. “I’m not sure he subscribes to our platform, and if he does, he would get my support. He hasn’t done anything to reach out to a constituency I represent, including me.”

McBroom was a supporter of Rand Paul, but switched to Cruz when the junior U.S. senator from Kentucky’s campaign sputtered out in the Iowa caucuses and ended up a Trump delegate.

“He wasn’t my first choice, but I could see a long time ago he was going to be the guy,” McBroom said of Trump. “So I’ve been getting myself ready for that for months.”

Andrew Richner, a Kasich delegate from Grosse Pointe, said he is feeling increasingly optimistic Trump could be the prescription for the GOP’s electoral woes in Michigan. The elder Bush was the last Republican to carry the Great Lakes State in 1988.

“I think it’s time to unite behind the nominee, for better or worse,” said Richner, a Republican member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents. “The guy has energized people and motivated them to get into the political process like no one has before.”

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Twitter: @ChadLivengood