Trump turns Michigan into battleground state

Michael Gerstein, and Jonathan Oosting

Grand Rapids — One year ago Wednesday, Donald Trump promised a packed convention center here in the early hours of Election Day he would win the White House, a victory few pundits predicted.

It was almost 1 a.m., and Motor City rocker Ted Nugent had already roused the crowd. But the reality television star’s fans mustered a renewed zeal, roaring as he took the stage at the DeVos Place.

“There’s no place I’d rather be for my last rally (than) right here in Michigan, late at night and full of energy and life,” Trump said.

“Today, we are going to win the great state of Michigan, and we are going to win back the White House,” Trump added to deafening cheers. “We’re hours away from a once-in-a-lifetime change. We’re going to have real change, not Obama change.”

The New York real estate magnate won Michigan over Democrat Hillary Clinton by a thin margin — 10,704 votes, or two-tenths of a percentage point. It was a victory many Republicans thought unlikely a month earlier after the release of 2005 “Access Hollywood” audio in which Trump said he used his celebrity status to grope women.

His victory halted a 28-year drought for the Michigan GOP, thrust the state into the center of national policy debates and cast a red shadow on the blue wall that Democrats have counted on for decades.

Analysts and campaign strategists might now spend more time trying to woo Michigan voters in 2020 than they had in the past, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“Michigan is going to be a super-important state in 2020,” he said. “Democrats can win the White House without Ohio and Iowa, but a Democrat, I don’t think, can win without Michigan.”

Trump has signaled that Michigan is important to him. He rewards his supporters and punishes opponents, especially within his own party.

The president has noted that Gov. Rick Snyder did not endorse him in last year’s GOP primary or the general election. Snyder has worked more with Vice President Mike Pence, with whom he is friends and who hired away the governor’s former chief of staff Jarrod Agen.

But Trump appointed Grand Rapids area school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as his education secretary and successfully nominated Michigan Supreme Court Justice Joan Larsen into a seat on the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. State party chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel’s aid in securing Michigan for Trump helped get her promoted to lead the Republican National Committee.

To help commemorate the one-year anniversary, former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon is set to address Wednesday’s “unity dinner” for the Macomb County Republican Party. Trump won the county 54 percent to 42 percent.

Bannon pushed a nationalist agenda on economics, foreign policy and immigration before returning to run Breitbart News in mid-August. He has since reportedly vowed to back almost every primary challenger to Republican senators running in 2018, drawing questions about his selection for a “unity” dinner.

Organizer Jamie Roe said the anniversary event makes sense because Macomb Republicans remain a unified force. Warren City Council President Cecil St. Pierre, who chairs the 9th Congressional District Republican Party, said the “refreshing” choice of Bannon makes sense because there continues to be a need to shake up Washington.

“We still need to clean up the swamp,” Pierre said of the potential primary challengers in other states. “...We need to get people that are representing the (people) rather than the lobbyists’ interests. Then you will see some real change.”

Michigan visits

Trump has visited the state twice since Election Day, including a thank-you stop last December in Grand Rapids.

In March, he came to Ypsilanti and announced reopening the review of greenhouse gas emission standards that require automakers to produce car and truck fleets averaging the equivalent of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The domestic automakers had opposed then-President Barack Obama’s decision to skip a 2018 review.

The chief executives of General Motors Co, Ford Motor Co. and Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles NV have visited the White House to meet with the president — something that hasn’t happened in decades — and participated in a roundtable discussion with Trump during the Ypsilanti visit. He repeated his campaign pledge to bring auto jobs back to Michigan.

GM CEO Mary Barra met with Trump in late January and later in June to thank the president for slashing regulations. In the winter, then-Ford CEO Mark Fields attended two White House meetings on a presidential manufacturing initiative with the CEOs of Whirlpool and Dow Chemical.

During the Ypsilanti roundtable, Trump repeatedly stressed to domestic and former automaker executives that he wants them to build “modern plants, like you’re building in Mexico,” not expand existing facilities. In exchange, Trump vowed he would keep easing regulations, including rules on fuel economy standards. He said he would fulfill his campaign promise to cut taxes.

The problem is that U.S. sales have declined this year after hitting a record 17.55 million units in 2016, leading GM to cut shifts, let go of 2,605 temporary workers and lay off another 800 employees.

The Detroit Three automakers haven’t built any U.S. assembly plants in a decade and there are no plans to construct any. There are plans for a Toyota-Mazda plant in America by 2021 and Indian automaker Mahindra Group plans to build one in Auburn Hills by an unknown date.

Trump also promised to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, among other campaign pledges. The Republican-controlled Congress has stalled on health care reform and is shooting for a Christmas deadline to get a tax cut package to the president.

“I hate to say it, but it’s still a virgin presidency for him,” said Steve Murad of Caledonia, who attended last year’s Grand Rapids rally and said he and his family remain “huge, staunch supporters” of Trump.

“He’s put a lot on the table for discussion in one year,” Murad said. “The saddest thing in my opinion, even from the election to now, you have party-line Republicans who aren’t standing behind the president, who is a Republican.”

‘Most surprising’

Trump’s win has reinvigorated Republicans and Democrats alike, political analysts said.

“I think of all of the states that Trump flipped from 2012 … Michigan was probably the most surprising just because (Barack) Obama had won it in 2012,” Kondik said.

Twelve counties that voted for Obama in 2012 turned red for Trump in 2016, including Saginaw, Calhoun, Bay and Macomb counties. Now, Democrats can count Michigan as a missing brick in the great blue wall during presidential elections, Kondik said.

Trump won in Macomb because he visited three times during the campaign, including an event at Freedom Hill in Sterling Heights two days before the election, said Roe, a county resident and Republican strategist with Grand River Strategies. Clinton made one visit to the county — a Warren aerospace factory in August — and never returned.

Trump won the county by more than 48,000 votes compared with Obama’s 16,000-vote victory margin in 2012.

Macomb’s “working-class voters responded to the president’s message of better trade deals, secure borders and a strong military,” Roe said. “... He way over-performed what a typical Republican would do.”

But Trump’s election and demeanor have stirred liberals and Democrats.

They organized a Women’s March on Washington in January and a women’s conference last month in Detroit. They protested hot-button issues such as Trump’s executive order banning travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries and his pledge to deport more undocumented immigrants.

“No question there’s been an upsurge in mobilization,” said Matt Grossman, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.

Trump’s victory stirred talk of Republicans having a realistic shot at defeating U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing. But she has amassed an almost $7 million war chest compared with $216,200 and $102,000 for the announced GOP candidates.

Stabenow’s campaign is trying raise money off Bannon’s Michigan visit, suggesting he has “long been rumored to have Debbie on the top of his takedown list.”

“We can’t wait for Bannon – or any of Trump’s allies – to start building steam,” her campaign said in a Facebook ad, urging supports to chip in to “stand up to the Trump agenda.”

Gauging the ‘Trump effect’

Trump’s immigration stance and rhetoric may drive Republicans vying for statewide offices – from the state House to Congress – to adopt a similar emphasis on ideologically driven “cultural” issues, Grossman and others said.

“I think that Republicans are not as reticent to talk about hot-button issues and to soft-peddle some of the rhetoric because it seems that Trump has really connected with the base in that way,” said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics.

But Trump was not a pervasive topic of discussion during the gathering of party activists at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference in September, Demas noted.

But Trump will affect Republican primary races, said Steve Mitchell, a Republican strategist at East Lansing-based Mitchell Research and Communications.

"As is the case everywhere, there is now a major litmus test for Republican candidates in Michigan primaries: How supportive are they of Donald Trump?" Mitchell said. "Support for Trump in a GOP primary will pay dividends, but the jury is still out on how that support for the president will impact votes in a general election."

Trump is making northern Michigan more competitive for the Republicans. Democrat Lon Johnson, considered a tough opponent for political newcomer Jack Bergman, lost to the Republican by nearly 15 percentage points in the 1st Congressional District in 2016 after retiring GOP Rep. Dan Benishek had tougher races in prior years.

"We don't know what's going to happen without Trump on the ballot," Mitchell said. "... We are in unchartered territory."

The Trump effect may be shifting the potential battleground districts in state House races and the 2018 governor’s campaign, said Josh Pugh, a Democratic strategist for Grassroots Midwest.

“Pretty much everywhere outside college towns, there was a significant rightward lean. That was up and down the ballot, and it was not unique to any one piece of geography in the state,” Pugh said of the 2016, when Republicans kept control of the state House.

High-quality Democratic state House candidates underperformed in Escanaba, Alpena, Leleenau, Muskegon, Kalamazoo, Van Buren and Macomb, he said. Now, Trump’s popularity may lead Democrats to scratch certain areas from its playbook, he said.

“The path to victory is not to look at seats where you don’t have a shot anymore,” Pugh said.

Staff Writer Keith Laing contributed