Democrats hope for Trump backlash in Michigan

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan Democrats are hailing Tuesday election victories here and around the country as a “repudiation” of President Donald Trump even as Republican candidates for governor, U.S. Senate and other seats rally around him and attempt to replicate his stunning 2016 win.

Democrats celebrated their first key election triumphs of the Trump era this week, flipping the the governor’s office in New Jersey and retaining control in Virginia despite the president’s endorsement of the Republican gubernatorial candidate in an open race.

In Michigan, Democrats held on to a state House seat in an Upper Peninsula district Trump carried last fall. In Virginia, they also picked up more than a dozen seats and elected the first transgender individual to a state legislature months after Trump’s attempted military ban.

It was an “utter shellacking,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon, who argued that Trump voters “got sold a bill of goods” they are now beginning to question. Divisions between Trump loyalists and establishment Republicans are “tearing their party apart,” he said.

But GOP analysts note the Marquette County seat is a longtime Democratic stronghold. Democrats also are still grappling with their own fallout from a contentious presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, while Republicans are touting their improved outreach and get-out-the-vote operations.

“To the Democrats and talking heads who say we’re in for a challenging midterm: Game on,” Republican National Committee political director Juston Johnson wrote in a post-election memo.

Experts say Trump was a major factor in Tuesday’s elections and will remain a heavy influence next year in Michigan, where voters will decide replacements for term-limited Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, other statewide offices and weigh in on contested seats for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House and state Legislature.

“I’m a big believer in the idea that the presidential party pays a penalty down ticket for holding the White House, and that effect can be exacerbated when the person holding the White House is unpopular, as the president is,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Ed Gillespie by more than eight percentage points in the Virginia governor’s race and the party picked up more legislative seats that pundits predicted. Clinton last year won Virginia by five percentage points.

But the state may have been “optimally primed for a big Trump backlash” and Democrats’ success there may not be easily replicable in places like Michigan, Kondik said.

Virginia is diverse, affluent and educated, Kondik said, noting Gillespie performed well in the western part of the state where Trump also found favor with the kind of white, working-class voters he appealed to in rural parts of Michigan and blue-collar areas like Macomb County.

“What we might be seeing is that the shifts we saw in 2016 are enduring some,” he said. “That trade-off is good for Democrats in a state like Virginia, but it might be bad in the Midwest because obviously the changes that Trump wrought on the electorate last year allowed him to very narrowly win Michigan and Wisconsin.”

Democratic Gov.-elect Phil Murphy’s Tuesday night victory in New Jersey was widely seen as a referendum on unpopular GOP Gov. Chris Christie, not the president himself.

After losing a series of congressional special elections earlier this year, Democrats “had” to win the governorship in Virginia, national analyst Nathan Gonazales wrote on his Inside Elections website. Northam’s win merely “maintains the status quo” in a state currently led by Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

“Just as the previous Republican wins in congressional special elections didn’t guarantee the party would have a good 2018, losses on Tuesday night don’t necessarily tell us a Democratic wave in the House has developed,” Gonzales said.

Michigan battleground

Republicans have dominated three of the four past statewide elections starting in 2010. The Trump victory last year was felt down the ballot, with Republicans making unexpected gains for the State Board of Education and keeping their 63-47 state House and 9-5 U.S. House majorities despite predictions of lost seats.

The 109th state House district became an unlikely battleground on Tuesday as Republicans attempted to pick up a seat they had not won since 1952, prompting a vigorous defense from Democrats and an election eve robocall from former Vice President Joe Biden.

Republicans pumped cash into the race after Trump carried the district by four percentage points in 2016, hoping to build on his performance despite a 28-percentage-point win last year by the late Rep. John Kivela, a Marquette Democrat.

Instead, Democrat Sara Cambensy scored a comfortable 22-point win over Republican Rich Rossway.

“They thought they could continue their momentum from last year in kind of rural districts, and Democratic voters weren’t having it,” Dillon said. “A 22-point victory in a competitive race where you have both sides fully engaged is a huge win for Democrats and a huge repudiation for the Michigan GOP, plain and simple.”

But the race was always a long shot for Republicans, said GOP pollster Steve Mitchell, a former “Yooper.”

“I’m not sure that winning a seat you’ve had since 1954 provides you a sense of momentum,” he said.

Democrats can more credibly claim momentum coming out of Virginia, Mitchell said, noting the so-called Trump resistance fueled turnout that Republicans didn’t match.

“There’s such anger against President Trump within the Democratic Party,” he said. “The question remains: Will a pro-Trump Republican candidate be able to get the same enthusiasm out of their base as the Democrats were able to get from their base? That question is going to be answered in 2018.”

State GOP stands by Trump

Most Republicans vying for spots atop Michigan’s 2018 ticket celebrated the president Wednesday night in Macomb County, where former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon maintained that the “Trump agenda” is a blue print for GOP candidates.

“This agenda is a winning agenda,” Bannon said, downplaying the Virginia loss. “Do not believe the opposition party. Do not believe the fake news.”

Attendees included gubernatorial hopefuls Attorney General Bill Schuette and state Sen. Pat Colbeck, along with likely candidate Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. Also on hand were U.S. Senate hopefuls John James and former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bob Young, who are competing to challenge incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow next fall.

Schuette, the early frontrunner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, is “running close to Trump” in the primary and should do so in the general election as well, Mitchell said, pointing to the Virginia results.

“If you’re a Republican candidate, you better run with President Trump and you better run hard, because if you don’t, the base is going to drop off and won’t vote for you,” he said.

But the strategy carries significant risk in the general election, Mitchell acknowledged.

His latest poll showed Trump with a 42 percent approval rating and a 49 percent disapproval rating in Michigan. If those numbers don’t improve, he said Schuette and other Republicans will have a hard time winning next year.

“It could well be that if Republicans fail to get health care reform or tax reform done, then chances are you may have a disenfranchised base no matter what you do,” Mitchell said.

Tuesday night’s results confirm the “toss-up” status of Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, where Republican Rep. Dave Trott of Birmingham is retiring, Kondik said. Like Virginia, voters in the Metro Detroit district have above-average income and education attainment levels.

“I think it is and should be a top-tier Democratic pick-up opportunity,” Kondik said.

Democrats would need to flip 24 seats to regain control of the U.S. House for the first time since a GOP wave in 2010. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on Thursday identified 91 target districts across the country, with five in Michigan.

The “battlefield” includes seats held by Republican Reps. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet, Fred Upton of St. Joseph, Tim Walberg of Tipton and Mike Bishop of Rochester. Democrats unsuccessfully targeted many of the same seats in 2016.

At the Macomb GOP fundraiser, Schuette touted his support for Trump last fall and noted the president has already endorsed him.

He later told The Detroit News he hopes to be a “bridge” to various segments of the Republican Party, including “Trump Republicans,” cultural conservatives, grassroots and “long-active” activists.

“In 2018, the stakes are huge,” he said. “The Democrats want to rebuild the blue wall, right? But in Michigan, we’re not going to let that happen.”