Many Michigan Republican candidates flock to Trump

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Washington Township — President Donald Trump gave Bill Schuette a shout-out and trashed Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow Saturday night at a raucous Michigan campaign rally where several Republican candidates flocked to his side as they look to recreate his surprise 2016 victory.

President Donald Trump has gotten support from Michigan Republicans.

Schuette, the Republican term-limited attorney general now running for Michigan governor, met with Trump ahead of the president’s speech and helped warm up the crowd with his own remarks.

Trump described Schuette as “a great friend of mine” and called him “the next governor of Michigan” as he tried to locate the Midland Republican in the crowd. Trump last fall endorsed Schuette via Twitter.

The brief but friendly reference in the president’s one hour and 15-minute speech came after Schuette told reporters Trump would stump for him at the event, which he labeled a “Trump-Schuette rally.” The president’s re-election campaign never mentioned Schuette in its releases.

“He’s coming in to help me, obviously,” Schuette said. Trump “will be back in this state, and so will Vice President (Mike) Pence, which I appreciate.”

Schuette has repeatedly jabbed Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, his chief rival for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, for withdrawing his endorsement of Trump in October 2016 after audio tapes surfaced of the New York businessman bragging that he could get away with groping and grabbing women by the genitals because of his celebrity.

At the time, Calley urged Trump to stand aside and “allow a replacement to provide the kind of option America could believe in.”

Calley, who ended up voting for Trump in the general election, did not attend the Macomb County rally and was instead scheduled to speak at the 17th annual Asian Pacific American Chamber of Commerce Gala in Detroit..

But in a combative release earlier Saturday, the Calley campaign blasted Schuette for trying to “re-invent himself to look like a longtime supporter of the president.”

Schuette “worked to defeat” Trump in the 2016 Republican primary when he helped lead Jeb Bush’s state campaign, the release said, also reminding that the attorney general once called Trump comments about Hispanics and Mexicans “deplorable.”

The Portland Republican took a more measured tone in a statement about Trump’s visit. “I support the president and ... I look forward to working with him after winning the race for governor,” Calley said.

Schuette laughed off the Calley campaign criticism, calling it “very humorous.”

Schuette also disavowed Trump’s comments about women that surfaced in 2016 but supported Trump throughout the general election.

“Think what would have happened if Donald Trump hadn’t won,” Schuette said Saturday. “We wouldn’t have Neil Gorsuch on the United States Supreme Court. We wouldn’t have had tax cuts. We would have Hillary Clinton. I worked very hard to beat Hillary Clinton.”

State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, also seeking the GOP gubernatorial nomination, had a video board outside the venue greeting Trump supporters. It alternated between footage of the Canton Township Republican and a “Trumpers for Colbeck” logo.

Trump remains popular with his Republican base but public opinion polls show his approval ratings remain underwater with general election voters. Politicians seeking to ride his coattails may have a hard time replicating his 2016 win.

“I don’t like politicians, I’m sorry,” said Joe Arwady of Washington Township, 52, as he waited in line for the Trump rally. “They’re only out for themselves. That’s why I like Trump. He’s not a politician. Nobody can buy him or sell him.”

The president used his speech to repeatedly criticize Stabenow, who is up for re-election this fall, bemoaning her vote against the new Republican tax cut law and suggesting she opposes border security because she has not backed funding for the massive wall the president wants to build on along the Mexico border.

Trump has not endorsed in the GOP Senate primary that features Farmington Hills businessman and Iraq War veteran John James and Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler, but he said there are “some great people” running in the race.

“I don’t know how she keeps getting re-elected,” Trump said of Stabenow. “A vote for a Democrat is a vote for open borders and crime, it’s very simple. It’s also a vote for higher taxes. It’s also a vote for be careful of your Second Amendment.”

The Stabenow campaign urged supporters to donate to her re-election and help prevent “yet another rubber stamp for Donald Trump's dangerous agenda in Washington.”

Stabenow spokesman Matt Williams responded to Trump’s comments by suggesting that Michigan families are “tired of political attacks.”

“Instead they want results, and that’s exactly what Sen. Stabenow has done by restoring every penny of President Trump’s cuts to Great Lakes funding and leading the bipartisan effort to upgrade the Soo Locks,” Williams said.

Pensler, who has already pumped $5 million of his own money into the Senate race, paid for two large billboards welcoming Trump to Michigan and thanking him for “making America great again,” the president’s 2016 campaign slogan.

“He’s done a wonderful job and we want to thank him,” Pensler said as he waited outside the venue to get into the president’s speech. “I’m going to be another voice in the Senate supporting him.”

James, who was also at the rally, praised Trump on social media for firing up conservatives and said his “grassroots army” will lead the mission to vote Stabenow out of office in November.

Pensler has branded himself a “Trump Republican,” but critics have recently questioned his loyalty to the president. They have pointed to video clips of him discussing a failed business deal with Trump and saying he “can’t speak at a fourth-grade level like (Trump) can.”

He attributed the edited video clips to his primary opponent, calling the recent attacks “desperate gasps from a dying campaign that doesn’t have any policy issues to do and only has mischaracterizations to throw out.”

Pensler, who has taught economics classes at Harvard and Yale, said he appreciates the president’s speaking style and has a personal tendency to slip into a “professorial” mode.

“The president speaks in an incredibly skilled, simple manner,” he said. “That’s an incredible skill that I work on to get better at. (The video) was taken completely out of context because I’m a huge admirer of the president.”

The speech was attended by Michigan GOP U.S. Reps. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet, John Moolenaar of Midland and Paul Mitchell of Dryden.

Rep. Mike Bishop, a Rochester Republican seeking re-election in a competitive district, was not at the Trump rally because he was on “official travel,” said campaign spokesman Stu Sandler. “We cannot share any additional information for security purposes, per the Department of Defense.”

Bishop attended a March 1 fundraiser that Pence and others held for him and other vulnerable GOP members of Congress.

Macomb County helped tip Michigan to Trump in 2016, when he became the first presidential candidate to win the state since 1988. The New York businessman’s 10,704 vote win over Democrat Clinton was the narrowest in Michigan history, at just .27 percentage points, but he took Macomb County by a comfortable 10-point margin.

Trump’s victory path through Macomb County is “a success we plan to duplicate for our statewide races in 2018, much as we did in 2010 when we turned Michigan red,” said Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser.

Thousands of Trump supporters packed the sports complex.

“Any candidate that is running in 2018 should be here,” said Shelby Township Clerk Stan Grot, a secretary of state candidate and chairman of the 10th Congressional District Republican Party. “My feeling is that you’ve got to run with the president in 2018 — not independent of him, not against him.”

Trump “came in as an outsider and he’s draining the swamp,” Grot said outside the new Total Sports Park in Washington Township. “We’ve got to be there to make sure we unplug the bathtub and be right there with him.”

Trump used the campaign rally to fire up his Republican base heading into a 2018 mid-term election cycle that could function as a referendum on his early presidency even though he won’t appear on the ballot. He noted that historically, a new president’s party tends to fare poorly in mid-term elections.

“We cannot get complacent. We got to go out and fight like hell,” he said, predicting Republicans will maintain control over both the House and Senate. “I think we’re going to do great ... because the economy is so good.”