Fed up with political tone, women crossing party lines in Mich.
Suburban, college-educated women are expected to play an out-sized role in next week’s midterm elections, as Democrats endeavor to take control of the U.S. House, the Michigan Legislature and the governor's mansion.
Some longtime Republican women in Michigan are distancing themselves from their party, saying they’re casting votes for Democrats this year.
The women say they’re disgusted by partisan vitriol and frustrated that Republicans in Congress and elsewhere aren’t calling out President Donald Trump for his behavior.
"When he was elected, I wanted to give him a chance. But he’s the one that sets the tone for this terrible rhetoric. He’s the one who calls people names, belittles people. Calls people liars or fake news," said Kathleen VanPoppelen, a nurse from Rochester who has been a conservative since high school.
"It’s like we’re on a reality show we didn’t sign up to be on.”
Other Republican women remain excited about Trump but are cautious about expressing it publicly because of the political vitriol, said Linda Lee Tarver, president of the Republican Women's Federation of Michigan.
"You’ve got quiet corners — the silent majority again — where people will show their support at the ballot box, versus outwardly marching or what have you," said Tarver, who co-chaired Trump's Michigan campaign.
"At the end of the day, hating Donald Trump or loving him does not bring about results that we need when we're talking about the issues that are important to us."
It's unclear whether the shift among some women is enough to make a difference in state and congressional districts that historically favored Republicans in a state that Trump won in 2016.
What is clear is women are disproportionately active in this election — a trend reflected in the number of absentee ballots returned so far by female voters in Michigan, said pollster Richard Czuba of the Glengariff Groupin Lansing.
The female factor
"Women are breaking against the Republican Party toward the Democrats, and they are moving seats nobody would have thought would be in play, particularly in the state Legislature," Czuba said. "And it’s a direct response to Donald Trump."
Glengariff's polling has shown voters largely deciding on candidates up and down the ballot based on how they view Trump personally, he said.
Czuba's poll last week for The Detroit News and WDIV reported a 16-percentage point lead among female voters for the generic Democratic candidate in state legislative races.
That attitude toward Trump nearly two years into his presidency is expected to be a drag for GOP candidates on Election Day.
Diane Smith, 57, of Novi voted Republican until Trump became the party's nominee in 2016, saying she couldn't abide his demeaning of women.
She has donated to several Democrats this cycle. They include Haley Stevens, who is running for Congress in the 11th District against Republican businesswoman Lena Epstein, who co-chaired Trump's Michigan campaign.
"We thought the Republican Congress would keep him in check. But they just roll over for him. No one calls him out for the hateful things that he’s said," Smith said.
Tarver acknowledged some conservative women don't like some of what Trump spews on Twitter.
"I'm not personally bothered by it because he's getting results. If you go to the GOP 2016 platform, he's doing what we elected him to do," Tarver said. "I'm not bothered by 'Pocahontas' or what have you. I want him to produce."
'Change the tone'
VanPoppelen, 64, is volunteering for Democrat Elissa Slotkin after voting for incumbent GOP U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop in the past. She spent a recent weekend knocking doors for the campaign, she said.
"I am very, very pro-life. Elissa Slotkin is pro-choice. I don’t care. Because if she gets elected, we could have a conversation and work together," VanPoppelen said.
She also intends to vote for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer, but is undecided on the U.S. Senate race between Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow and Republican John James.
VanPoppelen admits the economy is stronger, her 401(k) account is soaring, and businesses are feeling more confident under Trump's administration.
"But it’s him shooting himself in the foot all the time and saying things that are preposterous," she said. "We have to change the tone and tenor of the conversation and get things back to being civil."
Other Republicans remain loyal to the party and plan to support Bishop for a third term, including Tarver of Lansing, and Mary Lee Kowalczyk, the former executive director of Rochester Community House.
"The buzz here in the community is she’s a transplant. ... And people are not taking it lightly. She doesn’t know this community," Kowalczyk said of Slotkin.
"I don’t think it has much to do with Donald Trump."
Bishop, the former state Senate majority leader from Rochester, has stressed his deep roots in the district and described Slotkin as an outsider supported by Democratic leadership and coastal elites.
Slotkin, who grew up in Oakland County, moved back to her family's farm in Holly last year after 15 years in national security posts in the Bush and Obama administrations.
She has targeted women in her campaign, hosting group breakfasts for women of various political stripes to discuss issues.
“Everywhere I go, people tell me the stories of how their families and friendships have become strained because of the polarization coming from Washington," Slotkin said.
Bishop has stressed his efforts to work across the aisle with Democrats, including joining last year the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus. He has also contrasted his style with Trump's.
"He and I have a different approach. It's just the way it is," Bishop said.
VanPoppelen and others appeared in an ad by the group Republican Women for Progress PAC, which Bishop consultant Stu Sandler has called a "fake group" funded by Trump critic Reid Hoffman of California.
Hoffman, a Democrat, co-founded the LinkedIn networking site and has donated to Slotkin and other Democrats' campaigns.
Donnell Green, 49, an independent voter who lives in Bishop's Rochester neighborhood, volunteers on Bishop's campaign. She said her views on Trump won't factor in her vote.
"I see it more as a race about Mike Bishop, the person that lives in my district. His kids go to school with my kids. He owns a home. He’s accessible. He pays taxes here. His opponent doesn’t," Green said.
Jan Koop, 69, is an independent voter in northern Oakland County who has worked on Republican campaigns for decades.
This year, she also volunteered for Slotkin, saying she admires her "non-political" background working for both Democratic and Republican presidents.
"I’m not going to say I’m voting for all Democrats because of Trump," she said. "I dislike our president, but I think there’s some great people on both sides."
Factoring in Trump
Mary Takacs, a 73-year-old retiree in northern Livingston County, typically votes Republican but has a Slotkin campaign sign on her lawn. Health care is a top issue for Takacs.
"I think the Republicans had a long time to come up with an alternative if they wanted to get rid of Obamacare, and I know of several people who benefited from the Affordable Care Act," Takacs said.
"I was disappointed to see that watered down and not reinforced and repaired."
Nancy Strole, a Republican who served 20 years on the Springfield Township governing board, has hosted a meet-and-greet for other Republicans to meet Slotkin.
Strole had become concerned by Trump’s verbal attacks on NATO allies and U.S. intelligence agencies.
"I’m old enough to remember when Congress could sometimes act in a bipartisan matter and get important things done, and that’s not happening any longer," she said.
Bishop has highlighted both moments of unity and discord with Trump. He said Trump's attacks on NATO and allies like Canada made him uncomfortable, especially considering Michigan's close trading relationship with Canada.
"I’ve found the administration has been open to me when I expressed my concerns," Bishop said.
"When the executive budget came out and left out the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Meals on Wheels and other important community programs, I was the first to express my discontent."
Nancy Dargan, 65, is a Democrat from Brighton who is voting for Bishop.
She praised his support for a $40 million compensation fund for victims of the 2012 fungal meningitis outbreak that hit Michigan's 8th District hard. Dargan received one of the tainted injections and is a recipient of the fund, she said.
She's also an unabashed critic of Trump and understands why Bishop doesn't cross him more often.
"He’s proven he’s a very tit-for-tat kind of guy," Dargan said of Trump. "In a congressman’s position, you have to think about what’s good for my district, what’s good for the people, and I think Mike does that."