Amid impeachment, Trump still pins hopes on Michigan

Beth LeBlanc Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

President Donald Trump's campaign is trying to rally key areas of Michigan, culminating Wednesday in the president's prime-time campaign event that could start shortly after the Democratic-controlled House impeaches him.

The president's daughter-in-law Lara Trump stumped Tuesday night in Macomb County, where the New York Republican handily beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Vice President Mike Pence is set to hold a Wednesday campaign event with workers in Saginaw County, which Trump narrowly won in 2016.

A supporter walks by a float decorated with slogans and President Trump memorabilia in Sterling Heights.

Also on Wednesday, U.S. Attorney General William Barr will be in Detroit for a non-campaign event to announce a plan to reduce violent crime.

More: House starts historic session to impeach Trump; GOP stalls

The day ends with Trump and Pence's 7 p.m. rally in Battle Creek in Calhoun County, a county that went for Democrat Barack Obama in 2012 but for Trump by a double-digit margin three years ago.

Political experts said the strategy makes sense for Trump, who won Michigan in 2016 by 10,704 votes or less than two-tenths of one percentage point — his closest margin of victory over Clinton.

“I’m not sure it does him any good to sit in the White House and sulk,” said David Dulio, professor of political science and director of Oakland University's Center for Civic Engagement. 

“He’s in campaign mode,” Dulio added, “and trying to be as much on the offensive as he can be on the day he’s going to be the third president in history to be impeached by the House of Representatives.”

Supporters listen to President Trump's Campaign Senior Advisor Lara Trump during a Keep America Great rally in Sterling Heights.

The Trump campaign team is hitting three regions that Trump won in 2016. He prevailed 54%-42% in Macomb County, 48%-46.8% in Saginaw County and 54%-41% in Calhoun County. 

But the battle for those blue collar counties could be more difficult this year if 2018 is any indication. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won Macomb County last year 50%-47% and Saginaw County 53%-45%. She narrowly lost Calhoun County 49%-47%.

At the Wyndam Garden hotel in Sterling Heights, about 400 people gathered in a ballroom to hear Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in- law, who asked the crowd if they were ready for four more years of Donald Trump.

During her 20-minute stump speech, she questioned which Democratic candidate could beat Trump, calling former Vice President Joe Biden, “Sleepy Joe.”  She also said the Democratic party has drifted so far left that she labeled it socialism.

“The problem they are having is that we are having success and prosperity and jobs and low unemployment,” said Trump. “They know they can’t win. They know all their candidates are bad. They know that it’s going to be nearly impossible to beat this president. So what do they do? They try to impeach him. Let’s clear this up very quickly: This is a purely political impeachment.”

President Trump's Campaign Senior Advisor Lara Trump speaks to a crowd during a Keep America Great rally Tuesday at a Wyndham Garden in Sterling Heights.

Trump added that the Michigan is key for the president's reelection in  2020 .

“The future of this country is at stake,” Lara Trump said. “We are finally back on the right path. This country is working for people again. People are seeing economic prosperity and job growth unlike anything we’ve seen in recent history in this country, and we can’t lose that now.”

As Senate Republicans “throw grenades” on impeachment efforts or completely “ignore it,” Donald Trump is free to make his case directly to the American people starting with those Michiganians whose 2016 loyalty helped him clinch the presidency, said Adrian Hemond, a Democrat and CEO for the Grassroots Midwest campaign consultancy in Michigan.

“They’re obviously playing a longer game here because they’re pretty certain the impeachment articles are going nowhere in the Senate,” Hemond said.

Impeachment looms

Trump’s visit comes as seven Michigan Congressional Democrats have said they will vote to impeach him. The rally is scheduled to be held in the district of U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Republican turned Independent who was an early supporter of impeachment.

Among those strongly supporting impeachment, Trump has nothing to lose by doubling down in Michigan Wednesday, said Bill Ballenger, a former GOP lawmaker and longtime political pundit. 

“They can’t hate him any more than they already do,” Ballenger said. “What he’s basically trying to do is politicize the event as much as he can.”

In Michigan, Trump faces U.S. House members who are divided on impeachment, largely along party lines.

Michigan’s six House Republicans are set to vote no on the two articles of impeachment — "abuse of power" and "obstruction of Congress." The delegation's senior Republican, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph, has argued Trump's fate should be decided in the 2020 election.

U.S. Reps. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, and Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, on Tuesday became the last of Michigan's seven Democratic House members to announce their intent to support impeachment. Amash also has signaled he'll vote yes and has been rumored to be among the lawmakers who could manage the impeachment process in the Senate.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Rochester Hills, speaks at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019, urging Russia to release Paul Whelan of Novi, who is from her district.

The decisions by Stevens and U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, were among the most controversial as both flipped traditionally Republican-leaning districts. 

But if constituents disapprove of the lawmakers' actions, Trump's reaction to the Michigan congresswomen's positions was icier. 

Trump attacked Dingell on Twitter over the weekend for comments she made about White House efforts to block testimony by administration officials during the impeachment inquiry. 

And a White House deputy press secretary on Tuesday said Slotkin "sold out her constituents" for U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "sham impeachment process." 

The attacks are expected to increase during Wednesday's rally as Trump seeks to hold on to voters he wooed in 2016. 

While the counties targeted Wednesday are key for blue collar votes, Calhoun County also reveals an increasing interest in West Michigan by Republicans and Democrats alike.

Key region

West Michigan has been a traditional GOP stronghold, but Democrats are concentrating more and more on the region. There's likely good reason for it: Counties on the west side of the state were among those that experienced the sharpest shifts away from Republicans in 2018, when Whitmer prevailed, after Trump won the state and counties in 2016.

FILE - Bernadene Francis and friend Gloria Aukeman, right, pose with a likeness of Donald Trump as the Kent County GOP holds a Watch Party in their Grand Rapids headquarters for the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States on Friday.

A Detroit News analysis of county-by-county results for the 2016 and 2018 elections found that of the 18 Michigan counties that saw the largest shifts in Democrats' favor, six were in a geographic cluster reaching from Calhoun County, where Battle Creek is located, to Muskegon County, which lies farther north along Lake Michigan.

In two counties — Kalamazoo and Muskegon — Whitmer won by more votes than Democrat Hillary Clinton did in 2016. In three — Allegan, Calhoun and Ottawa — Whitmer and Clinton both lost, but Whitmer significantly narrowed the gap. And in one — Kent County — Whitmer won where Clinton lost.

On top of the recent trends in west Michigan, pollster Richard Czuba of the Glengariff Group noted that the region has traditionally been fertile ground for Republicans and the Trump campaign is "starting" with its base by focusing there.

"No Republican wins Michigan without West Michigan," Czuba said. "That is the first place you start in assembling your Michigan coalition."

In 2016, Trump became the first Republican presidential candidate to win Michigan since George H.W. Bush did it in 1988. Trump won the state by 10,704 votes, holding his final campaign rally in the early hours of Election Day in Grand Rapids.

Trump's 2016 margin against Democrat Hillary Clinton was at least 6,100 votes better than Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette's 2018 margin against Whitmer in six individual counties that fall in the Grand Rapids media market. The counties are Allegan, Calhoun, Kalamazoo, Kent, Muskegon and Ottawa.

Trump and the 2016 presidential election energized independent voters, some of whom voted in 2016 but stayed home in 2018, said Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox. Those are voters whom Republicans want to target ahead of 2020, Cox said.

For example, in Kent County, which is home to Grand Rapids, Whitmer got 2,946 more votes than Clinton did. But Schuette, the state's former attorney general, received 18,192 fewer votes than Trump did.

But Cox noted that the unemployment rate in the Grand Rapids area fell from 4% when Trump took office to 2% in October.

“The No. 1 rule of politics is you keep what you won," Cox added of Trump's focus on West Michigan.

Dems target Kent County

The biggest swing among West Michigan counties from 2016 to 2018 came in Kent County. Trump won the county by 9,497 votes while Schuette lost it to Whitmer by 11,641 votes, a swing of 21,138 votes — more than Trump's margin of victory statewide in 2016.

The only counties that saw larger swings were the more populated Macomb and Oakland counties in Southeast Michigan.

Chuck Todd, host of NBC's Meet the Press, has pegged Kent County as the county to watch in Michigan going into the 2020 election.

"As Kent County goes, so goes Michigan and maybe, so goes the election," Todd said on his show last month.

Brandon Dillon represented a portion of Kent County in the Michigan House before becoming chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party in 2015. He was the party's chairman for both the 2016 and 2018 elections.

West Michigan displays larger political trends that are playing out nationally, Dillon said. In recent years, there's been a political re-alignment in Democrats' favor in urban and suburban areas, like Kent County. But Democrats are struggling in blue-collar areas, such as Calhoun County, where they once did better, he said.

Whitmer ran a smart campaign and focused on pocketbook issues, the former chairman said. She was able to define herself, he added.

Detroit mayor Mike Duggan, right, introduces Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, left, and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II,    at the Inauguration Celebration in the Grand Riverview Ballroom at Cobo Center in Detroit on Jan. 1, 2019.

"That is going to be the challenge for the Democratic nominee," Dillon said. He continued, "Nobody is going to beat Trump in a food fight."

Democrats and Republicans will both be targeting Michigan voters such as Scott Conley, a Galesburg resident who works in the building trades. Conley was working on a building in downtown Battle Creek on Monday, two days before the president's rally there.

Conley said he voted for Clinton in 2016 but hadn't decided how he'll vote in 2020 yet because none of the Democratic candidates had won him over. As for his friends, Conley said many of them voted for Trump last time. As for where they stand now, Conley said, "They're all staying with him."

Staff Writer Kim Kozlowski contributed to this report.