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U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell may have been one of the first to see it.

Months before the November 2016 election, the Dearborn Democrat told a group of Michigan lawmakers that she had a dream in which state Rep. Bill LaVoy lost his bid for reelection. For two terms, LaVoy, a Democrat, had represented a portion of Monroe County and a small piece of Wayne County in the House.

LaVoy won a second term in 2014 by 19 percentage points. After Donald Trump became the GOP nominee for president and Dingell's dream, LaVoy lost by 8 percentage points in 2016, a 27-point swing.

LaVoy's 2016 loss points to the political realignment that's happened in Michigan, shifting some suburban counties toward Democrats and other more rural counties toward Republicans. Two counties in southern Michigan, Monroe and Lenawee, will be near the national spotlight on Thursday as Trump campaigns for reelection a few miles away in Toledo.

"You need to remember that I was the one telling everyone that Donald Trump could win Michigan," Dingell, a former Democratic National Committee member, recalled this week. "You couldn't go to the places and not know."

The realignment helped Trump become the first Republican to win Michigan since George H.W. Bush did it in 1988. Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in Michigan by 10,704 votes, his tightest margin of victory in any state.

Trump's campaign is making an all-out push to win Michigan again. Vice President Mike Pence made appearances in Grand Rapids, Holland and Saginaw in December, while Trump held a two-hour rally in Battle Creek on Dec. 18 — the day the House voted to impeach him.

Less than a month after that Battle Creek event, Trump will rally voters at the Huntington Center in Toledo, where he is expected to speak about 7 p.m.

While the event takes place in northern Ohio, the Toledo television market extends into southeastern Michigan, and Republicans expect many Michigan voters to attend.

Trump's campaign may be attempting to shore up the "small town vote" in Michigan, said Richard Czuba, a pollster and founder of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group.

Voters who consider themselves as living in small town areas are more closely divided on whether to support Trump in 2020 than voters who say they live in urban, suburban or rural areas, according to a Jan. 3-7 Glengariff poll.

Urban and suburban voters heavily support Democratic candidates over Trump by double digits, while rural voters prefer Trump over the top Democratic contenders by at least 33 percentage points, the survey of 600 likely Michigan voters found. But "small town area" voters backed Trump by 8 percentage points over former Vice President Joe Biden, according to the poll.

Trump could also use the event to target Michigan voters in Downriver, south of Detroit, and Monroe County, Czuba said. The two areas are "essential" to a Trump victory in Michigan, he added.

Blue-collar Monroe

At the southeastern corner of Michigan, across the Ohio border from Toledo, Monroe County has a population of about 150,000.

The county is known for having a strong bloc of union voters. The county has a median income, $59,479, slightly the higher than the statewide median income. But its percentage of residents with a bachelor's degree, 19%, is lower than the statewide number, according to U.S. Census figures.

In 2012, Monroe County voted for President Barack Obama, a Democrat who won the county by 717 votes over Republican Mitt Romney. Four years later, the county flipped to Trump, who won it by 16,398 votes.

The swing in the single county was more than Trump's statewide margin of victory. Trump wouldn't have won Michigan without Monroe County, said Randy Richardville, the Republican former Senate majority leader who represented the county in both the state House and Senate. 

"Monroe County has the tendency to vote for who they think is the best person, and they don’t care much about the party," said Richardville, who led the Senate from 2011 to 2014.

The former Senate majority leader remembered a 2000 rally in Monroe, where Democratic then-President Bill Clinton appeared with Al Gore, his vice president who was running for president. Trump's event in Toledo on Thursday will occur about 30 minutes from there.

Monroe County has a strong union presence, Richardville said. Although unions tend to support Democrats, many Monroe County residents are also anti-abortion and pro-hunting — stances that more closely align with the Republican Party, he added.

"Those aren’t guys who are going to answer polls," Richardville said. "They aren’t guys who are going to stand up and cheer for their candidate, but they are going to quietly vote for their candidate."

'Dingell Democrats'

Richardville said some voters in Monroe County have been described as "Dingell Democrats," referring to Democratic former Rep. John Dingell, the longest serving member of Congress who passed away in 2019.

John Dingell was married to Debbie Dingell and represented a portion of Michigan just across the border from Toledo. When Trump was in Battle Creek on Dec. 18, he made headlines and drew bipartisan criticism when he remarked that John Dingell may be in hell.

Trump's campaign could be trying to do some "damage control" among those voters with its event in nearby Toledo, Czuba said.

Many people in the area remember John Dingell as a "statesman," Richardville said, adding that Trump's remark was a "cheap shot."

The Glengariff Group poll found that John Dingell is still viewed favorably by 39% of voters in Southeast Michigan while 18% view him unfavorably.

Among the sames voters, 31% view Trump favorably while 58% view him unfavorably, according to the results.

'Talk about issues'

While Democrats have made substantial gains in Oakland County outside of Detroit and Kent County, home to Grand Rapids, Monroe isn't the only Michigan county that's shifted toward Republicans.

Neighboring Lenawee County has seen a similar movement. Obama lost Lenawee to Romney by 575 votes in 2012. Four years later, Trump won the county by 9,678 votes, a 10,253-vote swing.

The county has gone from being somewhat evenly split between Democrats and Republicans 15 years ago to now heavily favoring Republicans, said Ted Dusseau, chairman of the Lenawee County GOP.

"I think the Democrats moved away from the working guy," said Dusseau, 90, a lifetime county resident.

Michigan Republican Party Co-Chairman Terry Bowman, who serves as advisory board chairman for the Workers for Trump group, echoed Dusseau. Bowman grew up in Monroe and lived there for 39 years.

Bowman cited Democrats' focus on combating climate change, which he said would harm the manufacturing economy.

The political realignment has had repercussions down the ballot. After 2010, Monroe and Lenawee were home to two state House districts that were seen at least somewhat as battlegrounds and one was viewed as favorable to Democrats.

Now, all three are represented by Republicans, and it's unclear whether Democrats will make a play for any of them.

GOP candidates won the three districts by a net total of 639 votes in 2014. In 2018, Republican candidates won the three districts by 21,897 votes. The closest race was in Bill LaVoy's old 17th District, home to the city of Monroe. There, Republican Joe Bellino beat LaVoy's wife, Michelle, by 11 percentage points.

Centrist candidates tend to do well in Monroe County, said Bill LaVoy, who lost a race for the state Senate in 2018. But both parties seem to be moving away from the middle, he said.

Voters in Monroe County split their tickets, LaVoy said, noting he saw yards that featured a sign backing his campaign and another backing Trump.

Asked if the area would eventually swing back to Democrats, LaVoy said he couldn't answer for sure.

Debbie Dingell said Democrats' success in the area will depend on the candidates and whether they're talking about issues that matter to voters. 

Democrats don't do a good job talking about issues that matter to working people, such as having a safe and secure retirement, she said.

"Talk about the issues that matter to them every day," Dingell said. "They’ve lost a lot of industry down there. Plants have shut. They’re worried about it. Farmers are worried."

cmauger@detroitnews.com

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