Pence in Michigan: 'We're opening up America again'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Traverse City — Vice President Mike Pence told a crowd of about 400 people in Traverse City Friday night that the country needs President Donald Trump to lead its economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the first major campaign stop in Michigan since the Republican and Democratic national conventions ended, Pence said America's economic recovery and "law and order" are on the ballot Nov. 3.

"We’re slowing the spread," Pence said of the coronavirus. "We’re protecting the vulnerable. We’re saving lives. And we’re opening up America again. And we’re opening up America’s schools again.”

The visit came 67 days before the Nov. 3 election and on the same day the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Michigan exceeded 100,000.

Vice President Mike Pence speaks outside an airport hangar in Traverse City on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020.

With rain falling at times, hundreds of people — many wearing jackets and some wearing masks — gathered outside an airport hangar in Traverse City the day after the Republican National Convention concluded. The week before was the Democratic National Convention, where former Vice President Joe Biden became the official Democratic nominee for president.

Trump and Biden are both hoping to win Michigan. In 2016, the president won the state by 10,704 votes over Democrat Hillary Clinton, his smallest margin of victory nationally.

At the end of his speech, Pence said he looks forward to being back in Michigan "again and often."

"Michigan said yes to President Donald Trump in 2016, and I know Michigan is going to say yes for four more years of President Donald Trump in 2020," the vice president said.

Ahead of Pence's speech, Democrats and the campaign of Biden and his running mate, California U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, blasted Pence for the Trump administration's response to the COVID-19 pandemic and their comments at the Republican National Convention earlier in the week.

"President Trump and Vice President Pence spent the last four days painting a picture of the country that is completely detached from reality in Michigan," said Kate Bedingfield, Biden's deputy campaign manager. "Night after night, they continued to downplay the raging pandemic and the thousands of Michigan jobs that have been lost due to their incompetent response."

Michigan's unemployment rate in July was 8.7%, which was below the national average.

During a Michigan themed-fundraiser Friday night, Harris called the state "the main event in this fight."

"We saw it slip to Donald Trump in 2016, and we're not gonna let that happen again," she added. "Even if we see polls looking good. We need to run this race and we will run this race in Michigan like our future depends on it, because it does."

'Law and order' 

Standing in front of a large American flag and two pieces of construction equipment, Pence spoke for about 40 minutes Friday.

His remarks mirrored his Wednesday address at the Republican National Convention. He again said the November election is about whether American "will remain America."

"Law and order" is on the ballot Nov. 3, Pence said at one point. Democrats want to "defund" the police, he said, although Biden has said he doesn't support the idea.

Amid national protests against police brutality this summer, Pence said the country doesn’t have to choose between “supporting law enforcement” and “standing with our African-American families.”

“We have done both. We will continue to do both,” he said.

The capacity for the campaign stop in Traverse City was about 400. Some people couldn't get in after the event reached capacity. Each person in the crowd had a chair that was distanced a few feet from neighboring chairs.

Those gathered heard speeches from Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James, who is challenging Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet.

James joined Pence on stage after the vice president's remarks.

The coming election "will forever shape our nation's future," Bergman told the crowd.

"The Trump administration has kept their promises to Northern Michigan and the U.P.," Bergman said. "The forgotten man and woman is forgotten no more. And I promise you this: We will not forget the promises made and promises kept when we go to the polls on Nov. 3."

Bergman has been playing up Trump's support for funding to modernize the Soo Locks, a decision that helped break a logjam and freed tens of millions of dollars for the Upper Peninsula project.

Among those in the crowd Friday were Warner and Betty Stringfellow, who live near Gaylord.

Warner Stringfellow, 65, served in the Air Force and said he supports how Trump's administration has handled veterans' issues and the economy over the last four years. Active duty members of the military have respect again, Warner said.

"If it wasn't for COVID, we'd still be booming," he said of the economy.

Betty Stringfellow, 62, a retired nurse, said Trump has done as well "as anyone could" in handling the coronavirus pandemic.

On Friday, the number of confirmed of COVID-19 cases in Michigan surpassed 100,000. The state has reported 6,446 deaths linked to the virus.

A person in a poncho leans against a fence ahead of Vice President Mike Pence's speech in Traverse City on Friday, Aug. 28, 2020.

Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has limited outdoor gatherings in most of the state to 100 people to try to stem the spread of COVID-19. However, in Northern Lower Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, where there have been fewer cases, the outdoor gathering limit is at 250 people.

There are exceptions for First Amendment-protected events, such as protests.

For Pence's Friday event, some people in the crowd wore masks, but many didn't. 

State Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, said the campaign wasn't packing into a venue on Friday.

"People are generally wearing masks," Schmidt said. "It's outside. There's a good breeze. The chairs are socially distant."

Schmidt's home county of Grand Traverse, a longtime GOP stronghold, will have the attention of political watchers statewide in November as the Michigan House seat that features the county is one of a handful that will determine which party controls the chamber in 2021.

Republicans hold the majority with 58 seats in the 110-seat House. Democrats need to flip four seats on Nov. 3 to take it back.

In 2018, Traverse City attorney Dan O'Neil, a Democrat, lost to state Rep. Larry Inman, R-Williamburg, by fewer than 400 votes. O'Neil is running again, but Inman can't because of term limits. The GOP candidate is John Roth of Traverse City, who was in attendance Friday night.

Schmidt said he hoped Pence's visit would provide a "boost" to GOP candidates in the area.