Finley: Trump effect may rock Oakland

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

If there’s anyplace the collateral damage from a Donald Trump collapse risks impacting Republicans down the ballot, it’s Oakland County.

The once rock-ribbed Republican county has voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in the past five elections. While still in the GOP camp, based on the 15-6 makeup of its county commission, Oakland is not as reliable a stronghold for the party.

And that’s most true during presidential election years.

In 2012, when Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney by 8 percentage points in the county where Romney was born, Republicans lost four of the six county-wide offices that had been safely in their hands.

Only County Executive Brooks Patterson and Sheriff Mike Bouchard survived.

This year could be worse. Since the ’12 election, the demographics of the county have continued to shift in the Democrats’ favor, as newcomers from Detroit and elsewhere bring their politics with them. The southern swath of the county is also enjoying an ongoing surge in younger residents.

Should Trump go down hard in Oakland on Nov. 8, virtually no Republican seat can be considered safe.

Democrats sense the opportunity, and are reportedly shifting money into the congressional campaign of Suzanna Shkreli, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Mike Bishop, whose district includes the solidly Republican northern Oakland suburbs.

Bishop’s internal polling puts him up by a comfortable 18 points, but the Democrats are waving their own poll that has the lead at closer to 6 percent. Shkreli has been on the air with a flurry of ads attacking Bishop, and he’s responding in kind. A race that was not supposed to be competitive — Shkreli was a last-minute replacement for actress Melissa Gilbert — has suddenly become interesting.

I spoke this week with Rep. Dave Trott, who like Bishop is a first-term incumbent in a district drawn to be safely Republican. He’s confident, but not completely. Trott’s Democratic challenger, Anil Kumar, has raised money for TV ads. But Trott’s real threat comes from former Congressman Kerry Bentivolio, who is running as an independent and could siphon off just enough Republican votes to tighten the race.

It would take an earth-shaking shift to dislodge Patterson, who is seeking his seventh term as county executive. His record of success has kept him free of serious challenges, though in 2012 he won by 14 points, short of his typical 2-to-1 margins.

This time, former state Rep. Vicki Barnett is running a vigorous campaign that seeks to tie the 77-year-old Patterson to, of course, Donald Trump.

Patterson isn’t worried about himself. “It would take a hell of a drubbing of Trump to have an impact on me,” he says. But the presidential race could “make it tougher to get back” the county-wide seats that were lost in 2012, despite solid GOP challengers.

Working against down-ballot Republicans statewide is the rejection by the courts of Michigan’s ban on straight-ticket voting. In 2012, 53 percent of Oakland Democrats voted party line, compared to 45 percent of Republicans.

Oakland has become a better bellwether county than Macomb for predicting election results statewide. If Republican candidates in Oakland are worried about the Trump effect, then this could be a very bad Election Day for Republicans everywhere.

Nolan Finley’s book “A Little Red Hen: A Collection of Columns from Detroit’s Conservative Voice” is available from Amazon, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble Nook.