Selweski: The 'Trump Effect' Will Dominate Michigan Elections

July 22, 2018, 10:13 PM

Chad Selweski covered state and regional politics at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. He contributes to Deadline Detroit and blogs at Politically Speaking.

By Chad Selweski

The most significant political figure in Michigan's 2018 elections is not on the ballot – President Donald Trump.

The Trump Effect looms large in races across the state, particularly for governor and U.S. Senate, as most Republican candidates cling to the president while Democrats engage in a daily Trump-bashing fest on the campaign trail.

The controversial president is like catnip for Republicans running in the Aug. 7 primary for one simple reason: His popularity among GOP voters in Michigan is nearly off the charts. In one recent statewide poll, 80 percent of Republicans had a favorable opinion of Trump while just 12 percent viewed him unfavorably.

At the same time, among all voters, Trump’s job approval rating in Michigan is substantially under water – 42 percent positive, 55 percent negative.

That dichotomy has led to a political landscape where GOP hopefuls pander to the Trump base to win the upcoming primary. They’ll worry about how to soften their message for the general election later.

In the gubernatorial race, state Attorney General Bill Schuette, the GOP frontrunner, has embraced Trump at every turn. A 30-year political veteran, Schuette’s TV ads continue to feature a video clip of Trump endorsing him at a Macomb County political rally in April.

The AG’s main opponent, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, still faces flak from conservative Republicans for calling on Trump to exit the 2016 presidential race following the release of an Access Hollywood tape that revealed Trump making crude remarks about women. Calley has said he voted for the president on Election Day.


Stabenow opponents praise president

In the U.S. Senate race, where incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow waits in the wings, the two Republican contenders compete over who can most dramatically portray themselves as a Trump die hard.

Grosse Pointe industrialist Sandy Pensler has erected billboards near the sites of recent Trump visits to Michigan welcoming the president to the state and declaring, “Thanks for Making America Great Again.”

Former Iraq War helicopter pilot John James’ campaign site shows the candidate sharing a military salute with the commander-in-chief, a " special moment . . .I'll never forget," he's quoted as saying.

Another key race where the Trump Effect is on full display is in the 11th Congressional District in parts of Wayne and Oakland counties. With an open seat up for grabs, the 11th District race ranks as a tossup -- and as one of the most closely watched House races in the nation for a potential flip from Republican to Democratic control.

Ten candidates will face off in the primary. Among the five Republicans, the perceived favorite is Lena Epstein, state co-chair of the 2016 Trump campaign.

For GOP primary voters who place loyalty to the president above all else, Epstein’s bonafides are impeccable. When the Franklin Hills Country Club in Oakland County recently cancelled a scheduled Epstein fundraising party due to her political views, the candidate wore her Trump allegiance as a badge of honor, telling the media that she was a victim of anti-Trump bias.

The Trump Effect could also play out in numerous state House and Senate races where swing districts are up for grabs, particularly in Metro Detroit.

But the question remains: Can the staunchly pro-Trump candidates that emerge from the primaries successfully make a big pivot closer to the center in the fall so that they don’t alienate middle-of-the-road voters who dislike Trump?

Will Republican nominees’ warm words for the relatively unpopular president over the past many months serve as constant campaign fodder for Democrats in the fall?

The GOP candidates could thread the needle. Or they could find themselves hanging on by a thread come Election Day.

Suburban female college grads

Analysts say that college-educated suburban women who are independent voters or tend to lean Republican may the most coveted cohort in the fall electorate. They are labeled by both parties as “persuadables.”

President Trump in Macomb County.

Republican strategists believe the Democrats give the GOP an opening by pushing the party to the left on universal health care, "abolishing" ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and impeaching Trump for "treason."

Leaning too far left doesn’t necessarily apply to Stabenow or the Dem front-runner for governor, Gretchen Whitmer. But it may be a factor in the 11th District. Two of the most competitive Dem primary candidates, Suneel Gupta and Fayrouz Saad, have largely embraced the democratic socialist agenda championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Democratic Party tactics are shifting on the fly, with a new emphasis on foreign policy, after Trump initially sided with Russian President Vladimir Putin and against U.S. intelligence agencies regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election. But the president’s statement at the conclusion of the Helsinki summit may have little effect on the upcoming midterm elections.

A national poll released just after the summit found that 40 percent of voters approved of Trump’s remarks, including nearly 80 percent of Republicans. Further evidence that Trump is bullet-proof within the GOP.

Republican candidates who have hitched their wagon to Trump in the primaries are gambling on the future. And where the Trump Effect stands in November is anybody’s guess in this highly volatile political atmosphere.

The loyalty of Trump’s supporters has been underestimated time and again. But the impact if Trump’s stalwart base starts to fray – or stays home in large numbers on Election Day -- could be the political equivalent of a meteor crashing to earth.

It might put the GOP in a hole with no exit.

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