Chad Selweski covered state and regional politics for The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. He contributes to Deadline Detroit and blogs at Politically Speaking.
While recent polling suggests the Democrats have an advantage on Tuesday in statewide races from governor on down, the great unknown is what will happen in the place that has been labeled, “Trump County, USA”
Macomb County was not only singled out as the most important Michigan county in Donald Trump’s narrow win here in 2016 – providing him with the state’s winning margin -- it was labeled as one of the decisive counties in the nation as the Republican nominee cobbled together a surprising Electoral College majority.
With Michigan races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and U.S. Senate on the line Tuesday, the mixed messages coming out of Macomb make political strategists from both parties nervous.
After all, Macomb has long held a national reputation as a bellwether county that almost always votes with the winner for president or governor going back more than three decades. It’s the state’s third-largest county and it sits atop the heap in political intensity.
Trump is not on the ballot but his strong support two years ago in Macomb could continue to influence a lean toward Republicans in a county that may be the deciding factor if the statewide races are close on Election Night. In recent days, on the campaign trail the president has said “I am on the (GOP) ticket” and that voters should envision casting their ballot for him when they choose congressional and state candidates.
While Trump’s approval rating statewide is still under water -- 53-43 percent unfavorable -- in Macomb County one sampling of voters indicates it’s on the plus side, 50-42 percent.
Still, this remains the overriding question: Is Macomb County still solid Trump country?
It depends who you ask.
Trump influence uncertain
Macomb candidates who have been campaigning door-to-door for months, folks who have their ear to the ground, provide contrasting views on the Trump factor.
Some say voters do not equate their love or hate for Trump with candidates for state and local offices. Others sense that the president’s views and rhetoric influence all voters as the midterm elections are widely portrayed as an embrace or a rejection of the Trump administration.
One candidate running for a local judicial seat, a nonpartisan office on the ballot with no ties to partisan politics in Washington, is peppered with questions while door-knocking about her opinions and relative loyalty toward Trump.
A Democratic candidate for a legislative seat said Trump’s influence on voters is “certainly not as strident” as in 2016, though women flipping their stance to anti-Trump is the most noticeable change.
A longtime political observer and former campaign consultant maintains that Trump remains popular in the county and his most unyielding supporters represent a “cult of personality” that has enveloped the president. These are solid, Republican-only voters.
When the Republican Party at the 11th hour sought to bolster their chances in Michigan, they decided to send Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway to Macomb for a campaign rally on Thursday night. (She ended up not showing because of an aircraft malfunction). The state Republican Party hopes that Macomb will come through with big numbers in favor of GOP candidates that will tilt the statewide results.
But a local Republican official with experience in numerous past campaigns cautioned that 2018 is not 2016, in part because Hillary Clinton, a lightning rod in the election two years ago, is not on the ballot.
Some political analysts see a late surge in Republican enthusiasm but this official said “there’s not a lot energy” because activists express disappointment with the top of the ticket, especially with GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette’s hopes fading.
Macomb GOP looks for a Trump rescue
Polling shows Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic nominee for governor, far ahead of Schuette in the Detroit area, though the race appears much closer in Macomb.
While it’s not on the president’s campaigning schedule for the days leading up to Tuesday, Macomb Republicans still hope for a surprise Trump visit to their county.
The reason why Macomb is viewed as ground zero in Michigan, and the reason why Rolling Stone magazine, after the 2016 election, attached the label “Trump County, USA,” is because of the president’s ability to flip so many votes from Democrat to Republican in a county known for its ticket-splitting, independent ways.
In 2016, Trump’s emphasis on Macomb paid off as his winning edge in the county, more than 48,000 votes, was about four times his statewide margin. In addition, he pulled off a dramatic, 68,000-vote flip from former president Barack Obama’s 2012 performance in the county.
Yet, Macomb’s maverick ways, first made famous by the county’s “Reagan Democrats” in the 1980s, include a long history of switching back and forth between Republicans and Democrats for president and governor.
Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat whose crossover appeal to Republicans makes him the county’s most popular politician, senses a change within the electorate over the past two years.
Late in the 2016 campaign, he perceived a shift among blue-collar voters away from Hillary Clinton in favor of Trump. He boldly made a three-part bet with one of his top aides: Trump would win Macomb County, the state of Michigan and the presidency.
This time, he detects a different tone. Hackel predicts a strong Democratic turnout in Macomb, especially among women, and a negative undercurrent regarding Trump’s rhetoric -- at his rallies and on Twitter.
“The Trump diehards, yes, they will probably vote Republican up and down the ticket,” he said, “but the independents, the moderates, the swayable voters, I think in 2016 they were not happy with Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee but now they have become intolerant of Trump’s intolerance.”