Susan J. Demas: GOP’s Gun Votes Could Backfire in 2018

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Last week, we learned that a Michigan Republican lawmaker had lost an assistant U.S. Education secretary post over several outré blog posts, including one that called for throwing all Muslims on the no-fly list for terrorists.

There’s some irony that this First Amendment-chucking proposal from Rep. Tim Kelly (R-Saginaw) cost him a key slot with the Trump administration, which has proposed several variations of travel ban targeting Muslims.

Kelly followed the playbook of Republicans in the Trump era, bemoaning that he’d been thwarted by the “toxicity of the swamp.” He also argued that he was a “conservative Republican with opinions” that “don’t match those of the left,” which is a bit strange considering that his candidacy was rejected by uber-conservative Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Interestingly, the Kelly news broke just as the no-fly list was back in the news in Michigan.

A majority of Republican senators had just voted against banning those on the no-fly list from being able to get a concealed pistol license (CPL), which flies in the face of the GOP’s usual get-tough-on-terrorists stance.

It’s also an awful position for lawmakers to defend in next year’s election. Now many senators are term-limited, but you can bet that Democrats will be pushing Republicans up and down the ballot whether they support “guns for terrorists.”

Democrats often have a problem distilling their issues and attacks into easy-to-remember soundbites. GOP messaging guru Frank Luntz, who has a history of advising Michigan Republicans, is a master of this. He’s won the rhetorical framing war on host of political topics, most famously rebranding the estate tax that affects only .2 percent of Americans as the menacing “death tax,” which many mistakenly believe they’ll have to pay, as none of us is getting out of here alive.

But Democrats have a tailor-made issue with the no-fly list loophole.

Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-Meridian Twp.), who helps run the Senate Dems’ campaign effort, gave us a nice preview of the 2018 ads to come with this quip after the vote: “If you’re too dangerous to board a plane, you’re too dangerous to have a CPL.”

The Republican majority also voted against banning people with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions from obtaining CPLs. Just a few days before, Devin Patrick Kelley allegedly shot and killed 26 people during a Texas church service. He had a long history of domestic violence against his wife and stepson, fracturing his skull. And still, Kelley was able to obtain the AR-15 he used to slaughter people as they prayed.

Just a few months earlier, James Hodgkinson allegedly shot up a GOP congressional baseball practice, injuring Michigan native Matt Mika and U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.). Hodgkinson had a history of beating his daughter and other young women.

Many mass murderers share a similar background. There’s ample research that a history of domestic abuse is a key factor in violent recidivism. But Michigan Republicans refused to take a basic step to keep guns out of the hands of those who have beaten and abused those closest to them.

And they voted against stopping sex offenders from being able to get CPLs. That was also pretty timely with the Washington Post breaking a story that former Judge Roy Moore, the GOP Alabama U.S. Senate nominee, had allegedly sexually abused four teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Moore has denied molesting girls, but wouldn’t rule out having dated teenagers during that time.

These gun policies are terrible. And the politics are just as bad. So why would Republicans take these votes?

Because their top priority before before dashing out of town for their two-week “hunting break” was passing legislation allowing people with CPLs to carry concealed weapons in gun-free zones like schools, churches, daycares, sports stadiums, college dorms and bars.

If you’re not crazy about people packing heat where your kids go to learn their ABCs or while downing a fifth of bourbon and getting riled up over the Lions game at your favorite tavern, you’re not alone. Almost 60 percent of Michigan voters agreed with you in the most recent polling from EPIC-MRA in October 2015.

But apparently Republicans decided they wouldn’t even attempt to make unpopular legislation slightly more palatable. And so they soundly rejected Democratic amendments to stop people on the no-fly list, domestic abusers and sex offenders from getting concealed weapon permits.

That decision probably made NRA lobbyists proud. But it could end up backfiring big time in 2018.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: With a Key U.P. Victory, 2018 Looks Brighter for Michigan Democrats

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If you’re looking for a window into 2018 in Michigan, the most important race took place last night in the western Upper Peninsula.

On first blush, it looks like a pretty routine result in the special election for the 109th state House District: Democrat Sara Cambensy held a seat that’s been blue for more than a half-century. The district has a solid 56.9 percent Democratic base, per Inside Michigan Politics, and became vacant after Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette) tragically killed himself this spring.

But Republicans made a real run at this 109th. Why? They knew that this election was bigger than a single state legislative seat.

Democrats were palpably nervous about the race after Cambensy narrowly won her August primary. Divisions in the party reared their head, as leaders fretted her pro-choice and liberal politics wouldn’t play in a district Donald Trump won by 5 points in 2016. Cambensy’s history of primarying Kivela last year hadn’t been forgotten. And the memory of Trump defying all expectations and winning Michigan in 2016 certainly put a fire under the Dems.

So if Republicans had managed to flip the 109th, I noted that they would have changed the narrative that 2018 would be a good Democratic year in Michigan. Democrats’ efforts to take back the House next year (now split 63-47 in the GOP’s favor) would have instantly been seen as lost cause and fundraising would have mostly dried up.

The GOP has controlled all three branches of government here since 2010. Trump became the first Republican to win Michigan since 1988. A Republican victory this year in the U.P. — an area that’s been shifting conservative since 2010 and went big for Trump in ’16 — would have confirmed that Michigan really is an emerging red state. And so even if 2018 continued to look bright for Democrats nationally, we’d have had good reason to believe that Michigan would be immune from the trend.

But those fears were laid to rest, as Cambensy didn’t just win. She won in a 14-point rout. Any divisions in the Democratic Party didn’t hurt the outcome — just as we saw in the marquee gubernatorial races last night in New Jersey and Virginia.

Republicans really did give this Michigan state House race their all and their nominee, Marquette school board President Rich Rossway, was up on TV. He didn’t run a bombastic, base-inspired Trump campaign, either. In fact, he played down his party affiliation (much as Democrats in red areas have done for years) and even walked a picket line, something relatively unheard of for Michigan Republicans since they rammed through Right to Work in 2012.

So now House Democrats are back in the same place they were on Nov. 9, 2016, with two victories Tuesday (the other was the 1st in the Detroit area). Republicans once again have a 63-47 majority, meaning Democrats have to flip nine seats next year to take control.

That’s the exact situation the Dems faced in 2016 when they failed to make any net gains. But Democrats’ smashing successes in Virginia legislative races last night — a state that, like Michigan, boasts heavily GOP-gerrymandered districts — has definitely made leaders more optimistic. And with clear evidence of an energized base, Democrats are also feeling better about their chances at the top of the ticket with next year’s gubernatorial race.

Winning the governor’s mansion or the state House in 2018 would give Democrats a seat at the table during Michigan’s critical 2021 redistricting — something that hasn’t happened for three decades.

And of course, a big Michigan Dem victory would be a stunning reversal for a newly minted Trump state, portending serious problems for the president in 2020.

Susan J. Demas: Democrats Now Have a Road Map for 2018

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Democrats smashed all expectations on Tuesday, racking up key election wins across the country. To make victory even sweeter, this was almost a year to the date from when Donald Trump shocked progressives by conquering the presidency.

Indeed, the news was so bad for Republicans that Fox News barely covered the results and the only election Trump referenced on Twitter was the one in 2016.

The year after a presidential election, the marquee races are for New York City mayor, New Jersey governor and Virginia governor. On Tuesday, Democrats won the trifecta — and no election was even close, even as pundits declared they’d “blown it” in Virginia.

These elections have long been considered a barometer for what to expect in the midterms. As of now, everything seems to be coming up roses for the Dems.

In 2009, a year after Barack Obama’s first victory, Republicans took both gubernatorial races. Mike Bloomberg switched that year from being a Republican to an independent and won a third term as New York mayor.

And in Michigan, Republicans triumphed in a special state Senate race that year. As I’ve noted, the victory of now-Sen. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) was a harbinger of the GOP tsunami in 2010, when the party won the governorship, a 9-5 advantage in Congress, a 63-47 majority in the House and a 26-12 supermajority in the Senate.

The result of the special state House race Tuesday in the 109th district to replace the late Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette) might not seem as dramatic. Democrats held an Upper Peninsula seat with a solid 56.9 percent Democratic base, per Inside Michigan Politics — one that’s been in their hands for more than a half-century. But it’s also a district that Trump won last year and the U.P. has been trending red since 2010.

Democrats were nervous, especially after Trump’s upset in Michigan a year ago. But despite Republicans’ best efforts — running Rich Rossway, a well-funded moderate who courted unions — Democrat Sara Cambensy won by 14 points.

The Dems’ enthusiasm is a great sign for 2018. That’s what they need if they want to flip the state House, which is split 63-47 in the GOP’s favor, and/or capture the big prize of the governor’s mansion. Either way, the Dems would regain a foothold in shaping the state’s agenda — and in the all-important 2021 redistricting process.

It’s significant that Cambensy won in spite deep divisions in the party. Republicans tried to exploit them, arguing the pro-choice Cambensy was too liberal for the district and pointing out that she’d primaried the popular Kivela last year. Nothing stuck.

The GOP attacks against Democrat Ralph Northam in the Virginia gubernatorial race also fell flat. Pundits speculated that menacing ads (which warned the Dem would let international MS-13 killers run wild in the state) would be the death knell for Northam. But he won the race handily.

Since Trump’s surprise victory last year, the media have been obsessed with white working-class voters who flipped to him. Democrats have been mired in debates about how to win those voters back, which has, at times, slighted women and people of color.

I’ve noted that a sect of Michigan Democrats has been focused on finding a white male gubernatorial candidate for months. They fervently believe that the only way for Dems to win back the governor’s mansion is with a “safe” nominee after Trump flipped Michigan last year.

The current field includes frontrunner former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) and Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the former Detroit Health Department head who would be the nation’s first Muslim governor. There’s also businessman Shri Thanedar, who immigrated from India, and former executive Bill Cobbs, who’s African-American.

But Tuesday’s results don’t support the premise that Dems must adopt a defensive crouch and find the “Great White Male Hope,” starting with Cambensy’s victory in the U.P. She certainly wasn’t the safe choice for Democrats to nominate and yet she shattered expectations.

In Virginia, a trans journalist defeated the homophobic author of the “bathroom bill” in a state House race. The chamber also got its first Asian female and Latina members. And the boyfriend of a reporter killed on live TV defeated an NRA-backed candidate on a gun-control platform.

Charlotte, N.C., elected its first black female mayor and six other cities elected their first black mayors. Both of the new lieutenant governors in New Jersey and Virginia are African-American. An African-American woman beat a local New Jersey official who had posted a meme wondering if the Women’s March activists would be “over in time for them to cook dinner.”

And after enduring a campaign marked by “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town!” fliers, Hoboken, N.J., elected its first Sikh mayor.

If you’re looking for a common thread, it would be that so many of these rising political stars are passionate about America as they see it — a beautiful, messy, diverse republic where anyone should be able to make it. Sure, it’s a rebuke of Trump, who’s fond of describing our nation as a dystopian hellscape. But it’s also a pretty appealing and uplifting message.

And even if you don’t buy the message, you can’t deny the candidates’ passion. That’s a quality that can’t be manufactured and wins races — which is exactly what Democrats need in 2018.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.
 

Susan J. Demas: Upton’s Fundraising Haul is Good, but Stabenow’s Is Great

We’re now almost a year away from the 2018 general election and the contours of some key congressional races in Michigan are starting to take shape.

If U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) is planning to retire from his 6th District perch, you couldn’t tell from his half-million dollar fundraising haul last quarter.

The 30-year congressman has emerged as a somewhat surprising Democratic target after reviving Trumpcare in the U.S. House earlier this year. His allies have repeatedly shot down rumors that he’ll forgo re-election.

Now if Upton wants to run for U.S. Senate next year, he still has his work cut out for him, as incumbent Debbie Stabenow pulled in $1.7 million in the third quarter. The former U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee chair’s $1.1 million in the bank is impressive, but pales in comparison to Stabenow’s almost $7 million war chest.

U.S. Senate candidates typically jump in by now, given the enormous fundraising required to run. The GOP field is already fairly crowded, and includes former Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Bob Young and Iraq war veteran John James.

But Upton, an heir to the Whirlpool fortune known for posting enviable campaign finance reports, has the luxury of getting in late. Chatter about his Senate candidacy reached a fever pitch just before the Republican Mackinac Leadership Conference last month, but the veteran congressman still hasn’t showed his hand.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s most vulnerable incumbent, U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester), probably wasn’t happy to discover he’d raised almost $100,000 less than his most prominent 8th District challenger, former Defense Department Assistant Secretary Elissa Slotkin.

She was part of an elite group of challengers who outraised 11 incumbents in the last period. That’s a feat that Haley Stevens, chief of staff for former President Obama’s Auto Task Force, achieved in the second quarter against U.S. Rep. Dave Trott (R-Birmingham) in the 11th District.

He’s since announced his retirement, opening the door for a flurry of candidates on both sides of the aisle to either enter the race or flirt with it. Most didn’t have to file campaign finance reports yet, but it’s notable that another Democrat who declared before Trott bowed out, former Detroit Immigration Office Director Fayrouz Saad, actually raised more than Stevens in the last period.

Although Trott unsurprisingly raised only about $20,000 in the third quarter, he has roughly a quarter-million dollars left in the bank, which he could use to fund his favored successor and other targeted Republicans.

Another congressman who didn’t collect much cash last period was former Ways and Means Committee Chair Sandy Levin (D-Southfield), who raised $17,000. Levin, who’s been in Congress since 1983 and represents the 9th District, has taken in just under $100,000 for the cycle.

Levin is considered untouchable — he occupies a safe Democratic seat with a 61.4 percent base, per Inside Michigan Politics, and it would be a suicide mission for any Dem who primaried him. But he’s long been the subject of retirement rumors and hasn’t said if he’ll run again in 2018. Naturally, Levin’s latest fundraising has only fueled speculation.

There’s no shortage of Democrats who could run to succeed him, including state Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Warren), former state Rep. Sarah Roberts (D-Saint Clair Shores) and Andy Levin, the congressman’s son who is a former Gov. Jennifer Granholm administration official.

Of course, money isn’t everything in a campaign — messaging, strategy and national political winds can be key. But at this stage of the cycle, fundraising remains one of the better ways to gauge races.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: How a Michigan Special Election Could Shake up the 2018 Narrative

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Democrats have racked up an impressive record in special legislative elections across the country this year. They’ve flipped six seats, while Republicans haven’t picked up any.

Most Democratic candidates have vastly improved on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 showing, as well. So in spite of the fact that the party has lost some high-profile special congressional elections in Georgia and Montana, many political handicappers believe the Dems are well-positioned for a good year in 2018.

And yet, an obscure race in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula next month has the power to change that narrative.  

Democrats are palpably nervous about a special House election they should easily win. The 109th has a solid 56.9 percent Democratic base, per Inside Michigan Politics, and has been held by a string of Democrats, most recently by the late Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette), whose suicide devastated members on both sides of the aisle.

The Democratic nominee is Sara Cambensy, a former Marquette city commissioner who eked out a win in the Aug. 8 special primary. Her history of primarying Kivela in ‘16 has not been particularly helpful with the base. U.P. unions have been out knocking doors and the Michigan Democratic Party has ramped up fundraising for her.

Republicans believe this one could be a sleeper, as I’ve noted. The U.P. has definitely been getting redder. Last year, President Trump triumphed in three of the four counties in the 109th, although he lost Marquette County, the district’s population base.

The GOP state House nominee, Marquette school board President Rich Rossway, is ensconced in the community and notably isn’t stressing his party label (much like Dems in red areas have done for years). In fact, Rossway joined striking UP Health System-Marquette nurses on the picket line this month (along with Cambensy) — something that’s become rarer for Republicans as the party has adopted a stronger anti-union bent.

This is one of the two special state House elections on Nov. 7 (the Dems are fully confident of holding the 1st District that includes Detroit and Wayne County suburbs).

There’s a lot on the line. Losing the 109th would result in a 64-46 GOP majority. That’s a feat Republicans only briefly achieved in 2012 when then-Democratic Rep. Roy Schmidt switched parties right before the filing deadline (he went on to lose his seat).

The Ds would then have to flip 10 seats next year to regain the majority, which would probably give donors pause and cause the state House to tumble down the priority list.

Taking an “L” in the 109th could depress fundraising for Democrats across the board in Michigan, from the governor’s race on down. And it would certainly result in a devastating storyline that Democrats truly are in a freefall in the state.

After all, Democrats haven’t held the governor’s mansion, state House, Michigan Supreme Court or a majority in the congressional delegation since 2010. They haven’t controlled the state Senate since 1984.

In 2016, the Ds were fully expected to pick up state House seats during a presidential year and Clinton was supposed to handily win Michigan. Neither of those things happened.

And so, if the Dems can’t even hold what’s supposed to be a safe state House seat at a time when the party is ascendent nationally, the storyline will be that Michigan is clearly now a red state.

A loss like this has the power to change the national narrative, as well. Expect election forecasters to declare that a Democratic wave in 2018 is now in doubt. Some will predict that Dems will have to settle for a more moderate year — which means dreams of winning back either chamber of Congress is kaput. A more pessimistic read is that states that have been growing more conservative, like Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, will continue that trend next year.

So how competitive is the 109th? Is this all just standard Democratic angst? That’s not clear. No one’s confident about what the electorate will look like in this special election and there’s been no public polling.

And hey, I talked to plenty of Dem leaders in 2008 who were convinced Barack Obama was going to blow the election right up until the very end. He ended up beating John McCain nationally by 7 points and conquering Michigan by an astounding 16 point-margin.

We went through the same dance in 2012, with a prominent Dem official texting me during the first Obama-Mitt Romney debate that all was lost for sure. The incumbent president went on to win re-election by a 4-point margin nationally and took Romney’s native Michigan by almost 10 points.

In 2016, many of the same Dem “Chicken Littles” told us the sky was falling again. Of course, this time, they were right. Trump pulled out a roughly 10,000-vote win over Clinton, helping push him over the top in the Electoral College.

It’s possible that the Ds are being paranoid about the 109th and they’ll pull off a win on Nov. 7. It might not even be particularly close. But given how ‘16 turned out, most Dems are OK with hitting the panic button on this one, especially if it motivates fundraising and the base to turn out.

After all, everyone knows there’s far more on the line than just that particular House seat on the ballot.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Trump, Snyder Could Drag Down GOP in 2018

Michigan Republicans are facing some ugly political winds in 2018.

Recent polling shows that Gov. Rick Snyder’s numbers remain dismal — and only look good in comparison to those of President Donald Trump.

In fact, EPIC-MRA found in its Aug. 27-Sept. 1 poll that 53 percent of likely ‘18 voters worry about Trump having access to the nuclear launch codes and 43 percent believe he’s a “mentally unstable person.”

And NBC/Marist had in its Aug. 13-17 survey that 62 percent said the new president “embarrassed” them and 59 percent said Trump’s decisions have “weakened the global image of the United States.”

Those are some jaw-dropping numbers for the GOP to contend with in ‘18, especially as every election cycle since 2006 has been dominated by national, top-of-the-ticket concerns.

We’re still more than a year away from the election. As we saw in 2016, the political landscape can change dramatically and conventional wisdom can be proved a farce. And Republicans have some key advantages in Michigan: a deep bench, generally good economy, favorable legislative maps for down-ballot races, and strong fundraising, aided by ever-laxer campaign finance laws.

Still, the fundamental question for any political party before an election is: Would you rather be us or them?

Right now, Democrats have some big positives in election fundamentals with poll numbers, an ignited liberal activist base, and voter fatigue after almost eight years of Republican rule in Michigan — and now they have total control in Washington.

Let’s drill down into some recent statewide surveys. Michigan has been a source of endless national fascination after giving Trump a narrow win last year, which helped put him over the top in the Electoral College. That was after Democratic nominees, win or lose, had won Michigan every cycle since 1988. Former President Obama’s margins of victory were 16 points in 2008 and almost 10 points in 2012.

So Trump’s 2016 victory in the Mitten State appeared to be a sea change.

But in poll after poll, indicates that Michigan’s infatuation with Trump was short-lived. His job approval sat at 62 percent negative in the EPIC-MRA survey. And when asked who was a more effective leader as president, 56 percent said Obama and only 32 percent answered Trump.

NBC/Marist had the new president with a 55 percent negative job approval rating. They also polled the other two Rust Belt states that flipped to Trump, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where his job approval was at 56 percent and 54 percent negative, respectively.

Snyder’s job approval was 57 percent negative in the EPIC-MRA poll. He’s the fifth most unpopular governor in the country, according to a July roundup from Morning Consult.

His numbers have been in the dumps since the Flint water crisis made international headlines in late 2015, but the governor has languished in negative territory for much of his tenure. Snyder managed to win re-election in 2014 anyway.

So if Snyder and Trump continue to post brutal numbers next year, Republicans can always hope that even some demoralized and disgusted voters will mark their ballots for them in 2018, just as they’ve done in years past.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Schuette Wants To Be the Change Michigan Believes in

If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought Barack Obama was still president based on Attorney General Bill Schuette’s speech this week announcing his 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

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And if I really wasn’t paying attention, I may have assumed that Jennifer Granholm was still the governor of Michigan, even though she left the Romney Building in 2010.

Schuette mentioned both Democrats no less than eight times apiece in his roughly 20-minute oratory delivered in his hometown of Midland, a picturesque mid-Michigan hamlet he lovingly wrote about in his 2015 book, Big Lessons from a Small Town.

As I noted back in March, Obama was the perfect foil for Schuette. The Republican AG cast himself as a “rule of law” conservative, frequently joining lawsuits against the administration’s “overreaching” agenda, including overtime rules, the contraception mandate and Obamacare.

And so when Schuette came under fire for his right-wing positions, like taking Michigan’s fight against same-sex marriage to the U.S. Supreme Court (and losing), he claimed he was just doing his duty to defend the Constitution.

It was a two-fold strategy. Schuette was able to make the case that he was a rock-solid man of principle, even when he took positions outside the political mainstream. And going after a Democratic president’s priorities thrilled the GOP base, although Schuette never made his attacks personal, even as the birther movement raged.

That’s just not who he is. Schuette carries himself as an old-school, George H.W. Bush Republican who prefers glad-handing in parades and the rubber-chicken circuit over dissolving into long-winded rants savaging his political enemies.

After being first elected to Congress in the Ronald Reagan era, Schuette has adapted to the changing tenor and priorities of the GOP during his long career as a state senator, Michigan Agriculture director, judge and finally AG. He’s ingratiated himself with the business-driven establishment, religious right and Tea Party, now pivoting to the Trumpists.

And yet, President Donald Trump — the first Republican to win Michigan since 1988 — didn’t even warrant a mention in Schuette’s speech (even Reagan popped up once). Now it’s true that Trump’s bombastic, tweet-driven style clashes with the AG’s deliberate, genial image. And the president’s sinking poll numbers in Michigan are making Republicans sweat.

But Trump remains popular with the GOP base and Schuette does have a partisan primary to win. Given the fact that he’s not naïve — indeed, Schuette is, hands down, the most gifted politician in the state — there’s clearly a strategy at work here.

It would seem that Schuette likes his chances enough in the primary enough not to give Trump a bear hug right now. Since his main competition is expected to be Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who yanked his Trump endorsement after the “Access Hollywood” tape, Schuette may be making a smart bet that he’ll carry the president’s supporters next year, even if mainly by default.

And Schuette has weaved some Trump populism into his messaging, declaring, “For Michigan to reach higher, we need a governor who won’t accept the fate assigned to us by liberal elites who look down on manufacturing and the plumbers, electricians and builders — and head potato boys — the skilled trades that built our country and are needed to rebuild our infrastructure.”

But Schuette mainly chose to prove his conservative mettle by jabbing Obama and Granholm (which is much more comfortable territory for him). Raising the specter of the state’s first female governor helps him draw parallels to his most likely general election opponent, former Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), with Schuette not-so-subtly warning that “Granholm’s lieutenants want to take back control of our state in 2018.”

In his speech, Schuette marveled that “it’s amazing we’re still standing” after eight years of Obama and Granholm. His press release had the headline, “We Need to Cop an Attitude. Because We're Michigan, and it's Time to Win Again,” followed by the subhead: “My one goal: to make Michigan a growth state, a paycheck state, a jobs state.”

That’s a bit curious, since we’ve had a GOP governor for almost seven years, who presumably could have done something about growth, paychecks and jobs. If you check in with Rick Snyder — who did get one brief mention in Schuette’s remarks — he’ll tell a very different story about Michigan’s economy.

Of course, Snyder is of little use to Schuette right now. He’s one of the most unpopular governors in the country and can be expected to back his LG in the primary. Snyder and Schuette also have chafed on a variety of issues, like Detroit pensions, but the AG’s decision to charge key administration figures in his Flint water crisis probe has brought tensions to a boil.

Indeed, after listening to Schuette in Midland, you just might forget that Republicans have controlled all three branches of Michigan government since 2011 and that the party now enjoys the same status in Washington.

And you just might believe that a Republican candidate for governor would be the change agent Michigan desperately needs right now.

We’ll see if Schuette’s gamble works.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Macomb County Hit by Hurricane Karen

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The Michigan Legislature has suffered a series of black eyes in the last few years, thanks to its members.

One was expelled: Rep. Cindy Gamrat (R-Plainwell), who was accused of abusing her office. Her partner-in-crime, Rep. Todd Courser (R-Lapeer), resigned before suffering the same fate.

Two have resigned as a result of plea bargains: Rep. Brian Banks (D-Harper Woods), an eight-time felon who was charged with more financial felonies, and Sen. Virgil Smith (D-Detroit), who was convicted of a felony for shooting a semi-automatic weapon at his ex-wife’s car.

Sen. Bert Johnson (D-Highland Park) has been indicted by a grand jury on charges of conspiracy and theft from a federal program. And it looks like the House will have another member who’s a convicted felon after the special election in November, as Harper Woods School Board Member Tenisha Yancey is the Democratic nominee in Banks’ old seat, which is heavily Democratic.

As embarrassing as this is for Michigan, there’s actually a more troubling scandal afoot in Macomb County. That’s because none of these state legislators had the power to inflict the damage that the top official in charge of elections and vital records can in a key Michigan county.

Karen Spranger, a local gadfly best known for donning a tinfoil suit at government meetings to protest smart meters, got swept into the clerk’s office last fall as part of the Donald Trump GOP wave crashing through Macomb.

She replaced retiring Clerk Carmella Sabaugh, who was known for running one of the most innovative and efficient offices in Michigan. All Spranger really had to do was keep key staff in place, sit back and collect her sizeable $108,880 annual salary.

But Spranger had other plans. The Detroit Free Press summarized her tenure well in the lead of its story last month:

“In her first seven months as the Macomb County Clerk/Register of Deeds, Karen Spranger got kicked off her county computer for allowing noncounty workers on it; fired her two top appointed deputies; sued the county over a litany of issues, and was named as a defendant in three other lawsuits, including a whistle-blower complaint in federal court filed by her former top aides.

“She was fined $100 for a county ethics violation; totaled her county car in a crash; filed a criminal complaint about the news media harassing her; was caught on video pushing storage bins to a construction area before an office move she opposed, and is under investigation for allegedly lying on her affidavit to run for office.”

The article also notes that the Freep “wasn’t able to find any evidence that Spranger had held a regular job since graduating from high school.”

A St. Clair County judge is overseeing a case that could result in Spranger’s removal from office. But even if she gets the boot, it could take years for the county to recover from Hurricane Karen.

If Spranger were a state lawmaker, she could make some goofy floor speeches, introduce bills that would go nowhere and cast questionable votes. But she would be one of 110 members in the House or 38 occupants of the Senate. Her constituents could suffer from poor representation, but the overall destruction she could cause to the Legislature as an institution would be limited.

Unfortunately, Spranger is in a position to hobble critical functions in a large Michigan county as clerk.

And it’s the kind of stuff people notice. She’s in charge of a host of records, including birth, divorce, death, deeds, mortgages, liens and business registration. The office handles the filing of new civil, domestic and criminal cases and maintains all of the existing case files for the 16th Circuit Court. And Spranger is also charged with running elections.

Her office appears to be completely dysfunctional, as almost one-third of her “80-plus-member staff was unfilled or on medical leave at one point” in July, according to the Freep. Court e-filings were behind and Spranger missed the deadline to submit her budget.

Macomb County is home to almost 1 million people (including many members of my family). At this point, who has confidence that their vital records are being accurately recorded and safeguarded? Who believes Spranger can oversee a big election next year?

Sure, Macomb is a pretty colorful place, known for rough-and-tumble politics and some corrupt officials. But it’s also home to two highly popular figures, County Executive Mark Hackel, a Democrat, and Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller, a GOP former congresswoman. They’ve had plenty of experience righting the ship in government.

But cleaning up the mess in the clerk’s office could end up being the biggest challenge for the county yet.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Can Michigan Democrats Rebound as Trump Abandons Economic Populism?

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump often told adoring crowds that the “system is rigged” and “I alone can fix it.”

He stumped as a different kind of Republican, with a blend of nativism and populism that helped him crack the Upper Midwest code and win the presidency. Afterward, Stephen Moore, a once-staunch economic conservative who founded the Club for Growth, shocked many by declaring that the GOP is a “populist worker-class party now.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), who warned early on that Trump could win Michigan, told Inside Michigan Politics that he tapped into working-class fears about free trade and spiraling retirement costs. She spends countless hours at town halls and community events in her district — which spans Dearborn, Ann Arbor and Downriver — and says the anger and anxiety is still there.

“The American people are worried about their lives. They’re worried about their jobs. They’re worried about the safety of their neighborhoods, about whether they can go to the doctor,” she said in an interview last month.

Since becoming president, Trump has gone all-in on the nativist part of the equation. He’s tried to institute his “Muslim ban,” proposed severe limits for legal immigration, threatened to shut down the government this month if he doesn’t get money for his wall with Mexico, and has been widely criticized for failing to condemn white supremacist violence.

But Trump has offered precious little economic populism — which is what many pundits would at least like to believe is how he won Rust Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Instead of kicking off his agenda with a big infrastructure package — which probably would have attracted Democratic support — Trump went all-in on repealing Obamacare. And House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) cut Dems out of the process, seeking a complete GOP victory.

As of now, health care repeal is dead and the president remains livid, periodically tweeting slams of McConnell.

Trump is now trying to pivot to his tax plan, which he announced at Missouri campaign-style rally this week (interesting timing, as Hurricane Harvey continues to batter Texas).

His rhetoric may still be populist, but his plan — at least what we know about — looks awfully similar to what Republicans have been proposing for the last 30 years. Trump wants to cut the corporate tax rate and the rate for the top income bracket.

And many working-class families would see a tax increase, as Trump wants to end the head-of-household deduction for single parents. That sounds a lot more like religious right-inspired social engineering than blue-collar economic populism.

Trump’s abandonment of populism and dismal approval ratings could create an opening in 2018 for Democrats, if fissures between the far-left Bernie Sanders faction and mainstream Dems don’t doom the party, as they did in 2016.

As for Dingell, she believes Democrats also have to “take control of the trade issue,” which is particularly important for Michigan, home of the domestic auto industry. She’s not sure what will come out of Trump’s promises to renegotiate NAFTA.

“I said to him from the very beginning: ‘Mr. President, if there’s something that will help the working men and women in my district, I’ll work with you. And if you’re going to do anything to hurt ‘em, I’m going to fight you tooth and nail,’” Dingell told IMP.

So far, Trump hasn’t offered much to help working-class folks in Dingell’s district or any other and polling shows their patience is wearing thin. It would certainly be ironic if the very voters who pushed Trump over the top in ‘16 ended up costing Republicans big-time in 2018.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Epstein Dishes It Out — But Can She Take It?

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Lena Epstein hasn’t been afraid to throw some sharp elbows since embarking on her first run for office.

So it’s been interesting to watch the 36-year-old businesswoman, who’s Jewish, navigate her first controversy, allegedly “liking” a former Klan leader David Duke tweet. Epstein has insisted her account was hacked and aggressively fought her critics, particularly Democratic Party Chair Brandon Dillon.

Epstein was now-President Donald Trump’s Michigan campaign co-chair, best known for frequently spinning for him on TV. Now she’s hoping to take on three-term U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) — but first, Epstein will have to slay a competitive — and possibly growing — GOP primary field.

To separate herself from the pack and play to the Trump faithful, Epstein hasn’t shied away from taking the fight to her Republican opponents.

After dominating much of the early coverage, Epstein has found herself overshadowed by Kid Rock, the Macomb County native who’s been hinting about joining the esteemed company of the World’s Most Deliberative Body. The rock/rap star has led some polls, providing an irresistible story for the Washington press corps.

In an interview last month on Kid Rock’s candidacy, Epstein insisted that the general public “is not taking this seriously.” Then she released an choppy, face-to-the-camera YouTube video titled, “Lena Epstein Welcomes Kid Rock 2 the Party,” which has to be one of the most awkward 55 seconds ever to be (willingly) posted online.

Epstein begins by talking about her Senate candidacy as a rock-guitar version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” blares in the background. Then she announces to her celeb competition, “I might have to kick your butt in a primary first,” followed by an awkward, Sarah Palin-style wink and an invitation to “team up” on the campaign trail.

Kid Rock would likely cannibalize the Trump support Epstein needs to win in August 2018, so it makes sense that she wouldn’t go full throttle. She’s saved her best barbs for former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bob Young, who’s been endorsed by former Gov. John Engler and enjoys some establishment backing.

Even before Young jumped in, Epstein was on the attack, announcing her “unapologetic” support for Trump’s wall with Mexico and his policy to punish “sanctuary cities.” She also bought an online ad challenging Young to “clarify where he stands on these critical issues.”

After Young declared, Epstein lumped him in with Stabenow and slammed their combined almost 60 years in elective office, in contrast to her outsider credentials.

Her campaign launched BobYoung.com, where he’s blasted as “The Insider’s Choice” and she bizarrely told the Detroit News that “the reality of the situation is he was recruited by a couple of party insiders that are essentially trying to gerrymander a primary.” (There’s no clarification about what she meant, but it is, of course, impossible to gerrymander a statewide race).

So after relishing doing battle with her Republican competition, Epstein found herself on the defensive this week after Dillon circulated tweets she allegedly “liked,” including one by Duke praising the “alt-right” (which is just failed rebranding of white supremacy).

That came after Epstein had tweeted against the white power rally in Virginia: “Racially-motivated hatred & violence have no place in our society. I condemn white nationalists & pray for the victims of #Charlottesville.” But she also went on Fox News to defend Trump — who was widely criticized by Republicans for “both-sidesing” Nazis — declaring she supports “a president who has come off strongly against racism and bigotry and violence.”

Epstein said she was hacked and her private investigator backs her up. Now the Michigan State Police are investigating. I’ve been covering politics for awhile and I’ve never heard of a candidate’s social media account getting hacked only to “like” a few tweets, but we’ll have to see what the police uncover.

Regardless, Epstein’s combative, best-defense-is-a-good-offense approach to the mini-scandal is a window into how she’ll handle bigger challenges as a candidate.

She issued a statement reminding people of her Jewish identity, which is understandable — no doubt, she faced some tough questions from those who share her faith. But then Epstein declared she was “disgusted by Chairman Brandon Dillon and the Michigan Democrat Party for exploiting what is so obviously false. I am more committed than ever before- and will work tirelessly between now and November of 2018- to defeat Debbie Stabenow and demonstrate that the slander fueled by the opposition will not deter or intimidate me. The hateful rhetoric must stop now."

Complaining about “slander fueled by the opposition” doesn’t exactly come off as the Trumpian bravado that’s so enthralled the GOP base. It’s hard to imagine Kid Rock issuing such a statement. (He’d probably just do something like flip the bird to his haters and move on).

Most Michigan political observers don’t expect the rock star to really run. But Epstein’s over-the-top response to a minor scandal will probably make many Republicans wish he would.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.