Susan J. Demas: What’s the Future of the Rust Belt?

“In so many once-thriving communities, young people have fled, and the residents who do remain have grown frustrated over diminished job prospects, and are anxious about the future. The very same anger and anxiety that found an outlet at the ballot box in 2016.” — John Austin

If you’re looking for a clear, just-the-facts-ma’am look at how the industrial Midwest is changing and how that gave us President Trump, you can’t go wrong with John Austin’s new piece, “A Tale of Two Rust Belts,” for the Brookings Institution.

No, it’s not one of those cloying columns national pundits have been churning out by the dozens after spending 10 minutes chatting up laid-off workers in Warren or Youngstown. It’s a well-researched, accessibly academic article by someone who actually lives here.

Austin is a fellow at the esteemed think tank. He also was recently ousted from a job he did exceedingly well — president of the state Board of Education (more on that in a bit).

I met with Austin a few weeks before this piece was published and much of our conversation revolved around Michigan’s evolutionary growing pains. He’s deeply concerned about what happens to areas with shrinking industrial bases, like Macomb County, Flint and Saginaw, as well as the largely rural northern swath of the state that Bridge Magazine has dubbed the new “Disability Belt.”

Austin notes that many of these areas voted for Trump in 2016. In contrast, cities with highly educated workforces (which usually have a university nearby), like Ann Arbor, Lansing and Kalamazoo, are thriving economically and voted for Hillary Clinton.

Bridging these vast cultural, educational and political divides in Michigan is no easy task. However, Austin believes the next governor must try to do exactly that.

Once upon a time, Austin was considered a prime Democratic gubernatorial prospect for 2018. He’s deeply thoughtful and has an envy-inducing résumé in addition to Brookings and his public service: He holds a master’s from Harvard’s Kennedy School, directs the Michigan Economic Center and previously was founding director of the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan.

Austin’s work has earned him a bipartisan fan club (at least if you count old-guard Republicans). I noted last year that he might also be able to appeal to idealistic Bernie Sanders supporters.

But Austin ran into a big roadblock when he lost his 2016 re-election bid. He was rather bizarrely, and completely unfairly, targeted for his strong support of transgender students.

After spearheading the drive for completely voluntary school guidelines for trans kids, Austin butted heads with fellow board member Eileen Weiser, whose husband, Ron Weiser, is now Michigan Republican Party chair. The Detroit News — which used to run periodic editorials practically begging the GOP to drop incendiary stands on social issues and focus on conservative economics — ran staff columns siding with the culture warriors replete with the “special rights” canard straight out of the 1990s.

It’s unconscionable for anyone to make our most vulnerable children into a cheap and easy political target. And it’s admirable that Austin was willing to stand up for them.

That’s the kind of courage we could use in the governor’s mansion. But that’s not the next fight Austin is planning to take on. Instead, he’s looking to assist with Michigan’s future in other ways. For starters, he’ll be following up on his Brookings piece on on what can be done at the state and national level to help hollowed-out Rust Belt cities and those who still live there.

That sounds like the sort of thing people who are running for the state’s highest office just might want to pay attention to.

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: Michigan’s GOP U.S. Senate Skirmish Stars Donald Trump

There aren’t a lot of hard-and-fast rules in politics left now that a former pro-wrestling instigator and reality TV star is president.

But staying true to yourself still remains a good rule of thumb for anyone who wants to appear on a ballot. (Indeed, that worked out pretty well last year for Donald Trump, who made no attempt to stop tossing Twitter bombs in favor of stilted political speeches).

So if you’re a longtime business executive who’s donated to moderate candidates and sent your kids to private schools, you might not want to suddenly reinvent yourself as a Bernie Sanders-style Democrat prepping for the “revolution,” even if the neck beard suits you.

Likewise, if you’re a former chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court who’s built a decades-long reputation for being a thoughtful, judicious conservative, you might want to rethink the idea of running as a Trump-style Republican.

But that’s exactly what Bob Young is doing in his uphill battle for U.S. Senate in 2018.

Since it wasn’t exactly a secret that he was running (he let the cat slip out of the bag earlier this month at a GOP fundraiser in Mt. Pleasant), Young decided to make the announcement this week on Facebook Live, where political consultants think all the youngs hang out. (As the mother of two teenagers, I can confirm that is 100% not true).

“I’m the disruptor that D.C. needs,” Young declared, quite animatedly, outside what he said was his childhood home in Detroit.

“I’m not a politician — I’m a judge,” Young said in a statement. “When I get to Washington, I’m going to lay down the law — no more big government, and no more government getting in the way of businesses and communities solving problems and creating jobs.”

At first blush, you might think that Young was trying to draw a strong contrast to three-term U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), who Republicans are utterly convinced is beatable.

Young described himself as a “black, conservative Republican” and dismissed Stabenow (who’s just a year older) as a “product of the past.” (That also seems fairly reminiscent of Trump, 71, slamming Hillary Clinton, 69, for not having “the stamina” to be president).

But this is really about the Republican primary. Young was undoubtedly hoping for an uncontested race. Instead, he’ll have to battle with 35-year-old Lena Epstein, who made a name for herself as Trump’s No. 1 defender in Michigan last year. She jumped into the Senate race while Young was still mulling over his candidacy.

While many Michigan Republicans were wary of or even publicly critical of Trump, like Gov. Rick Snyder, Epstein had no such qualms and quickly became the real estate magnate’s state campaign co-chair. That’s something that Trump isn’t likely to forget — and neither will his diehard supporters in the party.

So Epstein has carved out her territory in the Republican primary as the true Trumpian candidate. As a businessperson who’s never run for office before, she’s a true outsider. And, like Young, Epstein is not afraid to play up her identity, stressing in an op-ed last year that she’s a Jewish millennial woman.

That’s going to be a tough combination for Young to beat.

Epstein also seems itching for a fight (and she’s hired GOP consultant John Yob, who specializes in internecine warfare).

Before Young declared, she announced that she “unapologetically” supports Trump’s promised to build a wall with Mexico and punish “sanctuary cities.” And in a move that caused political junkies to break out the popcorn, Epstein bought an online ad in which she challenged Young to “clarify where he stands on these critical issues.”

Epstein didn’t let up when Young made his formal announcement, ripping Stabenow and Young for their combined almost 60 years in elective office. Then Epstein reaffirmed her affinity for all things Trump and asserted that Michigan voters made it clear in 2016 that they wanted “outside leaders with business experience.”

I’m not sure how Young can really compete with Epstein on the Trumpian outsider front. He has a long record of public service. He’s a traditional conservative in the Michigan mold of John Engler and Spence Abraham (who Stabenow beat in 2000 to win the seat).

The problem is that brand of Republicanism just may not resonate with the base anymore. But it’s probably a more believable look for Young, who just isn’t cut out to sell Trump-like rants.

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: Michigan GOP Could Go All in on Trump in U.S. Senate Race

Unlike most of the political class in Michigan, Lena Epstein boarded the Trump train early. And now she’s hoping to hitch a ride to the U.S. Senate in 2018.

After supporting social conservative Rick Santorum, who fell short in his 2012 presidential bid, Epstein settled on Donald Trump in early 2016 while most Michigan Republicans were flocking to mainstream choices like Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz or John Kasich.

Epstein, the general manager for her family’s business, Southfield-based Vesco Oil, has said she was drawn to Trump as a fellow businessperson.

She soon became the Michigan campaign’s co-chair, defending him on everything from the loan his real estate mogul father gave him (she quoted Fred Trump saying, “Everything [Donald] touches seems to turn to gold”) to the “Access Hollywood” tape where the younger Trump bragged about being able to “grab ‘em by the pussy” (Epstein quipped that “he would not be my first choice for my child’s temple Sunday school teacher”).

Epstein explained her surrogacy style to the media thusly: “I never apologized for misstatements he made. I would just pivot to why I supported him: to grow the economy, protect our borders and have increased opportunities for families and children.”

In an October 2016 pro-Trump op-ed for the Jewish News, the 35-year-old laid down her marker: “I’m Jewish. I’m a woman. I’m a millennial.”

Those are all qualities that Epstein has played up as she’s declared for U.S. Senate against three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing). The hardworking former Senate Agriculture Committee chair is the rare Democrat who knows how to reach voters above M-10.

It’s an interesting gamble. Trump’s poll numbers are tumbling both in Michigan and nationally. But the president still has solid support with Republicans, even amidst the unpopularity of Trumpcare and as his administration has become engulfed in scandal over its ties to Russia.

If this holds, the GOP could face a Catch-22. Perhaps only a Trump loyalist can win the U.S. Senate GOP primary. But that strong pro-Trump stance could cost a Republican nominee in the general election.

Many politicos think Epstein has the GOP nomination in the bag. It’s no secret that Republicans have long believed that the only way to take out Stabenow is with a female candidate. And they’ve also pined for a self-funder, as the incumbent is known for her huge fundraising hauls.

Epstein checks a lot of boxes. She hails from southeast Michigan, the population base of the state, and has a family fortune from which to draw. She has impeccable Trump credentials and a well-known campaign consultant, John Yob, who advised the last two Republicans who ran for U.S. Senate (Pete Hoekstra in 2012 and Terri Lynn Land in ‘14, both of whom lost).

But it’s early. And it’s not a done deal that Epstein will have a clear field. Former state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) has been on the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s radar. Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Bob Young is still very interested and would have plenty of GOP support. And U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), who has crossover appeal, hasn’t ruled out a run. In fact, with Democrats making noise about targeting his seat in ‘18, now might be the ideal time for him to take the leap for Senate.

Let’s not forget that many insiders also decided early this year that Gretchen Whitmer had the ‘18 Democratic nomination for governor wrapped up. For a few hours after U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) announced he wouldn’t run, their thesis seemed correct.

But then University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein, who also runs the well-known Bernstein law firm, quickly started putting out feelers. That prompted another prominent attorney, 1998 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Geoffrey Fieger, to get in on the action with a spicy “Off the Record” appearance. Now Whitmer is looking for a new campaign spokesperson and it looks like the race could descend into a free-for-all.

There are still 438 days before the Aug. 7, 2018 primary. A lot can change in any race. The only thing we can definitively say at this point is that next year’s election doesn’t look boring.

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: What Do Soft Trump Supporters Think Now?

President Donald Trump has been in office for just under four months — and there’s already serious talk that his presidency may not survive four years.

(This column, by the way, was written after former FBI Director James Comey’s memo leaked about Trump asking him to kill the Russia probe, but probably before another scandal rocked the White House).

The latest PPP polling shows a plurality of voters, 48 percent to 41 percent, support impeaching Trump.

While esteemed lawyers, most notably those at the Brookings Institute’s Lawfare blog, have outlined grounds for impeachment, the fact is that it is always a political process. (How else could we explain Bill Clinton getting impeached for lying about oral sex?)

Republicans control both houses of Congress, so the focus has rightly been on where members stand. Cracks are beginning to show, with U.S. House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) demanding FBI documents on Trump and Comey and other key Republicans like U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) expressing openness to appointing a special prosecutor.

But most political observers believe that Republicans in Congress will dally in hopes that the storm passes because of one key reason: Trump still has the GOP base.

His job approval rating has plummeted to 38 percent, but he’s still at a whopping 84 percent with Republicans, according to Gallup. And those are the voters Republican lawmakers — most of whom represent safe seats — are most interested in appeasing.

That also helps explain why the right-wing media bubble of Fox News, Breitbart, Infowars, etc. keeps stoically defending Trump and trying to deflect with daily doses of outrage and conspiracy theories.

No matter what the president does, I doubt Trump diehards and hardcore Republican partisans will ever break against him in large numbers. Just two months before Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, only scant plurality, 44 percent to 41 percent, supported his removal from office. Partisanship is a hell of a drug.

But what I’m curious about is how this is all going down with soft Trump supporters, which is not an easily identified group. It doesn’t really help to look at how he’s polling with independents — which, it should be noted, is an atrocious 35 percent.

Indies are a hodgepodge. There are hard Dem and GOP partisans who like the freethinker image that declaring yourself to be an independent conveys. There’s the chin-stroking “both sides” brigade, which really only consists of TV pundits and jaded government veterans. In my 15 years of interviewing voters (i.e. Real Americans), I’m not sure I’ve actually met someone who espouses that philosophy.

Then there are low-information voters who are all over the place on the ideological spectrum and vote (however infrequently) based on personality and emotion. This is the subset, I believe, that proved decisive for Trump, at least with the 70,000 voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that put him over the top in the Electoral College.

These are not political junkies, so I don’t think they’re enveloped in the right-wing media bubble. They’re generally not obsessively watching Fox News and their Facebook feeds are more likely filled with normal stuff, like sports and their friends’ babies.

So let’s say you like Trump. You thought he’d bring an outsider businessman perspective to the White House and drain the swamp. Maybe you liked some of his bold ideas, like building the wall.

What are you thinking right now about a president who can’t seem to get anything done? Does he seem like just another typical politician? Sure, the media are awful and are being unfair. But wasn’t he supposed to change everything in Washington?

I wouldn’t be surprised if these soft Trump supporters are starting to sour on the president. Some of them will definitely stick with him, because he’s still better than smug liberal elites. Some of them might very well flip and vote Democratic in 2018, especially if they’re directly impacted by GOP health care cuts. And plenty of them probably won’t vote next time.

There doesn’t appear to be a lot of strategy coming out of the Oval Office these days, as the president seems to constantly light things on fire. But trying to keep some of his less-committed supporters, not just the hardliners, would seem important.

And if he doesn’t, that seems like fertile ground for enterprising Democrats to plow.

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: Kildee Bows out and Shakes up the Governor’s Race

This week, the Lansing bubble seemed to burst.

Yes, U.S. Rep.Dan Kildee’s completely unsurprising decision not to run for the Democratic nomination for governor seems to have done the impossible. Politicos and reporters appeared to wake up to the fact that no, former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer doesn’t have this thing all sewn up, despite the fact that they’ve known her for decades.

And why would she? It’s 15 months before the primary for an open seat, for crying out loud.

Now personally, I would have liked to see an insider epiphany over something significant, like the realization that child poverty is a thing and we should maybe do more. But baby steps.

Anyway, the uncertainty of the 2018 Democratic race for governor has been clear for awhile if you spent time talking with folks outside the Capitol.

A lot of Dems were waiting for Kildee, especially those in labor or living in areas quickly slipping away from Democrats, like the U.P. and Macomb County. But there was a growing sense that he would stay in Congress, playing the role of aggressive foil to President Trump — which is what he ultimately decided to do after Republicans rammed their draconian repeal of Obamacare through the U.S. House. Now a lot of his supporters — and he has some fervent ones — are left looking for an alternative.

Whitmer has a strong fan base and her events across the state have drawn some impressive crowds. She’s expected to report a good fundraising haul. But as I noted last week, the anti-establishment Bernie Sanders voters are starting to gravitate toward former Detroit Health Department head Abdul El-Sayed.

There’s also no shortage of more establishment types who harbor deep concerns about Whitmer, which is why there was a lot of chatter about a “dream ticket” of Kildee-Whitmer or even about her running as attorney general instead. Of course her gender is a factor and of course it’s unfair. You can’t have a conversation about Whitmer without pointed comparisons to former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Hillary Clinton.

But if Clinton had won Michigan last year, some of the sexism would have been muted. Her epic collapse north of M-10 and inability to turn out enough voters in southeast Michigan has made plenty of Dems jittery and wonder how Whitmer wins any votes that Clinton couldn’t. Time will tell if she can better connect with these voters than Clinton, who managed to lose Michigan twice.

Whitmer, a former Senate minority leader, has played up her 14-plus years in the Legislature as an asset. But it’s true she doesn’t have much of a record to show for it, as she served in the minority the whole time. Now Republicans had long identified her as a rising star and didn’t want to move her bills. And in her last four years, Gov. Rick Snyder was able to get most of what he wanted without Democrats’ support, so he didn’t trifle with them much. Still, wonky types wonder about how effective Whitmer would truly be at governing.

All of that is pretty premature, but there’s the political reality that the Senate caucus that she led has nearly gone extinct. When Whitmer was running for leader in 2010, the caucus shrank from 16 members to 12, putting them in a superminority where they couldn’t even procedurally block bills. During her leadership in ‘14, Democrats managed to lose another seat, a feat that seemed nearly impossible.

Whitmer has had the luxury of running in blue seats in the Lansing area and only faced some minor electoral battles at the beginning of her career (which is one reason why insiders bought into her ‘18 inevitability). Plenty of Democrats, however, would like to see her test her mettle in a tough gubernatorial primary, with the idea that the winner would emerge as a stronger candidate.

So Kildee’s announcement this week did what it was designed to do. It shook loose new Democratic possibilities for governor, notably University of Michigan Regent Mark Bernstein, who could put his 1-800-CALL-SAM legal family fortune to good use (and tantalizingly free up Democratic money for races up and down the ballot).

Can Bernstein win any votes that Whitmer can’t? Will there be other big names jumping in? That’s not clear.

But what has crystallized this week is that this race is far from over.

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: Whitmer vs. El-Sayed Could Be Clinton vs. Sanders All over Again

A few months ago, it looked like the only thing standing in Gretchen Whitmer’s way was Dan Kildee.

Whitmer, a Democratic former state Senate minority leader, leapt into the 2018 gubernatorial sweepstakes just after the New Year, while hopefuls in both parties were still issuing (not very convincing) denials about running. Most politicos (myself included) expected Kildee to get in, as the congressman has kept a very high profile during the Flint water crisis.

But even as Kildee has continued to waver between keeping a safe U.S. House seat and taking the plunge for state CEO, a new threat is emerging to Whitmer’s nomination.

And it’s coming from a very unlikely place.

When Dr. Abdul El-Sayed announced he was running for governor back in February, even Democratic insiders had to Google him. Sure, some people knew him from his work running the Detroit Health Department under Mayor Mike Duggan or from his Crain’s “40 Under 40” profile, but that was about it. He was 32, had never run for office and didn’t appear to be very politically active.

The last part was confirmed last week on WKAR’s “Off the Record,” when El-Sayed admitted he didn’t even vote in the 2016 presidential primary. But he did tell the panel that he would have voted for Bernie Sanders, who pulled out an upset win against Hillary Clinton.

And that helps explain why there’s growing grassroots enthusiasm for the man who would become the nation’s first Muslim governor. This isn’t readily apparent to those in Lansing, many of whom have known Whitmer for decades and have assumed she’s a lock.

But a lot of activists, particularly millennials, are psyched about El-Sayed. They like that he’s an outsider who’s never run for office. While plenty of Democratic lawmakers — particularly women — took offense when El-Sayed openly scoffed on OTR at Whitmer’s 14-plus years in the Legislature, many voters don’t consider political experience to be an asset anymore. Those on the far right and far left view holding elected office as a corrupting force.

It’s true that it’s hard to get to Whitmer’s left. She’s probably best known for her pro-choice and pro-LGBT views. But those positions are a given with the Democratic base. What a lot of activists are looking for is candidates who campaign on Bernie’s platform of slamming Wall Street and getting money out of politics. Outsiders like El-Sayed are in a better position to sell that agenda.

El-Sayed is busy making moves to show he’s for real. He’s been traveling the state and said on OTR that he’s raised $500,000 already, which isn’t chump change. And he’s hired a veteran campaign manager in Max Glass, who worked for Sanders favorite U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii).

The biggest question in the Democratic gubernatorial primary has always been where Sanders voters would go. In a Kildee vs. Whitmer contest, that wasn’t readily apparent, as both are establishment figures who served as Clinton surrogates. But if Kildee sits this one out, the Dem gubernatorial primary could morph into Sanders vs. Clinton, Part II, between El-Sayed and Whitmer.

This is a scenario that causes many Whitmer backers and political insiders to roll their eyes. She’s expected to clean up with money and endorsements. She hails from a political family and has an experienced team. He’s the longest of longshots as a religious minority who nobody’s heard of.

Of course, those are all arguments that people made in the ‘16 Michigan presidential primary.

It’s way too early to predict an El-Sayed Sanders-style upset next year. We’re 15 months out and the field isn’t even set. But it would be arrogant to dismiss the idea out of hand.

If 2016’s surprises didn’t teach you to question your political assumptions, I can’t really help you.

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: Will Dems Take Advantage of Trump Stumbling in Michigan?

President Trump has been in office for three months, and Michiganders aren’t exactly basking in the glow of all the “winning” he promised he’d deliver.

The Republican won Michigan last fall by a plurality of roughly 10,000 votes. By February — in what’s supposed to be the post-inauguration honeymoon period — 56 percent of Michigan voters in an EPIC-MRA poll disapproved of his job performance.

Trump’s popularity was underwater, as well, with 51 percent viewing him unfavorably. (In contrast, his predecessor, Barack Obama, enjoyed 59 percent favorability in the survey). And 55 percent already didn’t believe Trump would end up being a good president, with 41 percent saying he’ll be a poor one.

Michigan isn’t an outlier. Trump’s national job approval is hanging around 51 percent negative and his unfavorables are around 52 percent.

And Trump is taking the GOP down with him, with the party’s numbers sinking rapidly. You can already see warning signs for Republicans in 2018 with how they’re fighting like crazy to keep safe red congressional seats in Kansas and Georgia special elections.

Michigan Democrats should smell blood in the water. This would seem to be the time to go on offense against an unpopular president and try to tie local Republicans to him every chance they get.

Republicans have controlled every branch of government in Michigan for the last six years and have done a skillful job gerrymandering congressional and legislative districts to make it easier to stay in power. Democrats are facing enormous odds in 2018 and need a strong message and target. Trump appears ready to make their job a lot easier.

But it seems that a lot of folks aren’t sure what to do. Many Democratic politicians, especially those representing areas Trump won, don’t want to talk about him much, despite his slipping poll numbers.

You’d expect a full-on assault against “Trumpcare,” given the GOP’s shockingly unpopular health care plans. Republicans started hammering the Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare” long before the bill was even written. And they were relentless in their attacks, which paid off big-time in the 2010, 2014 and 2016 congressional elections.

Obamacare never polled particularly well, although now it’s on the upswing, as people fear their coverage will be snatched away. But from a political standpoint, you have to give Republicans credit for their doggedness in attacking the ACA (facts often be damned), which certainly drove its unpopularity up.

Even today, Republicans aren’t afraid to champion issues that poll terribly, like being against background checks for gun purchases and backing tax cuts for the rich. It helps that their most passionate supporters have their back.

But the fact that they’re willing to stand up for certain ideas, even those that are unpopular, helps them portray themselves as principled, strong leaders. Those are very appealing qualities to swing voters, who vote on emotion and personality far more than issues.

Many Democrats rarely stick their necks out on issues that are closely divided or underwater in the polls. That’s why it took so long for the party to come around on same-sex marriage. That’s why Michigan Democrats barely campaigned on Right to Work during the 2014 election, even though the GOP power grab had inspired thousands to show up for last-minute protests in the dead of winter.

Stressing policies that are popular may seem like smart messaging. But you also forfeit the chance to convince people you’re right on the issues, like the GOP did with their relentless campaign against Obamacare.

And it reinforces the idea that Democrats aren’t willing to stick to their guns. That’s not helpful for independents and it’s demoralizing for the base.

It’s one reason why Bernie Sanders, whose far-left ideas will probably always put him outside the political mainstream, inspired such a devoted following. He seemed principled. He seemed like the real deal, someone who would never sell out what he believed in. Never underestimate how appealing that is for voters.

There’s also been some muddled messaging from Dems about working with Trump on some potential areas of agreement, like on trade and infrastructure. Of course, that’s a great way to disillusion your Resistance-loving, Women’s March-going base, which regards the president as the anti-Christ. And those are the passionate folks you’re going to need to turn the state blue — or at least purple — in ‘18.

At this point in his first term, Obama was immensely popular and viewed as a transformational figure as the first African-American president. That didn’t stop Republicans from trying to block everything he did, from the stimulus to the ACA. And they embraced their far-right base, the nascent Tea Party, which fueled the angry backlash to Obama in the ‘10 midterm elections.

That would seem to be a pretty decent blueprint for Democrats heading into ‘18. At any rate, it’s hard to imagine that strategy making things any worse for the party than they are right now.

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: In 2018, Schuette Just Might Miss Obama

Most politicians need an enemy to rally the troops against — and make them look good in the process.

President Trump is overdosing on this concept right now, picking fights with the “crooked media,” China, refugees and now even fellow Republicans reticent about voting for Trumpcare, just because it will kick 24 million people off their health insurance.

But even less combative pols benefit from having a good foil.

For his first six years in office, Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette had that in President Obama. Michigan’s top cop blithely went to war with the Democratic president over his new overtime rules, Great Lakes protections, clean power plan, transgender rights for students, contraception mandate and, of course, Obamacare. And although he didn’t take on Obama directly over the 2015 U.S. Supreme court case on same-sex marriage, the two men landed on opposite sides of that lightning-rod issue, as well.

Schuette had his statesman routine down pat. Anytime he was asked about sparring with Obama or defending controversial right-wing positions, he gave some variation of the answer he told Inside Michigan Politics in May 2014:

“Defending the Constitution is not optional as attorney general — it’s mandatory. It’s not a discretionary task. It’s part of the job.”

It was a brilliant political argument and Schuette sold it especially well.

The AG’s frequent battles with Obama also allowed him to raise his profile both nationally and in Michigan, which is pretty helpful when you’re planning to run for governor in 2018.

Schuette could have continued leading the loyal opposition if Hillary Clinton had succeeded Obama this year, as everyone expected. Right now, his team would be strategizing on precisely what tone to take with the impeachment hearings convened by U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). (For what it’s worth, somber and deliberative would have won out).

But while Trump’s surprise victory has been a political windfall for Republicans as a whole, both in Washington and Michigan, there are always unintended consequences.

There could be a backlash in 2018 for the GOP, which now controls every branch of government in DC. In Michigan, it’s been that way for over six years, which could make voters especially antsy here. That could be bad news for any Republican running for governor.

But Schuette, in particular, has to find his rhythm in the absence of his familiar foe, Obama, who was the perfect target for anything that ailed Michigan. The AG could have pivoted well with a conventional GOP president like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, who would be busy chopping taxes for the wealthy instead of sending erratic tweets about North Korea.

Schuette would have locked arms with the new commander-in-chief and declared that Michigan finally had a partner in the White House.

But Trump, as always, makes things complicated. Schuette has been forced to defend the new president on his initial ban on refugees, as well as immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, tweeting: “.@POTUS Trump’s Executive Order is not a ban on Muslims, and he is placing the security of Americans first.”

Trump’s first proposal was widely criticized as violating the constitution, which forced him to retool the ban weeks later. But Schuette — who had trumpeted joining several lawsuits that challenged the constitutionality of Obama’s policies, including Obamacare and overtime pay — was left to meekly root for the home team.

Then Trump proposed cutting Great Lakes funding by 97 percent, which would, of course, be devastating for Michigan, the only state that lies completely within the Great Lakes basin. Schuette, who has long railed about the threat of Asian carp, once again couldn’t bring himself to slam Trump. In a radio interview, Schuette appeared to blame Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Obama (the AG said he misspoke when he said “Obamacare”) for threats to our waterways.

Schuette will certainly have to draw up more tap dance routines, as Trump’s controversial actions keep coming. And that’s revealed an unexpected weakness in his impending 2018 campaign. It’s never as much fun to be playing defense in politics.

But it’s more than that. The AG was able to go after Obama with such zest and aplomb. He was never nasty and looked like a man of “rule of law” principle, yet he managed to skillfully twist the knife in.

Schuette is someone who even many Republicans acknowledge is further right than the Michigan electorate. So this was the best political play he had.

It remains to be seen if he can fully master the Trump shuffle before the next election.

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: The Income Tax Cut Could Come Roaring Back

The dramatic collapse of the Michigan income tax cut last month really was something to behold.

In their first big policy push of the new term, the House Republican leadership announced what looked like a surefire winner to (gradually) scrap the state’s income tax, a longtime priority of groups like the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and Americans for Prosperity.

Conservative bitterness over the tax rate stems from the 2007 government shutdown when the state was staring down an almost $2 billion deficit. Then-Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop (R-Rochester), who’s now a congressman, agreed to a deal with Gov. Jennifer Granholm to temporarily up the 3.9-percent income tax rate to 4.35 percent.

The tax rate was supposed to roll back, but it never fully did. That’s because in his first year in office in 2011, Gov. Rick Snyder had bigger plans for the tax code. He wanted to cut business taxes by $2 billion a year. One of the ways he paid for that was to keep the income tax at 4.35 percent for the first year and then freeze it at 4.25 percent thereafter.

That was a hard pill for the Republican right flank to swallow.

So to kick off 2017, new House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) and his team hatched their plan to whittle down the income tax to nothing over the course of 40 years. This had the added benefit of giving the GOP something to run on in 2018, which they know could be a rough Republican year if President Trump’s approval ratings keep dropping.

Their messaging was simple and effective for voters.

“This is the people’s money, not ours,” Leonard declared in a January press release announcing the plan.

But things quickly skidded downhill from there. Snyder let his displeasure over the tax cut be known. Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) wasn’t exactly enthusiastic, either.

It soon became clear that a majority in the lower chamber wouldn’t sign off on killing the tax completely, so it was retooled as a partial rollback.

However, that didn’t solve the huge stumbling block of the first-year $1.1 billion sock to the budget, which several Republicans worried would hit education and infrastructure particularly hard. And future tax projections are running so red that they look like they’re ripped out of a horror movie.

Republicans have controlled everything in Michigan state government for the last six years. But as all comic book geeks know, with great power also comes great responsibility. And that means that it’s completely on the GOP to balance the state’s $55 billion budget (unlike the feds, we can’t run a deficit).

Chopping more than $1 billion from the budget would probably mean worse schools and roads (which voters probably wouldn’t understand after being slapped with huge gas tax and fee hikes). So 12 Republican representatives refused to walk the plank, which torpedoed the bill during a late-night session, a rarity this early on in the year.

Leonard took his share of slings and arrows for putting up the bill without having the votes. But it’s doubtful that too many voters will remember that rookie move when 2018 rolls around. (I took a lot of grief from politicos when I wrote that the Todd Courser-Cindy Gamrat sex scandal would have zero impact on the 2016 election. But I turned out to be correct, as nobody cared once Trump barrelled onto the political stage).

Leonard is also doing a juggling act between leading his caucus and looking ahead to next year when he’s term-limited. He’s interested in running for attorney general, which means he has to be nominated at the state GOP convention that’s dominated by conservative activists. Needless to say, the speaker’s hard line on taxes will be wildly popular with them.

And despite this initial setback, I don’t believe the income tax cut is dead this term. Some may be being lulled into a false sense of security.

Don’t forget that Sen. Jack Brandenburg (R-Harrison Twp.) has been working on his own plan. This isn’t a new cause for the Macomb County small businessman, who was a vocal “no” vote in the House during the ‘07 increase. Anyone who knows Brandenburg knows he’s never going to give up.

And consider this scenario. Let’s say that a Democrat is elected governor in 2018, which even many Republicans acknowledge is a decent possibility.

It’s easy to see the GOP-controlled Legislature mustering up enough votes in lame duck to slash the income tax. That way, they can brag to their constituents in the next election that they fought to put more money in their pockets.

And the best part is they can stick the next governor with the bill.

Let the Democrat how to figure out how to pay for their tax cut. If s/he struggles to do so, Republicans can argue it’s clearly a case of liberal economic incompetence (like we got from Granholm for eight years). And if the new governor wants to get rid of the tax cut, s/he’s a typical liberal tax hiker.

Sure, that would all be wildly fiscally irresponsible. But why let good policy get in the way of good politics?

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: The Next Governor May Be Someone You’ve Never Heard Of

It may be hard to remember now, but nobody thought Rick Snyder would ever be governor.

When he announced he was forming an exploratory committee roughly eight years ago, the Capitol press corps collectively yawned. In polling for a five-way GOP primary matchup, the former Gateway CEO fell within the margin of error.

Everyone knew the race was going to come down to Republican Attorney General Mike Cox and House Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford).

Everyone turned out to be wrong.

In 2010, Snyder released his memorable “One Tough Nerd” Super Bowl ad. He showed he was willing to kick in over $5 million from his personal fortune. And he made a late appeal to Democrats and independents, which paid dividends.

Thanks to money, strategy and some luck, Snyder ended up winning the August primary by 9 points and went on to trounce Democrat Virg Bernero in the general election. And despite controversies over Snyder’s conservative agenda, which included Right to Work, he won re-election in 2014, albeit by a far smaller 4 point-margin.

But that’s still a pretty impressive track record for someone with zero political experience who no one initially took seriously.

So after the success that unconventional candidates like Snyder and now-President Donald Trump have enjoyed, it’s kind of curious that most political observers are banking on a conventional scenario for the next Michigan gubernatorial race.

With Snyder term-limited, the jockeying for 2018 has already begun in earnest. If you ask politicos, they’ll tell you they expect the Republican race to be between now-Attorney General Bill Schuette and Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, while giving the former the edge.

And they’d put their money on the Democratic primary coming down to former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) vs. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), with the latter being the favorite.

That’s not a bad bet to make, especially on the GOP side. Most Republicans seem content with those two choices. Calley is young, energetic and speaks the language of the religious right. And Schuette, who’s been elected to positions in every branch of government, is known for hitting the campaign trail in beast mode.

Lesser-known names like state Sen. Pat Colbeck (R-Canton) and Dr. Jim Hines may broaden the field, at least until they have to pony up 15,000 valid signatures next April. But so far, there’s no big self-funding candidate like Snyder on the horizon.

The Democratic side, however, could be more fluid than people think. Some of the party faithful are waiting for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan to jump in and clear the field, but as of now, he’s playing the role of Godot.

Former State Board of Education President John Austin has long been interested in running, although his defeat last year may give voters pause. And Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel is keeping his name out there.

There are some intriguing and and relatively unknown hopefuls, like William Cobbs, a retired Xerox executive from Farmington Hills, and Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a Rhodes Scholar and former Detroit health director.

The real wild card is the passionate Bernie Sanders supporters who swarmed the Michigan Democratic Party state convention earlier this month. Both Kildee and Whitmer will battle over these voters, but they can’t change the fact that they’re firmly ensconced in the establishment.

Democrats seem to be desperately searching for change. That could mean there’s room for a Snyder-style darkhorse hopeful in the gubernatorial primary who could really shake things up.

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.