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.

Susan J. Demas: What Will Michigan’s Most Conservative and Liberal Senators Do Next?

State Sen. Mike Green could be the latest Michigander tapped by the Donald Trump administration.

The Mayville Republican, already riding high after being named Inside Michigan Politics’ “Most Conservative” senator for 2016, is being considered for Michigan’s state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Green, who only voted liberal 22.2 percent of the time last year, was floated for USDA undersecretary, but told Team Trump that he wasn’t interested in moving to Washington.

Green would join the ranks of fellow Wolverine State dweller Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education, and Ben Carson, who Trump will nominate of Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Trump has also given his blessing to Michigan Republican Party Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel as Republican National Committee chair.

Green will be term-limited in 2018, along with the majority of his colleagues, so now is traditionally the time to start planning for a post-legislative career.

As I noted after Inside Michigan Politics compiled the “Most Liberal and Most Conservative” House member rankings before the Nov. 8 election, many past winners have continued to be influential leaders, particularly on the GOP side, long after serving in the Legislature.

IMP has been tallying legislative votes for several decades to determine the “Most Liberal and Most Conservative” members of each chamber. We pore over every vote that calendar year and determine every lawmaker’s record. In 2016, IMP examined 30 record roll-call Senate votes for social, economic, taxation, environmental, civil rights, and public health/safety issues by the 39 senators this term (that includes Virgil Smith, who stepped down after being sentenced to jail). For the rankings, 100 percent is the gold standard for a senator who voted the liberal position on these votes. The full list is in our Dec.14 edition.

So let’s take a look at what the 2016 Senate recipients may have up their sleeves, as all of them will be term-limited in ‘18.

Sen. Judy Emmons (R-Sheridan) came in second, voting liberal just 23.3 percent of the time. She’s been one of the leading voices on human trafficking, along with Attorney General Bill Schuette, who’s almost certainly running for governor next year. Emmons would be a natural in a future Schuette administration. She also briefly weighed a Secretary of State bid in 2010 and could look at the open slot in 2018.

Sens. Dave Robertson (R-Grand Blanc) and Joe Hune (R-Hamburg) tied for third with 30 percent liberal voting records. Robertson, who chairs the Elections and Government Reform Committee, has put a conservative stamp on Michigan campaign finance law and torpedoed no-reason absentee voting in 2015. He could be a natural fit for Secretary of State.

Hune is consistently one of the most conservative senators, having led the pack in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015, and was also out front with a Trump endorsement at a time when most politicos assumed he was a flash in the pan. The chair of the Senate Agriculture and Insurance committees eschewed both a 2014 run for Congress and a job with the Trump administration. Having been in office since he was 22, after winning his 2002 state House primary by only two votes, Hune might want a break from government service in 2018. He’d be a natural fit in any number of anti-tax, business or agricultural groups.

Over on the other side of the ideological spectrum, Sen. Morris Hood III (D-Detroit) earned the 2016 “Most Liberal” title with an 86.2% voting record. He’s been mentioned for a Detroit City Council post this year, which would mean leaving office early.

Hood’s colleague, charismatic Sen. Coleman Young II (D-Detroit), who was the runner-up with an 86.2% liberal record, could also run for City Council or even challenge Mayor Mike Duggan.

The Democrats only have an 11-member caucus, which isn’t enough to block immediate effect votes, so dipping down to nine or 10 members would only impact bills that couldn’t attract a majority of GOP votes.

Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor) broke all IMP records by winning the “Most Liberal” crown for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Last year, she slipped to third place, tying with Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Warren), with 83.3% liberal records. Warren, who took a keen interest in now-Rep. Donna Lasinski’s bid for the 52nd House District seat in Washtenaw County, is a veteran of  MARAL Pro-Choice Michigan and could launch a second act as a political consultant. Warren is also a long-time friend of former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), who just declared for governor. Warren is rumored to be a top contender for a cabinet post if Whitmer wins in 2018.

As a lawyer, Bieda has plenty of options and has had conversations about running for attorney general next year. He’s long been interested in Congress if U.S. Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Royal Oak) ever steps down in the MI-9, although his son, former Gov. Granholm appointee Andy Levin, would probably have the inside track. But Bieda may best be suited to lead the fight against Warren Mayor Jim Fouts, whose alleged disparaging remarks about disabled people has sparked a firestorm in Michigan’s third-largest city.

There’s still plenty of time for winners of the 2016 IMP Rankings to plot their next moves after term limits kick in. And chances are, we’ll be hearing many of their names for years to come.

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: Does Whitmer's Move Show Big Campaign Rollouts Are Dead?

Photo by Susan J. Demas

Photo by Susan J. Demas

It was, by far, the worst campaign rollout I’d ever seen.

After cranky reporters milled around the Lansing Community College foyer for a good 45 minutes without word from anyone, gubernatorial hopeful Andy Dillon finally waltzed in with a couple of flustered aides –– one of whom promptly dropped the backdrop with a comical thud.

It was the kind of thing that would have been YouTube gold today, had anyone been rolling. But back in March 2010, print reporters like myself still had the luxury of not having to double as videographers, photographers and Twitter fiends.

Dillon had already canceled a Saginaw stop due to “logistical reasons” and stumbled through his news conference in the capital city. It was a fitting start for a campaign that would end with an 18-point Democratic primary loss to Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero (who would go on to lose by roughly that amount in the general to now-Gov. Rick Snyder).

There have been many memorable campaign announcements rife with symbolism, like Barack Obama invoking the memory of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Ill. on a frigid 2007 day. In 2015, Donald Trump descended a Trump Tower escalator to declare what everyone presumed was a vanity presidential bid.

But notably, Hillary Clinton released a YouTube video declaring she was in for ‘16. Given so many potential pitfalls, many politicians are deciding that a grand campaign announcement isn’t really worth it. The public is increasingly savvy when it comes to political maneuverings and tends to greet traditional gestures with skepticism. Everybody’s seen everything before.

So while Gretchen Whitmer surprised many political observers announcing her 2018 gubernatorial bid this week via a mass email to supporters, maybe it was a smart move. After all, it’s not like this was a big surprise.

The Democratic former state Senate leader made her intentions clear in a spate of media interviews last year after taking an interim post cleaning up the Ingham County prosecutor’s office (which was widely seen as a résumé-building exercise).

And Whitmer has a history of bowing out of statewide races –– attorney general in 2010 and governor in 2014. Doing a press conference would only invite questions about that and pull focus off her message. And it’s not like the media was going to ignore her announcement, even if plenty of journalists weren’t able to ask her questions directly.

If there’s one thing that candidates want, it’s to control the way they communicate to voters. And increasingly that means going around the media, at least with their initial salvos. President-Elect Trump has perfected this by making news on Twitter, like announcing jobs coming back to the country when he had nothing to do with it. However inaccurate or inflammatory his tweets may be, reporters feel obligated to report them, often giving him precisely the positive headlines he craves.

There are other reasons to go with a low-key campaign announcement. Sometimes nosy reporters have stumbled upon your plans and you want to beat them to the punch. Other times pesky campaign finance laws force you to file the necessary paperwork so as to legally collect donations. The idea of organizing a splashy campaign announcement may not seem like a big priority compared to keeping the checks rolling in.

And sometimes staging a big event can invite your competition to steal your thunder with a stunt of their own. Whitmer clearly wanted to be out in front with her campaign and she achieved that. That’s even more crucial when her likely rival, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), has proven particularly adept in snagging media attention for sounding the alarm over the Flint water crisis and fighting for former U.S. Marine Amir Hekmati to be freed from Iran.

It will be interesting to see if other gubernatorial candidates follow suit. It’s hard to imagine Attorney General Bill Schuette, the presumed GOP frontrunner, foregoing the pageantry of a formal announcement. He’s as old school as they come on the campaign trail, relishing any chance to shake a hand or kiss a baby. And Schuette is pretty fond of TV cameras, too.

So it’s not clear if the art of the campaign rollout is dead. But Whitmer’s announcement crystallizes the fact that another time-honored tradition is: the break between elections.

Those days definitely are 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: The Case for Democrats Just Saying ‘No’

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas

I’ve always been partial to Socrates’ maxim that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” (Just ask my husband how crazy this drives him).

As a political analyst, it’s my job to scrutinize every data point, especially after our odds-defying presidential election that was essentially decided by just 80,000 voters in three states. Most days, I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface on this, especially since exit polls are notoriously flawed and we won’t have voter file data until next year.

In the past, I’ve argued that losing political parties should undergo some serious soul-searching. Everyone waited with baited breath for Republicans to do so after 2008, when Barack Obama won the presidency and Democrats padded their majorities in Congress, even achieving, however briefly, a filibuster-proof advantage in the Senate.

That’s on the Democrats this year, even though things aren’t quite so dire. Hillary Clinton did score a 2.8-million popular vote win and Dems picked up seats in the House and Senate.

But Republicans are in a powerful position to enact their agenda at the national level  –– providing, of course, that President-Elect Donald Trump and congressional leaders can agree on one –– as they’ll soon hold the presidency, Congress and a majority on the Supreme Court.

Here at home in Michigan, Democrats remain on suicide watch, as they failed to capture any state House seats this election. Now we’re about to enter year seven of complete GOP control of state government. It would be hard to argue that the Democratic strategy is working.

So naturally, there’s been no shortage of hand-wringing and finger-pointing on the D side, both in Michigan and nationally. Much of this is refighting the last war. Diehard Bernie Sanders supporters insist he could have won on Nov. 8 and his politics are the future of the party. The Clinton-Obama wing warns about veering too far left, especially as Trump has cornered the market on populism, for now, with his dark brand of it.

Just take a look at how the Democratic National Committee chair skirmish is playing out, with Sanderistas lining up behind U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Labor Secretary Tom Perez emerging as the more mainstream choice. This will probably get ugly before too long. Maybe the Russophiles at Wikileaks can lend a helpful hand, just as they did with the DNC hack this summer.

A seemingly more productive strategy would be for Democrats to evaluate where they went wrong and retool their message and agenda. Those fights are taking place in congressional caucuses, state and local parties, the pages of various publications, and, most significantly, on Facebook walls (eyeroll).

But maybe it’s all a waste of time. After all, Republicans didn’t do a wholesale makeover after their ‘08 shellacking, despite an onslaught of calls to moderate (including from me).

The strategy hatched by now-Senate Majority Leader (how ‘bout that?) Mitchell McConnell (R-Ky.) and the more reluctant now-former Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was simple: Just say no. They opposed everything Obama did, especially big endeavors that would have benefited from bipartisan collaboration, like the stimulus and health care reform. They didn’t hesitate to engage in “hostage-taking” (McConnell’s words) over raising the debt ceiling, something that used to be a routine function of governance.

Republicans paid zero political price — actually, quite the opposite. In 2010, they flipped the House. In 2014, they took the Senate. And in 2016, they won the White House. And their victories at the state level are even more impressive. Michigan is Exhibit A.

Democrats could certainly give obstructionism a shot. After all, their strategy for the last six years has ended in one abysmal failure after another (at least when Obama wasn’t on the ballot). It’s true that Democrats tend to be more enamored with the idea of compromise than Republicans. But with only 29 percent of Americans in a new Washington Post poll saying Trump has a mandate, now might be the perfect time for Dems to press their luck.

You can argue the politics of ‘No’ is shortsighted and distasteful. But there’s ample evidence that it’s an effective tactic.

And Democrats could always hedge their bets by honing a better economic message. That will certainly be critical for whoever is the party’s nominee for the open Michigan governor’s race in 2018. And examining and correcting failures of candidate recruitment, data and GOTV, both at the federal and state level, would seem critical.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the next election was a referendum on the new president, just as 2010 was. That would render much of the partisan infighting and endless tactical debates moot.

But warring factionalism is the lifeblood of the Democratic Party, just like it is at any good dysfunctional family holiday. Maybe the Dems should come armed to these squabbles with eggnog.

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 Will Debbie Dingell Do Next?

As Michigan Democrats are still licking their wounds over a disastrous election night, Debbie Dingell has been everywhere.

The freshman congresswoman, who just won re-election to her safe Ann Arbor/Dearborn seat with 64 percent of the vote, is being hailed as an oracle.

After seeing her constituents swoon for Bernie Sanders this winter (she does represent the University of Michigan, after all), Dingell warned the Hillary Clinton camp that Michigan wasn’t in the bag for the March 8 primary. And even after a last-minute push from all three Clintons –– Hillary, Bill and Chelsea –– Sanders still won the state, defying all the polls and oddsmakers like Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.

Throughout the general election phase, Dingell told anyone who would listen that Donald Trump could win Michigan. Her Downriver constituents were enthralled with the Republican billionaire, while plenty of U-M students were still carrying a torch for Bernie. There’s a reason why the only seat the Dems picked up in the state House was in her congressional district –– the open 23rd, soon to be occupied by Darrin Camilleri. Dingell ran her own coordinated campaign, which no doubt factored into his 323-vote win.

It’s also no secret that Dingell chafed with the Michigan Clinton campaign starting in 2015 (the Wikileaks hack laid some private emails bare for the world to see).

Trump did end up carrying the state by roughly 10,000 votes (a result that’s not expected to change, even with Green Party nominee Jill Stein’s recount).

Now with a narrow loss, it’s easy to lay blame on a single factor or group, because any one of them could tip the result: a poor Clinton ground game, FBI Director James Comey’s letters, bitter Bernie voters who voted third party, suburban white women who stuck with the GOP, uninspired African-American voters who stayed home, etc.

But there’s no doubt that Dingell’s argument that Democrats ignored white working-class voters has gained the most traction.

Now national reporters have been dispatched in droves to embark on brief anthropological safaris of the decaying Rust Belt. Those of us who live here, of course, know the reality is far more complicated than these beautifully tragic portrayals of blue-collar life designed to illustrate the cruel indifference of liberal coastal elites (most of which are written by coastal elites).

Dingell, on the other hand, is keeping it real and urging Democrats to refocus on a clear economic message that resonates with more voters. Days after the election, she wrote a hard-nosed op-ed for the Washington Post that touted her own political savvy, but was also pretty self-aware. Here’s the lead:

“I was the crazy one. I predicted that Hillary Clinton was in trouble in Michigan during the Democratic primary. I observed that Donald Trump could win the Republican nomination for president. And at Rotary clubs, local chambers of commerce, union halls and mosques, I noted that we could see a Trump presidency. ‘That’s Debbie, it’s hyperbole, she is nuts.’”

Dingell, who’s married to the former Dean of the House known as “The Truck,” is known for being extremely blunt in her own right, which doesn’t always make her popular. Not surprisingly, however, it’s made her a must-book guest on national news shows.

The question is what Dingell decides to do now. The easiest path is to remain in Congress.

She represents a safely blue district and could theoretically serve in Congress for decades (if she stays until 2033, it would be a whole century of Dingells occupying that seat). The only threats could come from redistricting (Michigan is on track to lose another seat in 2021) or in a primary. Dingell has been skilled at building relationships with Republicans and keeping her district’s left flank satisfied, so she’s insulated herself as much as is possible.

But there’s been a growing drumbeat from Dems who think she should run in the open governor’s race in 2018. The problem is that the Democratic field would almost certainly be crowded. Former state senator-turned-interim Ingham County Prosecutor Gretchen Whitmer is expected to announce she’s running soon. Look for Dingell’s colleague, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) to jump in after the New Year.

Other dark horse candidates include Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Westland Mayor Bill Wild and U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade. And it’s always worth keeping an eye on Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who’s up for re-election next year and has repeatedly eschewed the possibility of a gubernatorial run. But he’s the rare Democrat who has the resources to make a late entry and scramble the field.

The role best suited for Dingell seems to be playing king (or queen) maker.

And it’s not just because of her 2016 electoral clairvoyance. She’s been a fixture in Democratic politics for decades, both in Michigan and Washington, as a longtime fundraiser, Democratic National committeewoman and chair of the Wayne State Board of Governors. Those who have snidely dismissed Dingell for riding her husband’s coattails don’t know her.

Any Democratic gubernatorial hopeful would be lucky to receive Dingell’s blessing. And anyone with an ounce of political know-how will aggressively court her. Let the games begin.

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: Republicans Could Make a Real Run at Stabenow in 2018

Debbie Stabenow at the Michigan Democratic presidential debate in Flint, March 2016/Susan J. Demas.

Debbie Stabenow at the Michigan Democratic presidential debate in Flint, March 2016/Susan J. Demas.

Could Donald Trump’s unlikely Michigan victory make it easier for Republicans to finally capture a U.S. Senate seat here in 2018?

That’s something the party hasn’t been able to achieve since 1994 with Spencer Abraham, who was defeated six years later by Debbie Stabenow. The Democrat has held the seat ever since and was recently promoted to the No. 4 slot in her caucus. She’s up for re-election in 2018.

Most recently, the GOP failed to win an open seat in 2014 –– a stellar GOP year –– with Democrat Gary Peters handily defeating popular Republican Terri Lynn Land.

But Republicans are hopeful that ‘16 has signaled a sea change in Michigan politics, with Democrats finally faltering in federal elections.

Michigan GOP Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel is a logical choice to take on Stabenow. Republicans believe the Romney name is still an attribute in Michigan and a female nominee would probably run better against the Democrat.

And there’s the fact that McDaniel is in an interesting political pickle. She’s facing a strong challenge in February from Trump’s Michigan campaign director, Scott Hagerstrom. You’d expect this sort of infighting from the Dems after taking a beating this election. But oddly, the Republican civil war I wrote about prior to the election –– which most us thought would be fueled by a Trump loss –– is still burning brightly.

Ronna Romney McDaniel

Ronna Romney McDaniel

McDaniel’s problem isn’t her lack of loyalty to Trump. From the beginning of her term, she valiantly tried to straddle the various factions in her party. But she quickly realized the importance of appeasing Trump diehards. Even before he won the nomination, McDaniel pledged to be his delegate at the Republican National Convention. Weeks before the election, she ousted Christian conservative Wendy Day from her post as grassroots vice chair for refusing to endorse Trump. And by all accounts, McDaniel was a faithful soldier, working hand-in-glove with the RNC on Trump GOTV efforts.

But Hagerstrom clearly sees an opening to run as the true Trump candidate. As the former head of the Americans for Prosperity state affiliate, Hagerstrom wasn’t a likely fit as Trump’s Michigan campaign head. The national group, which is guided by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, failed to endorse Trump, whose policy agenda is more ethnonationalist than traditionally conservative. Still, Hagerstrom can brag he boarded the Trump Train earlier than McDaniel.

This serious threat to McDaniel’s position could make her more likely to run for Senate. Losing her chair re-election fight would be a big blow to her nascent political career. In contrast, challenging Stabenow is a low-risk proposition. Even if McDaniel fails, she’ll win points with both her donor base and the party faithful for putting herself out there. And she could win this thing if the circumstances are right.

There are certainly other top-tier potential GOP Senate contenders. Republicans have long dreamt of former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers –– who was just booted from the Trump transition team –– taking the plunge. But he has a highly successful syndicated radio show he’d have to abandon.

They’d also do anything to get U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R-Harrison Twp.) to run for higher office. But Miller just won the most expensive county race in Michigan history and is Macomb’s public works commissioner-elect. If she coveted the governor’s mansion or a U.S. Senate seat, there were certainly more direct paths available.

It wouldn’t surprise me if U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Twp.) took a close look at a bid. He’s emerged as a potent Trump critic on his myriad business conflicts and his attorney general nominee, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). But Amash needs a Senate perch to exercise real clout. The conventional wisdom is that the libertarianish Freedom Caucus member wouldn’t have statewide appeal, but the victory of an unpopular outsider like Trump may scramble that calculus.

There are also the perennial rumors that a self-funding businessman could step up. How many years have we heard about former Domino’s CEO David Brandon or auto magnate Roger Penske running for something? Still, a deep-pocketed outsider would be a good bet in 2018.

You’ll know Stabenow isn’t a top-tier target if Republicans end up with placeholder-type nominees like former House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) or Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive), who Michigan voters couldn’t pick out of a police lineup.

It’s impossible to predict the contours of 2018 right now, of course. Trump hasn’t even taken office yet –– and he will almost certainly dictate the next election’s dynamics, for good or ill. If he notches a successful 18 months with popular achievements (no Obamacare bombs), Republicans could build on their momentum. The GOP also has the advantage of an electorate that has consistently turned out in recent off-year elections.

Another scenario, with historical precedent, is that Democrats could benefit in ‘18 as the party completely out of power in Washington. Trump also has a cult-of-personality following, much like President Obama. It will be an interesting test to see if the Trump bloc shows up when he’s not on the ballot, because Obama’s coalition never did in the necessary numbers to win.

Regardless, Senate Republicans will probably be taking a closer look at Michigan now, given Trump’s success here. They have some fat targets in a cycle that’s shaping up to be brutal for Democrats: U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), Claire McCaskill (R-Mo.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Jon Tester (D-Mon.).

The drumbeat has already begun that the GOP can hit a filibuster-proof majority of 60. Knocking off a three-term senator like Stabenow could be part of that plan.

Even before any votes were cast in 2016, politicos were looking ahead to the open ‘18 gubernatorial race, as Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is term-limited. It doesn’t hurt that GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette and former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) have all but declared their candidacies. And Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) aren’t far behind.

That had long overshadowed the U.S. Senate election. But now it’s game on.

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: Brian Calley Called It Wrong on Trump

And the Lieutenant Governor Will Pay a Political Price

Dome Magazine

Dome Magazine

Like most of us, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley placed the wrong bet on how the 2016 presidential election would turn out.

Calley handled President-Elect Donald Trump with the political deftness of Ted Cruz, the GOP hopeful who promised to endorse the nominee in the primary. He then earned boos during his rousing #NeverTrump speech at the Republican National Convention, which also managed to offend his big GOP donors. Cruz continued his clueless streak by eventually endorsing Trump right before the vile “Access Hollywood” tape came out and then publicly wavering afterward.

Not surprisingly, a pro-Trump congressman, Michael McCaul, is threatening to primary Cruz in 2018. No one used to be able to get to the Texas senator’s right. Now that it’s Donald Trump’s party, all bets are off.

Calley’s flip-flopping wasn’t as comical, but it will still cost him. He made a splash by breaking with his boss, Gov. Rick Snyder, by endorsing Trump in May. It wasn’t the most full-throated endorsement. Actually, it was a brief tweet after dark, which is often the mark of a poor decision. Calley then yanked his endorsement back after the tape emerged of Trump bragging about sexual assaulting women. And he called for Trump to drop out of the race.

That was an admirable stand. Several evangelical Christians also made that call. It also probably wasn’t the first time the LG took issue with something Trump did. As someone with an autistic daughter who has been a strong advocate for those with disabilities, Calley also was surely disturbed by Trump mocking a disabled reporter.

But sadly, sometimes doing the right thing has consequences.

Cruz’s Michigan campaign director, Wendy Day, found that out the hard way. Last week, I wrote about Michigan Republican Party Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel removing Day (another Christian conservative) as grassroots vice chair because she refused to campaign for Trump.

Calley will likely pay a political price, as well, despite scrambling to quote Trump’s victory speech on Twitter. In Donald Trump’s party, where loyalty is prized above all else, that’s too little too late.

The LG has been flirting with a gubernatorial run, despite Snyder’s tanking popularity over the Flint water crisis. But even before Trump’s election, most political observers couldn’t see a viable path for Calley in a GOP primary. He’s not well-known statewide and has a reputation as a squishy moderate –– which is amusing to anyone who’s covered him for years and has talked political philosophy with him. But perception is reality, especially in Republican contests.

Attorney General Bill Schuette, who’s all but started putting up 2018 lawn signs, will surely take advantage of Calley’s Trump fumble. Sizing up his opponents’ weaknesses and exploiting them is what he does best. And Schuette is considered to be far more conservative than the LG –– although in reality, there’s little ideological light separating the two men.

Still, Schuette’s hands aren’t exactly clean when it comes to Trump. The AG led the Michigan campaign of the ultimate establishment candidate, Jeb Bush, who’s still the object of Trump’s ridicule. Schuette did endorse Trump, but has rarely used his name throughout the campaign. And he slammed Trump over the “Access Hollywood” tape and said the main reason he still supported the nominee was to stop the evil that was Hillary Clinton.

The door is open for an enthusiastic Trump supporter to march into the next gubernatorial sweepstakes unscathed. You can bet that McDaniel has been approached already and is keeping her options open. But there are many others who could fit the bill.

We’ve all just watched Trump scramble the political calculus for 2016. There’s no reason to think he couldn’t do it in 2018, as well.

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.