Hillary Clinton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan J. Demas: 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: A Déjà Vu Debate: The Trump-Clinton Slugfest Has Echoes of DeVos Vs. Granholm

During her final debate in 2006 against billionaire businessman Dick DeVos, then-Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm unloaded a memorable zinger that ended up defining the race.

“You’re an expert yachtsman,” the embattled Democratic incumbent tartly began, adding that his philosophy was “each man for himself.”

But the effectiveness of Granholm’s attack wasn’t just slamming DeVos as an out-of-touch rich guy. The key was moving on to framing the election. The governor called herself the “captain of the ship” and declared, “We are all in this boat together.”

This wasn’t even Granholm’s best debate performance or her best line. But it summed up the stakes of the election for voters. Granholm would go onto to win re-election a few weeks later by a whopping 14 points, even though the state was suffering through its sixth year of recession.

And on Monday night, she was in the audience for a different slugfest between her longtime friend, Hillary Clinton, and another billionaire (at least, allegedly), Donald Trump. Granholm, who was termed out of office in 2010, is now co-chairing the Clinton transition team and a favorite for a cabinet slot or Democratic National Committee chair.  

Trump has bragged that only he has the business acumen to fix the country. And while we’re not in recession, the Republican nominee routinely describes an America that resembles a dystopian hellscape.

So Granholm must have had some sense of déjà vu as the debate unfolded.

Now Trump was a much more aggressive and disrespectful debater than DeVos, interrupting her 51 times in his quest to be Mansplainer-In-Chief. His rambling, ranting and raving was so over-the-top at times that “Saturday Night Live” writers are probably flummoxed as to how to parody it.

And Clinton isn’t nearly as polished a debater as Granholm, as her early stumble through the canned line, “Trumped-up, trickle-down economics” shows.

Trump fired off his share of attacks, such as, “You’re telling the enemy everything you want to do. No wonder you've been fighting ISIS your entire adult life.” Of course, none of this is true, starting with the fact that the Islamic State isn’t 50 years old. But it probably fired up supporters who routinely shout, “Lock her up!” at his rallies.

The problem is alpha-male performance art, punctuated by frequent falsehoods, only holds appeals for his most loyal supporters. Undecided voters and soft Clinton supporters didn’t buy what he was selling, as the CNN poll showed.

The primary challenge in debates is to come off as presidential. Voters need to be comfortable waking up on Nov. 9 knowing this will be the person in the Oval Office armed with the nuclear launch codes. It’s usually not about issues –– the way a candidate talks about issues is largely just telegraphing his or her values.

Donald Trump failed the commander-in-chief test in Round 1 in such a way that it will be hard to bounce back –– and look authentic. More importantly, Hillary Clinton easily vaulted over the high bar set for her.

She didn’t do it with clever quips. She did it by serenely smiling through Trump’s attacks and interruptions. She did it through demonstrating her policy expertise. Voters may not recall her answer on cybersecurity, but they know she grasped the issue as a president should (and didn’t tout her 10-year-old’s computer skills like Trump).

Clinton was the Iron Lady, our own Margaret Thatcher. And she did manage to distill the election, not through a zinger, but in her own steady, wonky voice:

I think Donald just criticized me for preparing for this debate. And yes I did. And you know what else I prepared for? I prepared to be president. And I think that’s a good thing.”

Somewhere in the audience, you can bet Jennifer Granholm was smiling.

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 Post-Labor Day Presidential Election Freakout Is Here

Presidential politics has veered into post-Labor Day hysteria, where every poll, every candidate movement (cough, cough) is wildly over-analyzed.

Cable news and Twitter are perfect vehicles for these breathless hot takes, which tend to obscure the fundamentals of the race. As the owner of Inside Michigan Politics, I routinely get interview requests from reporters across the country (and occasionally the globe). I’m sure I disappoint some by failing to dispense a breathless “This will change everything” soundbite, but it’s my job to be a political realist.

Here’s what we know. The presidential race has predictably tightened both nationally and in Michigan. The post-convention polls showing Hillary Clinton with double-digit leads have disappeared. But the Democrat still holds a steady polling lead in RealClearPolitics’ national average and its Michigan average.

Naturally, we’ve all heard a lot about outlier polls because of media bias. That bias isn’t favoring Donald Trump, by the way.

It’s the (often subconscious) desire of reporters and editors to have an exciting race to cover. Otherwise, the blackness starts to descend, and you start questioning the meaning of your life. Devoting 14 hours a day to writing about highly probable outcomes is a joyless existence. (Believe me, I know. I used to cover floor and committee action for the Michigan Legislature every day).

Remember all the media hyperventilating in 2008 and 2012, even though political fundamentals favored two Barack Obama victories? But there were endless stories that something would rock the races –– John McCain suspending his campaign when the economy collapsed in ‘08, Mitt Romney’s first debate performance in ‘12, and various gaffes no one recalls.

Sure, it could be different this year. Trump is an unusual candidate with a penchant for saying outrageous things and pulling stunts, like a last-minute sojourn south of the border. We have apparent meddling in our election by Russia, an unfriendly foreign power, between Wikileaks and other email hacks. And there’s always the possibility of a game-changing domestic or world event.

But the economic and political fundamentals always favored a small Clinton victory, not a blowout. It should be said that Trump has, thus far, shown to be a particularly poor candidate, as he hasn’t consolidated Republican support as much as a traditional nominee would. His numbers with women, minorities and college-educated whites make victory virtually impossible, both in Michigan and nationally, unless they start to shoot up.

Trump also refused to set up a professional campaign apparatus for months after winning the nomination, like opening campaign offices in key states, hiring competent staff, getting a fundraising operation going, etc. Clinton’s operation, on the other hand, has been humming along since 2015 (and with far less drama than its ‘08 iteration).

It should be said that Republicans would be in a much stronger position right now with either fresh-faced Marco Rubio or experienced, steady John Kasich, both of whom hail from swing states. They would sport professional campaigns and know how to exploit Clinton’s weaknesses far better.

There’s also a popular theory on the left that Bernie Sanders would have been a stronger candidate than Clinton. (Some progressives on social media are currently reveling in “I told you so” mode, and seem to be touting positive Trump polls more than Republicans are).

But Sanders’ general election poll numbers were always artificially high. Clinton pulled her punches, so as to not alienate Sanders supporters. And Republicans were praying that Sanders would win, as they thought he was the feebler candidate, so they never piled on.

As a history major who grew up during the tail end of the Cold War, I believe that Republicans would have eviscerated Sanders as Chairman Mao in the first week of the general election. When push comes to shove, Americans will choose an authoritarian strongman over a weak socialist any day. And Sanders also couldn’t capture Clinton’s high-profile Republican endorsements like Meg Whitman and Carlos Gutierrez.

Regardless, it’s important to remember that the odds of a blowout presidential election nowadays are rare, no matter who the nominees are. We live in an era of negative partisanship --- where people’s political affiliation is defined by their hatred of the other party and its values. So many people will vote Trump, despite their many reservations, just because of their deep-seated loathing of Clinton and liberals --- and vice-versa.

One of the most predictive (and overlooked) polls is who voters think will win. And right now, they think it will be Clinton. I know that’s boring. I know that’s not what roughly 40 percent of people want to hear. But that’s where we are.

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: Bernie Sanders' Superdelegate-Flipping Strategy Is Doomed

State Rep. Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) isn’t in Congress. He’s not a superdelegate. But that hasn’t stopped Bernie Sanders supporters from posting on his Facebook page that he should “support the will of the people.”

At least the Sanders activists have U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) pegged correctly. The congresswoman does back Hillary Clinton, just as more than 60 percent of her 14th District did in the March 8 primary (yes, even taking into account that Wayne County combined absentee ballots in two districts).

Susan J. Demas: What’s Next For Bernie Sanders?

Bernie Sanders says he’s not going anywhere. And why should he?

It’s true that his most significant victory arguably remains Michigan’s March 8 primary, which was a month ago. That wasn’t because of the size of his win –– he actually only walked away with four more pledged delegates than Hillary Clinton.

Sanders has actually scored much bigger margins of victory in the New Hampshire primary and a spate of caucus states, like Washington, Kansas and Hawaii.

But Michigan’s significance is that it’s the biggest state Sanders has won –– and he wasn’t supposed to. The polls and pundits (including me) predicted a Clinton rout. So it’s a huge moral victory for supporters, who took to using the #StillSanders hashtag even after Clinton swept the series of big March 15 primaries.

Susan J. Demas: Why primaries are the death of humor

What is it about primaries that drive people crazy?

Sure, there’s the theory that “politics makes us stupid,” as Vox’s Ezra Klein put it -- i.e. the more information partisans receive on an issue, the more that ends up reinforcing their previous position.

But I would suggest that presidential primaries are the death of humor. If you don’t believe me, you may have made the wise choice to stay off social media for the last 18 months.

There’s always going to be that one “friend” who responds to any post -- photos of your kids, the death of a relative -- with a monologue about their favored candidate, typically ending with #FeeltheBern or #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.

You should probably unfriend that person immediately.

Susan J. Demas: In Michigan, Trump actually played second fiddle to Sanders

Bernie Sanders managed to steal the spotlight from Donald Trump last week -- and not just in “Saturday Night Live” skits.

Sanders began drawing screaming crowds last year, not unlike Trump (though without the violence), but his rallies have barely been a blip in TV coverage. In contrast, Trump’s events have been regularly carried live on cable news, which already awarded him wildly disproportionate coverage for his stunts of the week (insulting Fox News host Megyn Kelly, refusing to debate, savaging “Little Marco” Rubio, etc.).

But Michigan changed all that -- at least for a night. Sanders’ stunning, poll-defying win in the Democratic primary grabbed all the headlines on March 8, handing Trump the unfamiliar status of second billing.

Susan J. Demas: I got the Michigan Democratic primary wrong. Here's how Sanders pulled it off

Bernie Sanders' victory in Michigan was the biggest electoral surprise so far of the 2016 election season. It's the kind of unbelievable, conventional-wisdom-defying upset that makes covering elections so much fun. 

And I called it wrong.

I know Michigan well. The polls were clear. Five Thirty Eight, the highly influential election analysis site, put Clinton's chances at greater than 99 percent. Most Democratic voters I talked to felt Sanders' vision was too pie-in-the-sky and Hillary Clinton was the strongest general election candidate.

I was wrong. As I said on the radio this morning, "I'm here to fall on my sword."

Susan J. Demas: Why isn't Bernie Sanders' economic message resonating in Michigan?

Why isn’t Bernie Sanders doing better in Michigan?

His economic message should be a slam dunk in our Rust Belt state. Sanders inveighs until he’s hoarse against free trade agreements like NAFTA, Wall Street robber barons and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Sanders is playing to folks who have suffered through a decade-long recession and watched helplessly as thousands of good-paying manufacturing jobs were shipped overseas.