Susan J. Demas: Trump Taxes and Tariffs Squeeze Michigan GOP in 2018

If President Obama had socked Michigan with a one-two punch of higher taxes and steel tariffs, Republicans would be licking their chops about 2018.


The GOP playbook of running against a tax-’n’-spend liberal president who just knifed the domestic auto industry practically writes itself.

But it’s actually a Republican president — the first to win Michigan in three decades — who’s pushed this rather bizarre economic agenda.

Last week, President Trump angrily announced tariffs on steel and aluminum, shocking many conservatives and ultimately leading to the resignation of economic adviser Gary Cohn.

We’ve seen this movie before. When President George W. Bush tried steel tariffs in 2002, every state lost jobs. That confirmed for most fiscal conservatives that protectionism, even in small doses, is a bust. As the home of GM and Ford, Michigan was one of the hardest hit, shedding almost 10,000 jobs.

The leading GOP candidates for governor are both running hard on the economy. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is selling himself as the right person to continue the “Michigan’s comeback” since the Great Recession. And Attorney General Bill Schuette is pitching a “Paycheck Agenda.”

Trump’s tariffs could sour both their plans, but so far, Schuette and Calley have been awfully quiet about this.

The auto industry is far from the only one that will be affected. Aluminum tariffs will squeeze beer and soft drink makers, particularly smaller craft brewers, many of which make their home in Michigan.

If you think this isn’t going to be a big deal here, consider the fact that Michigan’s beer tax hasn’t been raised in more than 50 years. And any time a politician proposes doing so, the idea dies within days, if not hours.

While soda taxes have gained some currency in cities as a way to combat obesity, good luck making that case in Michigan. Last year, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law banning local governments from taxing pop (even though Republicans supposedly love local control, at least when it’s ideologically convenient).

Naturally, other countries quickly vowed to retaliate against the United States. The European Union wants to raise tariffs on bourbon, which basically means anything you try to drown your financial sorrows in will end up costing you more now.

But no worries. Trump tweeted that “trade wars are good, and easy to win,” demonstrating, once again, his grade-school-level grasp of economic policy.

At least when Bush started his ill-conceived trade war, it was after he signed a tax law giving almost every American a tax rebate.

Trump has taken a different tack. The 2017 tax law does achieve the Republican Party’s greatest priority, slashing taxes for the rich and big corporations. But its tax relief for middle-class and lower-income families is modest at best. The law also eliminates some big deductions so many will actually owe more to the IRS.

One of those deductions is the personal exemption, which is $4,000 in Michigan. That amounts to a pretty hefty tax increase, so the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder scrambled to restore and increase it over time, so the GOP could run on a tax cut.  

Republicans were careful not to criticize the president or GOP-controlled Congress, just as they would have done if Democrats were in charge (snort).

I mean, Schuette is still running against Jennifer Granholm as the Ghost of Tax Hikes Past, even though she hasn’t been in charge since 2010 and had GOP help in passing the ‘07 income tax increase.

And because Schuette keeps pushing this misleading narrative, I’m going to keep pointing out that Republicans have been in complete control of Michigan’s government for more than seven years. Instead of killing the income tax, they enacted in 2011 a $1.4 billion tax hike on individuals to help pay for an almost $2 billion corporate tax cut.

Between taxes and tariffs, Trump hasn’t done the GOP any favors in the 2018 election in Michigan.

But if worse comes to worse, they can always go back to the tried-and-true tactic of blaming Obama. And remember, anyone who points out actual facts to the contrary is just peddling “fake news.”

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

Susan J. Demas: The War Over Gerrymandering Has Just Begun

You can’t really pick an issue that’s more inside baseball than gerrymandering. And yet remarkably, this has inspired the most genuine grassroots political effort I’ve seen in Michigan.


Before Christmas, a group called Voters Not Politicians turned in 425,000 signatures for a ballot initiative that would create an independent citizen commission to draw legislative districts in Michigan instead of the Legislature. The group will need 315,654 of those signatures to be valid in order to get the measure on the 2018 ballot.

You’d think most non-political junkies never think twice about gerrymandering, which establishes an advantage for a political party by manipulating district boundaries.

But you’d be wrong.

The playbook for getting questions on the Michigan ballot is well-established. First, raise $1 million. (With Gov. Snyder signing a 2016 law tightening up the timeframe for the signature-gathering process, banking $2 million in advance is helpful). Then you pay people to circulate petitions across the state, an arduous process.

Voters Not Politicians broke the rules. They raised about $130,000 as of August and launched an all-volunteer effort, finding folks lining up to sign petitions from Detroit to Holland and everywhere in between.

Many of the petition circulators had never attended a political rally or a party meeting. But crusading against gerrymandering — which might seem to be the ultimate pie-in-the-sky effort — has attracted people from across the political spectrum who want more of a say in their government.

In other words, Voters Not Politicians has become what the Clean Michigan Government part-time legislature effort launched by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley advertised itself as being: A groundswell of regular people sick of politics and government as usual. That petition drive, in contrast, has been plagued with problems and was turned over to far-right ideologues Tom McMillin and Dave Agema after it served its true purpose, launching Calley’s 2018 gubernatorial bid.

Here’s how the current redistricting process currently works. After each decennial census, the Michigan Legislature is charged with redrawing the boundaries for the state House, state Senate and Congress based on shifts in population. And the governor has to sign the new plan.

So in the case of the state Legislature, you literally have politicians being able to pick their voters. I have watched staffers go block by block to find the “right” mix of voters for their boss’ district (i.e. enough Democrats or Republicans to keep them “safe”). The first rule of redistricting is politicians protect their jobs.

It’s also a partisan process by design. For the last two redistricting cycles in 2001 and 2011, Republicans have controlled everything, as they held the governorship, both chambers of the Legislature and even had a majority on the state Supreme Court, which could be counted on to rule in favor of the GOP’s maps.

Not surprisingly, Republicans have drawn districts that favor GOP majorities in the state Legislature and Congress. It’s paid off handsomely. Consider 2014, a good Republican year in which Snyder was re-elected. Republicans won a 63-47 majority in the state House, a 27-11 majority in the state Senate and maintained their 9-5 majority in the congressional delegation.

But when Inside Michigan Politics examined statewide votes, it wasn’t exactly a red tsunami. Democrats won a majority of the statewide vote for state House races and a plurality of votes for Congress. Republicans won a narrow statewide vote majority for the state Senate.

And yet Republicans ended up with bone-crushing majorities in all three bodies. That was by design.

It’s true that some areas are heavily Republican, like Allegan County, or overwhelmingly Democratic, like Detroit. It’s impossible to draw competitive districts there and it wouldn’t represent voters to do so. However, it would be pretty painless to draw dozens more districts that didn’t favor one party or the other. But right now, there’s little incentive — from either party — to do so.

Voters Not Politicians proposes a process controlled by a 13-member body would be composed of Democrats, Republicans and independents who don’t have a stake in the outcome. After covering redistricting in Iowa, which has a similar framework, I can say that it’s not a perfect process but it’s far superior to what goes on in Michigan and other states.

Not surprisingly, Republicans have been quick to slam the ballot measure as a stalking horse for Democrats, as several board members have given to Dem candidates. Republicans feel they’ve got a good shot at running the show for the 2021 redistricting process, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Of course, with Democrats winning a slew of special legislative races and big victories in Virginia and New Jersey this year, that’s not exactly a guaranteed outcome. And there’s a Supreme Court case that could also upend Michigan’s redistricting process.

It wouldn’t be shocking for the GOP-controlled Legislature to try and throw a monkey wrench into anti-gerrymandering efforts. Republicans could pass a proposal of their own that would appear on the ‘18 ballot and muddy the waters, for instance.

This fight is just beginning.  

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

Susan J. Demas: Democrats Learn to Love Liberalism Again


As a kid with an abnormal interest in politics growing up in the 1980s, I quickly learned a couple of maxims: The Russians were our mortal enemies hellbent on destroying the American way of life and “liberal” was a dirty word.

Nobody wanted to be labeled a liberal in the Reagan era, except, perhaps, Ted Kennedy. In politics, liberalism was shorthand for government bloat and old ideas. But more generally, it was synonymous with whining and failure.

Talk about an effective branding campaign by Republicans. It’s little wonder that in the decades since, many on the left have tried to escape this negative frame by favoring the term “progressivism.”

So I have to admit to experiencing a bit of whiplash in our post-2016 election world. I still have to rub my eyes and wonder if I’m truly awake every time President Trump or Republicans defend the Russians, who may have ditched communism but are still dedicated to undermining the United States on the world stage. They demonstrated that plainly by meddling in our presidential election, something undisputed by our intelligence agencies.

It’s even more bizarre to hear some conservatives decry those of us not down with a hostile foreign power as “McCarthyites.” (It’s less surprising coming from the far left, which has always had a blind spot for Russia).

Another fascinating development is seeing many Democrats embracing liberalism, both elected officials and activists. And it’s not just defending specific policies, but arguing that liberalism is the mark of a forward-thinking society. That’s a 180 from the 80s-style Republican caricature of the ideology.

To see this transformation in action, look at Democratic primaries. Candidates are jockeying over who’s the furthest left, even for seats that favor Republicans in general elections. My inbox is jammed with releases like this: “Progressive Candidate Fayrouz Saad’s Statement on Rep. Trott’s Retirement” (Saad is a Democrat running in the 11th congressional district, which has been represented by Republicans for years). Some Bernie Sanders-style candidates are proudly declaring themselves to be socialists.

For decades, Republican primaries have been “who’s the most conservative” measuring contests. Candidates typically make the case with their platforms, arguing over who could cut taxes and ban abortion fast enough.

Incumbents love to trot out their voting records as proof of their conservative bona fides. Every year, my publication, Inside Michigan Politics, ranks the most liberal and most conservative state legislators on how they voted on dozens of key social, economic, taxation, environmental, civil rights, and public health/safety issues. In 2017, IMP used 31 votes taken in the Senate and 32 votes in the House.

Those who win, place or show on the conservative side are usually thrilled and often trumpet the honor in their campaigns. But the reaction from the “most liberal” honorees has often been mixed. Some, like state Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), a five-time “Most Liberal Senator” champ, wear it as a badge of honor. Other lawmakers, especially those in marginal seats, have been less than thrilled to be tagged with the liberal label.

But given the leftward turn in Democratic politics, I expect more legislators to celebrate their liberal voting records in the 2018 election.

So who took home the honors in IMP’s 2017 rankings?

In the House, the “Most Liberal” House member was state Rep. Yosef Rabhi (D- Ann Arbor), with an 87.5 percent liberal voting record. State Rep. Jeff Noble (R-Plymouth) is the conservative champ, voting liberal only 18.8 percent of the time.

For the Senate, state Sen. Morris Hood III (D-Detroit) was the “Most Liberal” member, posting an 88.9 percent liberal record. State Sen. Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford) was the 2017 “Most Conservative” titan with a 19.4 percent liberal voting score. The complete rankings of all 149 legislators are in the December editions of IMP.

In 2018, it’s worth watching how the furthest left candidates fare in their primaries and how many triumph in fierce general election battles. That’s a key way to assess if the Democratic Party will keep swinging left.

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

Susan J. Demas: No Room for Pro-Choice Candidates in the GOP


Shortly after Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler announced he would run for U.S. Senate as a Republican next year, his spokesman had to quickly put out that he had “evolved” on abortion and he’s now pro-life.

Pensler had run for the same office in 1992 as a pro-choice Republican.*

I can’t speak to Pensler’s personal beliefs, which I presume are sincere. But he’s getting attacked from the far-right Faith and Freedom Coalition for his pro-choice past, anyway. And there’s no doubt that the political winds have shifted in his party.

Last year, the Grand Traverse GOP embarrassed itself by excommunicating its most famous and most successful member, former Gov. William Milliken. In addition to endorsing Democrats (expressing independent thought, the horror!), the moderate was specifically lambasted for vetoing pro-life legislation that was “contrary to the core principles of Republicans.”

As recently as the last decade, there were a smattering of pro-choice Republicans in the Michigan Legislature, like former state Sen. Shirley Johnson. But no more.

Take former state Sen. and U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Battle Creek), a Catholic physician who’s personally pro-life but refused to have every vote dictated to him by Right to Life. In 2006, he lost his Republican congressional primary fight to now-U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), an outspoken pro-life preacher.

After watching what happened to Schwarz and pro-choice Republicans like former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, ambitious Republicans have learned to toe the pro-life line. I can’t tell you how many GOP officials have told me off the record that they’re pro-choice or don’t really care about abortion, but they keep quiet, because they’d like to keep their jobs.

So it wasn’t surprising to see Mitt Romney declare he was now pro-life when he ran for president the first time in 2008. Now-President Donald Trump had the same conversion.

And now-Gov. Rick Snyder, who had bucked Right to Life by backing the ‘08 embryonic stem-cell constitutional amendment, ran in 2010 as being firmly pro-life. Although Snyder has signed a number of bills clamping down on LGBT and abortion rights, his occasional independent streak has made social conservatives apoplectic.

But that will change if Snyder is succeeded by a Republican in 2019 — whether it’s Attorney General Bill Schuette or his own lieutenant governor, Brian Calley. Bills like the Right to Life license plate will be signed into law within the first month. Count on it.  

Meanwhile, those Republicans who have stuck to their pro-choice politics have found themselves wandering in the political desert. Both Schwarz and Chafee became independents after losing their elections, with the former flirting with running for Congress in 2012 as a Democrat and the latter running for president in 2016 as one.

If there’s currently a pro-choice Republican holding office in Michigan, I’m not aware of it.

There are plenty of pro-life Democratic officials left in Michigan, however, although their numbers are shrinking. Democrats seeking higher office, like governor or U.S. Senate, are now overwhelmingly pro-choice. Former U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Menominee) would be the exception if he does jump into the ‘18 gubernatorial race, but he could suffer the same fate of pro-life former Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford), who lost badly in the ‘10 Dem primary.

There’s been a fierce debate within the party over whether to run pro-life candidates in 2018, particularly to win over voters in more conservative areas after Trump’s surprise win.

This was inflamed by Bernie Sanders endorsing a pro-life mayoral candidate Health Mello in Nebraska, but snubbing pro-choice Jon Ossoff in his Georgia congressional race. In the end, neither man won, but Dems are left to grapple with abortion as a litmus test.

You can expect this to play out in some Michigan legislative primaries next year, as Rep. Kristy Pagan (D-Canton) and others are recruiting pro-choice women, even in socially conservative areas up north and on the west side of the state. They now have a big victory under their belt with pro-choice Sara Cambensy winning this month’s special 109th state House election in the U.P.

Don’t expect pro-life Democrats to disappear from the Legislature completely. And it’s worth noting that even when Dems have run the state House — as recently as 2006 to 2010 — there was still an anti-abortion majority.

There’s no doubt that the parties are becoming more polarized on abortion. But the Dems still have a ways to go before they achieve the ideological purity that Republicans have.

*Correction: The column originally misstated Ronna Romney ran for Senate on a pro-choice platform; she did not.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mi map.png

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 Follow her on Twitter here.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan J. Demas: Republicans Root for a U.P. Upset

In November 2009, Republicans were on suicide watch, both nationally and in Michigan.

President Barack Obama had won the ‘08 election with an almost 10 million-vote margin and still enjoyed a healthy approval rating a year later. Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, including a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate. And the Dems had won several special congressional elections.

In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm had the help of a huge majority in the House (67-43) and the Dems had an 8-7 congressional advantage. The one bright spot for the GOP was the Senate, which they’d controlled for 25 years. With the ascension of Sen. Mark Schauer (D-Battle Creek) to Congress, the GOP had a 21-16 edge.

The special Nov. 3, 2009, election to fill Schauer’s slot wasn’t a terribly exciting affair, but it was a huge morale boost for once-dejected Republicans (yes, there was singing on the Senate floor the next day).

Former Rep. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) decisively beating Rep. Marty Griffin (D-Jackson) became a bellwether for the 2010 election cycle. Not only did Griffin go on to lose his House seat, but the GOP ran the table, winning the governorship, a 9-5 advantage in Congress, a 63-47 majority in the House and a 26-12 supermajority in the Senate.

Republicans also flipped the U.S. House and came close in the upper chamber, effectively stalling Obama’s agenda. And the GOP scored big in other key states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which proved invaluable during the decennial redistricting process.

Eight years later, President Donald Trump has a GOP Congress and Republicans still control everything in Michigan. Now Democrats are hoping for history to repeat itself in 2018 with the president’s party getting pounded in the midterms. Having a Democratic governor going into the next redistricting is the ultimate prize in Michigan.

But Republicans see another scenario. And it starts with another special legislative election this November, one that’s largely been overlooked in the Upper Peninsula.

Many Republicans believe ‘16 was a sea change in our state, with Trump’s stunning victory finally pushing us to red (or at least reddish-purple) status. Michigan is getting older and is less educated than most states. We don’t have a significant, growing Latino population. All these demographic trends bode well for the GOP.

Republicans also have favorably gerrymandered legislative maps to fall back on. And they’ve also made big gains in key areas like the U.P., the northern lower peninsula and Macomb County, which should help them mitigate or even withstand even a powerful blue wave tearing through the legislative map.

And Republicans are making noise about coming for three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), openly praying that hometown sensation Kid Rock is serious about running and not just trying to sell concert tickets and merch.

Michigan has a special place in Trump’s heart, as it’s one of the three Rust Belt states that flipped to put him in the White House. And Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, a Michigan native, can also be expected to spread the love in terms of money and surrogates.

So the GOP is somewhat optimistic that they’ll be insulated from the historic precedent of the president’s party taking a hit in off-year elections.

But to get things off on the right foot, they’d love to steal what looks like a safe Democratic seat. The 109th in the central U.P., which includes Marquette, Ishpeming and Manistique, has a 56.9% Democratic base, according to Inside Michigan Politics.

The seat is open because Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette) tragically killed himself after being stopped for drunken driving. This week, Sara Cambensy, a former Marquette city commissioner, won the Dem special primary. She’ll face Republican Rich Rossway, president of the Marquette school board, in the Nov. 7 special general election.

GOP strategists are excited about Rossway, a 17-year veteran of the board with strong ties to the community. Interestingly, he’s adopting the tactic used by many a Democrat in red-trending or socially conservative areas (like Griffin did) and isn’t stressing his party label. Instead, Rossway has been playing up his bipartisan credentials and making the case that he’ll put the U.P.’s needs before partisan concerns.

Republicans also see an opening because the Cambensy barely pulled off a win on Aug. 8. Last year, she also primaried Kivela, who was a beloved figure, which left some Dems with a bad taste in their mouths.

If Rossway scores a Trump-like upset, that gives the GOP another vote in the state House. As the Dems are expected to maintain the 1st District seat in Detroit and Harper Woods on Nov. 7, that would bring the GOP to a bone-crushing 64-46 advantage.

But flipping the 109th is bigger than that. It’s about changing the narrative about 2018 in Michigan and demoralizing Democrats, who have seen an influx of new energy from both the Indivisible and Bernie Sanders “Our Revolution” groups.

Republican operatives, no doubt, are already auditioning clever soundbites about how the Dems should just pack it in for good in Michigan.

It’s a longshot for sure. But for Republicans, it doesn’t hurt to dream.

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