Trump leans on new Republican leader to win Michigan again

President Donald Trump rarely misses an opportunity when in Michigan to wax poetic over his narrow 2016 win in the state, and it usually includes the key role played by then-Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.

“I didn’t know her, Ronna McDaniel, and she was so aggressive,” Trump joked at a December rally in Battle Creek. 

Michigan GOP chairman Laura Cox speaks at a Republican campaign event in Portage on Aug. 12, 2020.

“She kept calling and said, ‘Could you please come out to Michigan?’ I said, ‘Who the hell are you?'”

Trump ended up holding two Michigan rallies in the last three days of the 2016 campaign, including a last-minute, election eve stop in Grand Rapids. After helping to secure the New York businessman’s upset win, McDaniel was promoted to chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. 

Four years later, Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox is tasked with getting a repeat victory but in vastly different circumstances.

Trump is trailing Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the polls in Michigan after Democrats won all statewide offices in 2018 and flipped two Republican congressional districts in an anti-Trump backlash. Plus, the president’s trademark rallies have become taboo amid restrictive executive orders limiting crowd sizes in the Great Lakes State. 

Still, Cox sees a path to victory in Michigan.

“The president is always best when he speaks directly to the American people,” she said. “While we have the hurdle of not being able to hold rallies right now with our governor we absolutely aren’t going to let that get in the way.”

McDaniel agreed while acknowledging the landscape is a bit more rocky this year.

“The president is all in on Michigan,” said the 47-year-old national Republican leader, who still lives in Northville. “The RNC is all in on Michigan. The difference is now Democrats know they can’t take Michigan for granted.”

McDaniel in 2016 excelled in energizing Trump’s base even after polls repeatedly showed the businessman trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton, but the margin of victory was a razor-thin 10,700 votes and was aided by a lack of motivation among Democratic voters, Republican political consultant Greg McNeilly said. 

Cox will have to fire up the base under pandemic conditions that make it harder to do so and woo Republican voters who failed to support Trump in 2016, McNeilly said. Those votes will be needed as Democratic enthusiasm in the state is at a record high in Glengariff Group polling — which promises, he said, a larger showing at the polls than four years ago.  

The key for Republicans is to “get your weakest supporters and get them to mail in their ballot early,” McNeilly said. “Lock it in. Bank it.”

Ronna McDaniel, Chair of the Republican National Committee, shakes hands briefly with President Donald Trump after he invited her on stage during a political rally in Battle Creek on Dec. 18, 2020.

View from the chair

In 2016, Trump waged an unconventional campaign that focused on trashing job-killing trade deals, creating manufacturing employment and promising to “drain the swamp”or root out D.C. corruption. He didn’t believe the conventional wisdom that “Michigan was unwinnable” since Democrats had taken it for six straight elections, McDaniel said.

McDaniel and Cox plan to argue that the president delivered on his campaign promises by cutting taxes, creating manufacturing jobs and overhauling the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada while taking on Chinese trade barriers.  

“He absolutely knows that you cut taxes, you let the free market reign, support American workers with American-first policies, you will see benefits in the economy,” said Cox,a 56-year-old Livonia resident and former Michigan House Appropriations Committee chairwoman. 

The campaign has shifted as the president defends his record. Trump was impeached but acquitted of improperly meddling in the Ukraine. He faced a special prosecutor’s report that Russian agents tried to contact the president’s campaign but found no evidence of Russian collusion.And he now is criticized about his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The national party is shifting its strategy as it works with Michigan Republicans to win again.

Former Livonia State Rep. Laura Cox, who is running for Michigan Republican Party chair, acknowledges the crowd at the state convention, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, at the Lansing Center in Lansing.

The national and state branches used to work in silos, but now work together under the Trump Victory campaign, McDaniel said. And the party has returned to some face-to-face campaigning while most Democrats campaign from behind computer screens. 

“The president’s going to be back in Michigan,” McDaniel said. “We’re going to call it a peaceful protest, but we’re going to be there. That way the governor will allow it.”

Like McNeilly, McDaniel argued the best way to compete with increased Democratic enthusiasm is to convert the Republican undervote in Michigan for Trump — folks who declined to support the businessman in 2016 but voted for Republicans down ballot. 

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, a former New Mexico governor, captured 3.6% of the state’s presidential votes — the highest percentage since Reform candidate H. Ross Perot won nearly 9% of Michigan’s votes in the 1996 contest.

“They weren’t sure that Trump was really Republican yet,” McDaniel said of the Trump undervote. “We have won those Republicans back.”

Just as important as rallies and plumbing coy Republicans is shoe leather, communication and the ability to get “a network of people believing in you,” said Ron Weiser, former chairman for the Michigan Republican Party.

“Who’s more likely to influence you: Your best friend or some stranger you watched on television,” Weiser said. “It especially makes a difference in close contests.”

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel (center) speaks at a Detroit round table Tuesday, July 2019, about President Donald Trump's U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement. She was joined by Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox (left) and co-chair Terry Bowman (right).

Short-term loss vs. long-term gain

Republicans are optimistic about buoying enthusiasm ahead of the November election. A Jan. 3-7 poll of 600 likely Michigan voters by the Lansing-based Glengariff Group found record intensity among Republican voters as well as Democratic and independent voters.

But other experts are more pessimistic about the party’s prospects.

“They’re not in a great position in that Trump is not very popular in Michigan,” said Matt Grossmann, a political science professor and director for the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. 

“They seem to have a better chance of winning back Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.”

The Trump campaign realized this, as evidenced by the pulling of TV ads in Michigan in July, he contended. McDaniel maintained the stalled television ads were the result of changing the campaign manager when Brad Parscale was replaced last month by Bill Stepien.

Even if Trump loses Michigan, Cox’s job will be to ensure the margin of defeat remains slim to avoid losses in down ballot races and improve the party’s chances in 2022, Grossmann said.

“Republicans have a Senate race here that’s their best chance outside of Alabama,” he said of Republican Farmington Hills businessman John James’ challenge of U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township. 

Michigan GOP chairman Laura Cox speaks at a Republican campaign event in Portage on Wednesday, August 12, 2020.

“The party organization has to be a little more concerned about not just the last couple months of this campaign but also whether Michigan is positioned as a state that could be trending Republican over the long term,” Grossmann said.

With a new redistricting process ahead, Michigan’s voting boundaries and the results of future elections could drastically change in two years, requiring an immediate focus on what’s to come, said Tom Ivacko, executive director of the Center for Local, State and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan.

“If I was in Cox’s position, I would be very focused on long-term strategies because I do think there will be some challenges coming down the road,” Ivacko said.

Democrats have contended Republicans gerrymandered political boundaries in 2012, which helped them avoid the loss of the Michigan House in 2018 as Democrats picked up six seats and swept all statewide elected offices. 

Hope is not dead for Republicans this year, Ivacko said. In a news cycle that’s continually churning, there’s still time for Trump to throw a Hail Mary in Michigan, he said.

If Biden makes any missteps, if an effective vaccine is announced, if somehow the economy got back into growth mode ahead of November — those “could change the dynamics,” Ivacko said. 

When Trump won Michigan in 2016, he won with fewer votes than Republican former President George W. Bush garnered in 2004 when he lost the state, McNeilly said. Trump won 2,279,543 votes in a field where four candidates got at least 1% of the vote, while Bush received 2,313,746 votes in a race where third party candidates didn’t have an impact. 

The Bush-Trump vote gap is proof that Republican votes are out there if the GOP digs deep enough, McNeilly said. 

Laura Cox, chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, speaks before the arrival of Vice President Mike Pence during a campaign rally at the Marriott hotel in Troy, February 25, 2020.

The party will win them over by pressing home the message that Biden and Kamala Harris represent an existential threat on policy, he said. 

“One can always ignore tweets, but you can’t ignore a wealth tax,” McNeilly said. “One can always ignore off-the-cuff statements, but you can’t ignore a federal gun ban.” 

eleblanc@detroitnews.com