December 2, 2016
After the beating they took in the November election, sending them back into the political wilderness, Michigan Democrats would be wise to look to the east.
They need to focus on Washington and push hard for an overhaul at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) if they hope to regain the mantle of the party for “the little guy” — the working class, and not just the poor.
The Michigan Democrats’ long list of post-election failures, with Republicans maintaining control of every facet of state government, won’t be solved by tweaking the levers of power within the state party. The big–margin losses they suffered, and especially the voters’ stinging rebuke of Hillary Clinton in favor of Donald Trump, should be blamed on a national party that has lost touch with a wide swath of Middle America, and several large pockets of Michigan.
Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) Chairman Brandon Dillon will announce later this month whether he will seek election to remain as the party leader. But will his decision have any perceptible impact on the upcoming 2018 races for governor or the Legislature?
The national perception of the Dems as an establishment organization paying heed to coastal elites contributed to huge losses in state House races on Nov. 8, particularly in rural and blue-collar areas. The party was associated with Clinton and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Did Dems learn any lessons?
And now the early frontrunner for the new DNC chair is a left-wing congressman, Keith Ellison, who represents an ultraliberal urban/suburban House district in the Minneapolis area. This is the way out of the woods?
Some Democratic operatives believe the party’s image can be quickly reshaped within Michigan’s small towns and farm fields. But these strategists need to learn that they can’t simply put a Caterpillar cap and a flannel shirt on their candidate and sell him as “one of the guys.”
Proof of that fallacy came in the congressional campaign of former MDP chair Lon Johnson. Portraying himself as a northern Michigan “good ol’ boy,” Johnson enjoyed a big advantage in Michigan’s sprawling 1st District in terms of money, time and effort invested. But he still lost by 10 points to his little-known GOP foe. Johnson was a Democrat, a Clinton supporter, a Washington party insider – which probably means, in the end, he never had a chance.
The Democratic Party failed to grasp that rural Michigan still lacks a recovery from the 2008-10 recession. Jobs, the economy and pocketbook concerns — not social issues or identity politics — should have been the sole Dem message throughout the north country.
Up North, an area that did pretty well economically in the late 1990s, now stands as a territory debased by growing pockets of crushing poverty and persistent unemployment. More breadwinners than in the past rely on seasonal work that pays low wages.
In turn, the Michigan Republicans rode Trump’s co-opted populist message to victory up and down the ballot and they’re now within reach of establishing a long-lasting majority in the state House, along with the Senate, which they have controlled for 33 years.
Northern Michigan turning into Alabama?
The geography is closing in, as evidenced by the GOP preserving Democrat-targeted state House seats far and wide. With hundreds of thousands of campaign dollars injected by the Dems, the GOP stood strong, winning in some cases by 10 to 20 points. Overall, Trump the outsider ran better than did Michigan native son Mitt Romney in 2012, and the billionaire New York businessman flipped 12 counties from Democratic to Republican.
In his narrow Michigan win, making him the first GOP presidential nominee to carry the state since 1988, Trump ran up the score in the northern Lower Peninsula. If a line is drawn from Ludington to Mt. Pleasant to Bay City, most of the counties north of there gave one-third or less of their vote to Clinton. That broad territory, as of now, is about as red as Alabama, home of the Crimson Tide. The results weren’t much better for the Dems in the Upper Peninsula, and they were perhaps worse in the Thumb area and along most of the southern tier of counties bordering Ohio.
If that doesn’t change, not only will future Democratic state House and Senate candidates have no prospect of winning in those areas, the party will have little chance of recruiting quality candidates willing to take a shot.
Perhaps more tantalizing news for the Republicans within the November election returns were the Trump wins along the I-75 corridor – economically struggling factory territory – in Bay and Monroe counties that broke ranks and turned red, and in Saginaw County, which went Republican for the first time since the 1984 Reagan landslide.
That could bode well for the MIGOP in 2018, a hugely important political year because term-limits will create open seats for governor, attorney general and secretary of state.
In the coming months, the MDP cannot count on simply retooling their message to reach more of their core voters such as union members. Focusing on field work and get-out-the-vote tactics is not enough if the base is no longer a familiar place.
Ohio congressman offers change
Over the past four years, the national party chair emerged as a position elevated in stature and a much greater target for public opinion than at any time in recent decades. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus steered through a minefield of potential #NeverTrump catastrophes in 2016 to become the president-elect’s White House chief of staff. On the other hand, the campaign foibles suffered by Wasserman Schultz and her temporary replacement, Donna Brazile, scarred the DNC image.
What’s next? Well, it could get worse for the DNC. Ellison grabbed early endorsements from Pelosi plus two liberal Millennial-voter darlings, Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and incoming Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer. But Ellison faces problems due to a prior association with the Nation of Islam, led by the radical Rev. Louis Farrakhan, who is widely viewed as an anti-Semite. Frankly, Ellison, as an outspoken black Muslim, provides an easy target for conservative fire-breathers online and on talk-radio.
A much smarter move for the Democrats would be to enlist Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio as the next DNC chair. Ryan, 43, is young and dynamic but he probably never had a chance of swaying his fellow House Democrats away from Pelosi as the continuing House Minority Leader. Despite Ryan’s loss in the leadership vote on Wednesday, he is a lawmaker who represents an industrial area from Youngstown west to Akron that is chock full of the frustrated working class folks who embraced Trump’s combative economic message.
Here is a guy, a former star high school quarterback from the Rustbelt, in tune with blue-collar Midwesterners, who can provide a moderate, pragmatic approach to national politics as DNC chair. No more “deplorables,” only a focus on those who feel dislocated from the Democrats.
Dingell sees the shift
Perhaps Michigan Congresswoman Debbie Dingell could step forward to lead the charge for Ryan. Dingell issued warnings to the DNC and Clinton campaign earlier this year that the presidential nominee’s lack of focus on jobs and the economy was not playing well in blue-collar enclaves of her district, such as Dearborn and Ypsilanti. After the election, she bitterly complained that her gloomy predictions were tossed aside.
Another challenge for the Dems remains how to deal with the two types of suburban counties that have emerged in the American electorate. The 2016 election marked the death knell of the stereotypical suburban standoff between Country Club Republicans and Lunch Bucket Democrats. Suburban counties with high education levels now strongly favor Democrats, while lagging household incomes give the GOP a suburban edge in a number of formerly Democratic counties. Trump Republicans play to industrial and retail workers while lawyers, doctors and professors give the Dems an advantage in certain suburbs and college towns.
In Michigan, the November result based on these new dynamics was strong wins for Clinton in Oakland and Washtenaw counties while Trump dominated in Macomb County and the Downriver area of Wayne County.
Political script could flip again
Yet, going forward, nothing can be taken for granted. The script could flip again in 2018. With no more Hillary, who captured just eight of 83 Michigan counties, and Trump emerging as a potential GOP presidential liability due to his volatile personality and a questionable ability to deliver on sweeping campaign promises, anything is possible. The game-changing 2006 and 2010 off-year elections showed that the national political climate can revert quickly.
On the state level, Chairman Dillon knows that elections have become far more nationalized due to partisan polarization and a decline in voter ticket-splitting. The Dem leader conceded recently that national perceptions about the two parties can have “real dramatic effects down the ticket.”
A candidate’s team pursuing a state House seat in Paw Paw, Mich., can see their campaign deflated more by the outsized impact of national political gamesmanship than anything that occurs in the back-and-forth of their small-town election.
Rep. Ryan, again recognizing the distaste of identity politics in Middle America, and expressing an Ohio affinity with neighboring Michigan voters’ discontent, offered this:
“I think, in part, we try to slice the electorate up. And we try to say, ‘You’re black, you’re brown, you’re gay, you’re straight, you’re a woman, you’re a man.’ The reality of it is there’s no juice in that kind of campaign. There’s no energy in that because it’s divided.
“The key to — and magic of — good campaigns is, when you pull people together. You unite them around a common theme.”
Democrats, take heed. That is a man who sounds like a winner.
A freelance writer from Macomb County, was the political reporter at The Macomb Daily for nearly 30 years. At the Daily he earned 50 journalism awards and in 2014 he was named by Politico as one of the “Media Stars” in seven political battleground states. He can be reached at email@example.com.