- - Monday, December 16, 2019

TOPINABEE, Michigan — President Donald Trump returns to Michigan Wednesday for what is being billed as a “Merry Christmas Rally.”

However, the rally in Battle Creek, a smallish city about halfway between Detroit and Chicago that is best known as the home of Kellogg’s cereal and where the Seventh-day Adventist Church was founded, should be about one thing: The new United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement.

The replacement for the deeply unpopular NAFTA — a central plank in Mr. Trump’s 2016 platform — could help him again carry the Wolverine State, which explains why the Democratic majority in the lower house of Congress finally approved the deal.  Mr. Trump outmaneuvered Democrats in 2016 by picking up not only Michigan, but also Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Together, the three Rust Belt states went Republican for the first time since the 1980s.

This was only possible because Mr. Trump’s playbook recast the GOP into a workers’ party that had the kind of credibility needed to solidify the support of voters who twice-elected Richard Nixon and would go on to be called Reagan Democrats. In Michigan, these voters are generally seen as synonymous with Macomb County, a populous county in suburban Detroit. 

However, a much better example can be found about 90 minutes north on Interstate 75 in Bay and Saginaw counties, which went for Mr. Trump. It is also notable that one of Mr. Trump’s first big appearances as a candidate in the summer of 2015 was in Birch Run, a Saginaw County village best known for a factory outlet mall. If that doesn’t ring a bell you may know it as the interstate exit for Bronner’s — purportedly the world’s largest Christmas store — in nearby Frankenmuth. 

Bay and Saginaw counties were decimated by the decline of the Detroit-based Big Three automakers and their associated network of suppliers and tool and die shops after the passage of NAFTA and the subsequent offshoring of American manufacturing jobs to China. The same is also true in Flint in Genesee County, where General Motors once employed 85,000 autoworkers.

I remember driving along the streets of Bay City, the seat of Bay County, during the final weeks of the last campaign and seeing Trump–Pence signs everywhere from the manicured lawns of stately old Victorian-era homes built with money from the lumber trade to the weedy yards of slightly distressed dwellings that were erected en masse for workers in the early decades of the 20th-century.

It was a similar sight in the sprawl suburbs of Saginaw, dominated by big-box stores and strip malls, which then-President George W. Bush failed to win in 2004 despite his two visits. Yes, signs don’t vote, but having grown up in these parts I knew something was happening because Republican presidential candidates just didn’t win here, or, rather, they hadn’t since 1984. 

To win re-election Mr. Trump must once again win Michigan.

This explains why congressional Democrats finally agreed to replace NAFTA with Mr. Trump’s deal even as they introduced articles of impeachment. 

The awkward optics put Reps. Debbie Dingell and Dan Kildee, two senior Michigan Democrats with districts full of union workers and retirees, in a weird spot. It has been even more uncomfortable for Reps. Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens, who were part of the large Democratic freshmen class of 2018.

While Mrs. Dingell and Mr. Kildee should safely win re-election, Mses. Slotkin and Stevens have a more difficult path to re-election as both of their districts went for Mr. Trump and the Republican congressional nominee in 2016. 

However, they could have demographics on their side as Oakland County and other Detroit suburbs have slowly shifted to the Democratic column over the past several election cycles. To counteract this Mr. Trump needs to run up the score elsewhere.

Hence the rally in Battle Creek in Calhoun County, a genuine bellwether county and a place where Ross Perot won over 22.24 percent in 1992. At the same time, Mr. Trump’s 2016 showing of 42.59 percent in Genesee County gives Republicans a further opportunity to play offense by forcing Democrats to spend money in Flint and not somewhere else. 

• Dennis Lennox is a political commentator and public affairs consultant from Michigan. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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