I can still remember how shocked I was when, in 2016, Donald Trump won Michigan. To hear the media tell it, there wasn’t a battleground state that would vote for him — not even Florida — and Michigan had been a Democratic stronghold for decades, having voted for the Democrat in every presidential election since 1992. The state was considered a lock for Hillary Clinton, and many political pundits predicted that her victory in Michigan was a foregone conclusion. However, Trump’s message resonated with enough Michigan voters that he narrowly edged out Hillary by a few thousand votes, a mere 0.23% of the vote.
While Trump’s victory in Michigan was a surprise, it was also a wake-up call for the Republican Party. It demonstrated that the party could compete in traditionally Democratic states and that there was an opportunity to build a lasting presence in Michigan. Unfortunately, the local GOP has squandered this opportunity.
Just look at what’s happened there electorally. In the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Michigan was once again a key battleground state that received a significant amount of attention from both the Trump and Biden campaigns. However, despite Trump’s efforts, Joe Biden ultimately won the state by a margin of about 154,000 votes or 2.8 percentage points. You can’t dismiss that margin of victory by claiming there were election shenanigans, either. Was there fraud in that state? I’d bet big money on it, but not enough that would flip a 154,000-vote margin.
Trump did everything right; he visited Michigan multiple times and held huge rallies in various parts of the state. He focused heavily on Michigan’s manufacturing and automotive industries and criticized Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which had been a contentious issue in the state. It sure felt like he would expand upon his slim victory in 2016. Yet Biden maintained a steady lead in the polls in the state throughout much of the campaign. In the end, Biden’s margin of victory in Michigan was larger than his margin of victory in other key swing states, such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
The signs that Trump’s 2016 was an anomaly are everywhere.
In 2018, Gretchen Whitmer was first elected governor by a margin of just under 10 points. In 2022, she was reelected by a slightly larger margin, despite her poor handling of the COVID pandemic, including a nursing home scandal that mirrored Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s in New York. In that same election, Michigan voters gave Democrats control of both the state house and the Senate for the first time in nearly four decades. And that, of course, was a year that was supposed to be a good one for Republicans.
And the problem isn’t Trump. Trump won in 2016, but, it sadly appears that the Michigan Republican Party failed to take advantage of the opportunity to build the party after 2016 and is struggling with infighting and dysfunction. There’s a lot of concern about the new state party Chairwoman Kristina Karamo, who ran for Michigan secretary of state in 2022 and lost but refused to concede. She somehow managed to win the race for party chair, even defeating the Trump-backed candidate, yet there’s little reason to feel optimistic.
“The crazies have taken over the asylum,” Michigan Republican strategist Dennis Lennox, told The Hill earlier this month.
It’s sad to see what’s happening in Michigan. Not only does it look like the GOP has squandered a chance to make the state a true battleground state for presidential elections, but the retirement of Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) would normally seem like a ripe opportunity to flip a seat. Well, 2024 may be a good year for the GOP, but confidence is not high that the GOP can win Michigan’s 16 electoral votes or turn the open Senate red in 2024.