West Michigan will likely be key in 2020, but presidential campaign activity still quiet

By: - August 16, 2019 4:39 am

The “Baby Trump” balloon in Grand Rapids, March 28, 2019 | Nick Manes

Michigan’s status as a battleground state in the 2020 presidential campaign is well-established. 

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist speaks to Progressives in the Park in Grand Rapids | Nick Manes

But while two dozen Democratic hopefuls bounced around stops in Southeast Michigan before and after the Detroit debates on July 30 and 31, some were quick to note that they ignore the emerging importance of West Michigan at their own peril. 

Speaking to a group of West Michigan progressive activists and candidates on Tuesday in Grand Rapids, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said his boss — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — won the 2018 election, in part, by campaigning in all of Michigan’s 83 counties. Presidential candidates, he said, would be wise to visit as much of Michigan as possible. 

“You have to show up where people are. You have to go and meet people,” Gilchrist told the Advance in a brief interview following a speech at the Progressives in the Park event on Tuesday night in Grand Rapids’ Wilcox Park. 

“And so you need to have a presence everywhere in order to win everywhere,” Gilchrist continued. “And we believe that Democrats can compete and win everywhere. We proved that in 2018. And I think that’s going to be necessary in 2020. And if people learn that lesson in Michigan, you’ll be able to apply it across the country.”

But despite Michigan’s standing as one of just a few states likely to determine the next election, campaign activity in the western part of the state has been relatively quiet. 

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In March, President Donald Trump kicked off his 2020 reelection bid in Grand Rapids, which also made for his last campaign stop before his narrow 2016 victory. 

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), meanwhile, stopped at a union hall in Coopersville just west of Grand Rapids back in April on his way to a Macomb County rally. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg held a private fundraiser in Saugatuck last month. And U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), one of the many candidates struggling to gain traction in the crowded primary, was the keynote speaker at a Kent County Democratic Party function in May. 

The Advance reached out to several Democratic presidential campaigns seeking comment on their West Michigan plans, but did not receive responses. 

A variety of longtime Michigan political observers are quick to note that simply parachuting into the so-called “I-75 corridor” around Detroit is no longer enough to win the state. 

Brandon Dillon at the MDP Convention, Feb. 2, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Former state Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids), who chaired the Michigan Democratic Party during the 2016 and 2018 election cycles and now works as a political consultant, noted that Sanders won Michigan’s 2016 Democratic primary, in part, by having a statewide campaign operation and doing events around the state. 

Meanwhile, Sanders’ 2016 primary rival, Hillary Clinton, who went on to secure the Democratic nomination and eventually lost to Trump, limited her time in the state to events primarily in the Detroit area. 

Trump won Michigan by just 10,704 votes. 

“There’s a lot of votes not just in the historically Democratic parts of West Michigan, like Muskegon or Battle Creek, but Kent County and Kalamazoo are growing counties that are really not just growing in population, but also growing in Democratic identification and activism,” Dillon said. 

“You can’t just fly into Michigan and go to Detroit and assume you’re doing enough to win the state,” he continued. “You’ve got to compete in West Michigan.” 

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Dillon and others acknowledge that Michigan’s presidential primary election is still six months away, leaving candidates plenty of time to visit the state and drum up support. They’re also quick to note that candidates are understandably busy with their campaigns in earlier primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. 

However, they point out that West Michigan — areas like Kent, Ottawa and Kalamazoo counties — that have long been bastions of the Republican Party, now make for prime areas in which Democrats can pick off votes. 

Richard Czuba

“I continue to think this election very much is going to be told in Kent County,” said Richard Czuba, founder of the Chicago-based Glengariff Group polling firm.

“[Kent County has] gone increasingly Democratic,” Czuba said. “Trump barely won it in 2016 and I think it’s an interesting signal of what’s going to happen in combination with counties like Kalamazoo.”

Czuba also noted that he believes there’s an opportunity for Democrats in even more traditionally Republican parts of the state, such as Midland and Traverse City, where there’s an abundance of wealthy and well-educated households. 

There are multiple data points to back up that Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and their surrounding suburbs are now places where Democratic candidates should be competing. 

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) announced on Thursday that it was officially targeting Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, a long-held Republican seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, a Cascade Township attorney who recently left the party to become an independent.

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Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Matt Longjohn in 2018 came within five percentage points of beating longtime U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) in the 6th Congressional District in Southwest Michigan. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer | Susan J. Demas

Whitmer won Kalamazoo County in the 2018 general election, beating then-GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette by more than 20,000 votes. Whitmer also won Kent County by almost 12,000 votes. 

Kate DeVries, vice-chair of the Kent County Democratic Party and a staffer for state Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids), said she doesn’t anticipate any major events or rallies from Democratic candidates in the short-term. 

But like many, she expects Kent County and other parts of the state to become a hotbed of political activity closer to the election. She added that the local party is already seeing a large number of grassroots volunteers for many of the candidates.

Among those planting a grassroots flag in the Grand Rapids area, she said, are Buttigieg, former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). 

Elizabeth Warren after the first debate | Andrew Roth

“There is excitement around some of the candidates,” DeVries said. “That’s volunteer-led; that’s grassroots-led. That’s not the party.”

To Czuba, candidates working to motivate voters is critical. The pollster noted that the debates last month in Detroit did little to change the dynamics in the race for the nomination, but they may have gone a long way in locking in much of the state’s Democratic base. 

“What was different was you had 20 Democratic candidates for president running around southeastern Michigan motivating Democratic voters. That certainly did not happen four years ago,” Czuba said. “So that debate, in Southeast Michigan where the base is so crucial, that debate was very valuable. And I said that if I were a Republican, I would be concerned by what that debate did in the Democratic Party.”

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.