ROCHESTER HILLS — Retired teacher Terry McKinney plans to vote for Democrat Joe Biden. But Biden’s policies — from the economy and racial justice to climate change and the coronavirus — have little to do with her support.
Rather, it’s all about the character of Republican President Donald Trump, she told Bridge Michigan during a shopping trip near her home in Rochester Hills, an affluent and educated Oakland County suburb that could play a key role in the presidential election, makeup of Congress and control of the state House.
“There have been some things that I agree with, but it’s very hard to look past his rhetoric and his disrespect for so many people,” McKinney said of the first-term president who is seeking re-election.
“I’m more motivated to vote against President Trump than I am to vote for Biden, but he’s the choice,” she added.
That kind of anti-Trump sentiment may be accelerating a political shift in the area, which had been a Republican holdout in Oakland County’s decades-long drift toward Democrats.
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Rochester and Rochester Hills are prime Republican territory — median household income is $80,000, a third more than the state of Michigan — but after voting for Trump in 2016, local voters favored Democratic women in 2018, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin.
Public opinion surveys suggest female voters and those with college educations are driving the suburban realignment. Both are well represented in Oakland County, where nearly half of voters have college degrees, almost double the state rate.
Polls show college graduates are more likely to support Democrats, diminishing hopes for Trump in Oakland. He carried 21 of the county’s 44 communities against Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, but Republicans lost ground in all of them in 2018, as Democrats won control of the county board of commissioners for the first time since 1976.
Trump is making a hard push to win back suburban women voters with race- and fear-based appeals, warning that occasional violence at nationwide protests against racial injustice could spread to their neighborhoods, and bashing the kind of affordable housing initiatives that his own administration has pursued.
Trump ally Moms for Safe Neighborhoods PAC is running television ads in metro Detroit that depict protesters smashing the window of a bedroom where a woman sleeps and warning “you’re not safe” with Biden.
"Does anybody want to have somebody from Antifa as a member and as a resident of your suburb?" Trump said at his Sept. 10 rally near Saginaw.
“If I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, ‘Friendly Protesters,’” he tweeted that same evening.
The Democrats never even mentioned the words LAW & ORDER at their National Convention. That’s where they are coming from. If I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be OVERRUN with Low Income Projects, Anarchists, Agitators, Looters and, of course, “Friendly Protesters”.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 10, 2020
Biden denounced Trump’s suburban strategy at Tuesday’s debate and refuted claims he wants to “defund the police,” a push by liberal activists that the former vice president has not embraced.
“This is not 1950,” Biden told Trump. “All these dog whistles and racism don’t work anymore. The suburbs are largely integrated.”
That’s true in Oakland County, where upper-middle class communities including Troy, Farmington Hills, West Bloomfield and Novi have grown increasingly diverse and Southfield has become majority African-American.
In Rochester Hills, a community with a sizable Asian population, only one voter who spoke with Bridge mentioned Trump’s “law and order” message as a motivating factor.
“Honestly, I just feel like he says anything that he can spit out of his mouth,” said Sam Mularski, a stay-at-home mom from nearby Troy. “I really don’t think he thinks before he talks.”
Trump’s strategy may play to his base, but there’s no evidence it’s swaying suburban voters, said Michigan pollster Richard Czuba of Glengariff Group Inc. For many voters, the coronavirus is “the only issue they care about” and they don’t give Trump high marks, Czuba said.
He pointed to a September poll from his firm that showed Biden leading Trump by more than 40 percentage points among college-educated women.
“We’ve seen a significant realignment that took place, and I think it will continue into 2020,” he said.
Beating back the 2018 wave
Two years after Trump won Michigan by 10,704 votes, the smallest margin in state history, Whitmer carried the state by more than 400,000 votes.
Exit polls show female voters backed Whitmer by a 22-point margin, helping her overcome Republican Bill Schuette’s narrow edge among male voters.
But Republicans are optimistic they can slow or reverse electoral losses in suburban Michigan, particularly because Trump is back on the top of the ticket and the economy fared well prior to the pandemic.
Carolyn Hice, a 73-year-old retiree from Oakland Township, told Bridge she voted for Trump in 2016, flipped to Whitmer in 2018 but is now returning to the Republican fold to vote for Trump a second time.
“I don’t like him personally, and I wouldn’t want to be associated with him personally, but I think he’s done a great job for the country,” Hice said, citing the pre-COVID economy that featured steady job growth and low unemployment.
Economy at a glance
Oakland County did well during President Trump’s first three years in office, but prospered under President Obama as well.
- Job growth: Up 3.5 percent per year under Trump, above the statewide rate of 2.5 percent but less than the nearly 9 percent average during Obama’s last four years of office.
- Jobs: Oakland added 58,799 during Obama's second term and added 25,196 through Trump's first 38 months in office.
- Average weekly wages: Grew 7 percent during Trump's first three years in office, climbing from $1,141 in 2016 to $1,225 in 2019. Statewide, the average was 8 percent.
- Median household income: $76,387 annually between 2014 and 2018, well above the statewide median of $54,938.
- Building permits: 2,842 in 2019, up from 2,642 in 2018.
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau
Federal statistics show the local economy prospered before the pandemic, but was doing quite well under Democratic President Barack Obama, too.
Oakland County added about 25,000 jobs between January 2017 and February 2020, a 3.5 percent job growth rate that topped the statewide rate of 2.5 percent. During Obama’s last four years in office, the county’s average annual job growth was 9 percent.
Hice told Bridge that Biden is “leaning too much to socialism” for her liking.
While the former vice president positioned himself as a moderate in the Democratic primary, she pointed to his plan to provide tuition-free college for students from families who make less than $125,000 a year. Biden unveiled the proposal in March as he sought to woo progressive primary voters who had rallied around Bernie Sanders.
“Everything’s going to be paid for, which means I’m going to be paying for it,” Hice said. “The government doesn’t make money, it takes money from people through taxes. I know college loans are huge, but I had them. My kids had them. If you work hard, I think you can pay them off.”
Biden’s campaign is making a concerted effort to court suburban women. In a recent strategy memo, the campaign argued Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, which hammered Oakland County in March and April, put Michigan’s economy in a “tailspin” and led to continued school closures, “forcing women across the state to make impossible decisions for themselves and their families.”
Troy resident Sam Mularski says she’s put off by Donald Trump’s insults and plans to vote for Joe Biden. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
Trump has handled the pandemic “horribly,” while Biden seems like a “good person,” said Mularski, the Troy mom.
“It has nothing even to do with Republican or Democrat at this point,” she said. “I don’t like [Trump’s] character. I don’t like how he insults or puts down anybody the way he does, and I just feel we need somebody that can represent the good country we live in in a positive way.”
Dems target fems
Lori Goldman wasn’t planning to knock on voter doors this year given COVID-19, but that changed abruptly with what she called the “demise of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the shit that is coming out of Trump’s mouth.”
The liberal Supreme Court justice’s death, and Trump’s rush to replace her with conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett, is another urgent call to action for women who helped Democrats dominate Michigan elections in 2018, said Goldman, who founded a group called Fems for Dems four years ago and now leads more than 9,000 activists, primarily women.
Masked and socially distanced, her group hopes to knock on the doors of 100,000 voters by Nov. 3 as they pivot from what had been a largely virtual and phone-based operation over the summer, she said. The goal is turnout, not persuasion, and will focus on lower-ticket races like the state House.
“If Hillary Clinton had won, and I pray to God I wish she had, I probably would have gone back to having lunch and shopping and enjoying my life,” Goldman told Bridge, recounting the growth of her organization.
“But because she didn’t win, we have been impassioned and working 20 hours a day, every day, with no vacations.”
Fems for Dems has become a political force in metro Detroit, particularly in Oakland County, and experts say its ability to mobilize suburban activists is emblematic of the political shift that could benefit Democrats this fall.
Consider the stakes in Oakland County alone:
- The presidency: Hillary Clinton won Oakland County by 53,867 votes. Two years later, Whitmer carried the county by 102,663 votes. Among major party voters, Democrats picked up 48,796 in Oakland County in 2018. Considering Trump’s margin of victory in 2016, another Democratic surge in Oakland County could decide Michigan.
- U.S. Senate: Democratic incumbent Sen. Gary Peters of Bloomfield Hills and GOP challenger John James of Farmington Hills both hail from Oakland County. James is one of the Republican Party's strongest contenders to flip a Democratic seat and help the GOP retain control of the Senate, but his neighbors were not kind to him in 2018 when he first ran against Sen. Debbie Stabenow. James lost statewide by 6.5 points two years ago but lost by nearly 14 points in Oakland County.
- Congress: Slotkin of Holly and Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills in 2018 both flipped Republican seats in districts that include parts of Oakland County and had been carried by Trump two years before. Republican challengers Paul Junge and Eric Esshaki are seeking to reclaim the seats for the GOP and cut into the Democratic majority in the U.S. House that has battled Trump and voted to impeach him for seeking political favors from Ukraine.
- Michigan House: Three of Michigan’s most competitive state House races of the year are based in Oakland County, and Democratic wins in each could erase the GOP’s current six-seat advantage. “If there’s a tipping point race for the House to determine control,” it’s probably the contest between Democrat Barb Anness and Republican Mark Tisdell in the 45th District, which includes Rochester, Rochester Hills and part of Oakland Township, according to Gongwer News.
- County executive: The county’s first-ever Democratic executive, Dave Coulter, is running against Sen. Mike Kowall for the permanent post. Coulter was appointed to the job last year following the death of L. Brooks Patterson, who rose to prominence as a lawyer in the 1970s fighting school desegregation.
Trump’s win four years ago was a “wake-up call” for women, and they will again be a force this fall despite another “pale, stale male” at the top of the Democratic ticket (Biden) and a global pandemic that put additional strain on the heads of households, said Julie Campbell-Bode, board chair for Fems for Dems.
Many women were “crushed” when Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren ended her presidential bid in March, leaving only men in the race, she recounted. But they were buoyed when Biden picked Kamala Harris as his running mate, are excited about other races and now appear to have new motivation to protect health care and reproductive rights in the wake of Ginsburg’s death, Campbell-Bode said.
“RBG fought to the very last minute, and we have to do that same thing,” she said.
Biden’s campaign claims enthusiasm among suburban voters here remains high. Of the 5,635 Michigan women who had volunteered for Biden through mid-September, 1,290 of them lived in Oakland County, according to the recent memo from his campaign, which has deployed Jill Biden to Michigan for two in-person events and a virtual listening session on schooling amid COVID-19 with Oakland County parents. Vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris last month also stopped at a Royal Oak juice shop between stops in Flint and Detroit.
Women for Trump rally
Republicans are not sitting idly by in Oakland County, where they contend tax cuts juiced the economy and have benefited male and female voters alike. Masked GOP volunteers already have been knocking doors for months, and that gives them a distinct advantage over Democrats who have primarily relied on the phone and internet to reach voters, said Rocky Raczkowski, the Oakland County GOP chair.
He predicted Trump will outperform Schuette to make Oakland County more competitive, suggesting Democrats’ showing in 2018 was partially driven by ballot proposals that turned out liberals, including successful initiatives to legalize marijuana and create an independent redistricting commission.
“It’s a very diverse group of people that we have in our county, and a lot of people don’t care for the president’s tweets,” Raczkowski acknowledged. “They do respect and take advantage of what he’s done regarding taxes for business, lowering taxes for individuals, providing the quality of life and safety and security that many look for.”
Meshawn Maddock, second from the right, serves on the national advisory board for President Donald Trump’s campaign. Shown here during a Michigan Conservative Coalition event this year in Battle Creek, Maddock says it’s “fake news” that suburban women don’t support Trump. (Bridge photo by Jonathan Oosting)
The Women for Trump coalition has hosted “wine and cheese” parties across the region that often have drawn 50 to 150 supporters, said Meshawn Maddock, an Oakland County activist who sits on a national advisory board for the president’s campaign.
“I just think it’s fake news when people tell you that women don’t support the president,” said Maddock, who separately in April helped organize a massive rally against Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. “The women at our events… know exactly what they’re doing. They’re not intimidated by their husbands or their sons. They love this president and they love the direction our country was on before COVID.”
Supporters such as Rebecca Fulesi of Troy say Trump “did as best as he could” with the pandemic. She works as a medical laboratory scientist, helped develop initial COVID testing protocols and considers herself a “lone wolf” there for continuing to support Trump.
“We could conjecture all the what-ifs, if we had done something differently, but that doesn’t mean we necessarily would have had different outcomes,” said Fulesi, 28, who added she doesn’t believe in “disbanding the police” or expanding government.
“There’s a lot going on right now, and I know there’s a lot of upset people, but I don’t believe giving the government power to do all these things and shut down everything is going to help.”