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Unfazed by crises, northern Michigan embraces Trump record on jobs, abortion

FALMOUTH — “We’re like in a different country almost,” Craig Naderhoed said over coffee at Duane’s Family Restaurant in Falmouth, in Michigan’s most Republican county, where support for President Donald Trump runs deep. 

It’s a sentiment that reverberates throughout this conservative and religious pocket of rural northern Michigan about 20 miles east of Cadillac. Voters here have watched from afar with a mix of frustration and incredulity as Trump battles backlash for his response to a series of national crises.

 

COVID-19 has largely spared Missaukee County, where public health officials have confirmed just 42 cases and one death since March. While Trump faces criticism for downplaying a global pandemic that has killed 194,000 Americans, local voters cut him some slack. 

“We don’t have the population,” Naderhoed said at Duane’s, a local institution where only a handful of diners were carrying masks last week when Bridge Michigan stopped by during breakfast. “I know it’s a disease. It’s scary, but it’s not that scary.”

Residents say race relations aren’t a pressing issue in Missaukee County, where a population of roughly 15,000 residents is 95 percent white. While police killings of Black citizens have prompted national protests, many voters here echo Trump’s complaints about rioting and defend law enforcement. 

“My biggest concern is this defunding of the police,” says John Trippe, a former teacher who lives nearby in Vogel Center. “It’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. I still believe in law and order. If it’s a crime it’s a crime, and arson is a crime.”

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Missaukee County is pure Michigan Trump country. It’s whiter, older and has fewer college graduates than the state as a whole – demographics the New York businessman dominated in 2016 en route to his 10,704 vote win over Democrat Hillary Clinton, the slimmest margin in modern history. 

MIssaukee has long been a GOP stronghold, but in 2016 took over the title as the state’s most Repubican county. Nearly 3 out of 4 voters here backed Trump four years ago, a 74 percent rate that was the highest rate in the state. He cleaned up in Clam Union Township, including Falmouth, winning 82 percent of all votes. And just north in Aetna Township, where dairy farms and corn crops dominate the countryside, Trump topped 83 percent. 

Experts predict rural Michigan will again be crucial for Trump, who appears to be losing some suburban voters to Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Without another dominant showing in rural regions, particularly women who are shifting toward Democrats in more populated areas, “it becomes almost impossible for him to replicate winning Michigan,” said pollster Richard Czuba. 

Statewide polling on the presidential race suggests “the only thing that really matters right now is the virus,” but residents in rural areas have generally “not had the same experience with the virus as other parts of Michigan,” Czuba said. They are more likely to think Trump has handled COVID-19 well, and they don’t generally agree with the kind of economic shutdowns imposed by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, he said.

That’s true for Alyssa Huttenga of McBain, a 29-year-old medical assistant at an OB-GYN clinic in Cadillac. The pandemic has been “publicized” and the president has been a victim of “negative press,” she said. 

"This has all been blamed on him like he's not doing enough, when in reality I think this isn't exactly his problem,” Huttenga told Bridge Michigan. “I think he's got over 10,000 other things that need to be addressed."

‘So much busier’

Like much of the state, wages and jobs rose in Missaukee County before the pandemic.

Average weekly wages rose 17 percent to $724 from 2016 to 2019 but were still well below the statewide average of $1,057, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Missaukee’s median household income of $44,766 in 2019 was about 81 percent of the statewide median of $54,938. 

Many residents here work in agriculture, retail and manufacturing. Total employment in Missaukee County rose 6 percent over Trump’s first year in office but, as of March, was down 2 percent overall at 3,092 payroll jobs.

The pandemic benefited Ebels General Store, a retailer, meat processor and jerky maker that is a destination for rural shoppers and one of the region's largest employers. 

When a national meat shortage left shelves bare in some other stores in May, customers flocked to Ebels, which processes beef, pork, goat and lamb in Falmouth.

"We had people from Ohio, southeast Michigan, Grand Rapids, Lansing — all kinds of people in our store," said Bob Ebels, chief financial officer for the family-run business that is celebrating its 100th year. "It was insane, that's the only word I can use. I don't know how we did it."

The company's biggest challenge during the pandemic has been finding enough workers, Ebels said, suggesting the $600 weekly unemployment boost the federal government had provided through July discouraged residents from working. With the pandemic benefit cut to $300 per week, the store is now near full staffing at 100 employees, he told Bridge. 

"We lost a few people, and then we just got so much busier," Ebels said. 

MIssaukee County residents told Bridge they’ve seen some economic impact from COVID-19, but it has not been as pronounced as other areas of the state. Restaurants here temporarily closed their dining rooms in March, but they were among the first businesses to reopen in mid-May when Whitmer loosened regulations for northern Michigan. 

“In my neighborhood, we don't have gyms and we don't have bowling alleys” that would have been forced to stay closed for longer, said Hubert Zuiderveen, vice chairman of the Missaukee County Board of Commissioners.

Prior to the pandemic, Ebels had expanded its Falmouth headquarters multiple times in recent years and recently broke ground on a new store in Reed City, its first venture outside Missaukee County, where it plans to hire another 30 to 40 employees.

"Life under President Trump has enabled us to really advance our business and really advance what we're able to pay people and do for them," Ebels said. "It's been good for us."

Ebels credits the corporate income tax break signed by the president in late 2017, which reduced the rate from 35 percent to 21 percent, and expansion of a depreciation deduction that has allowed the company to offset taxable profits by purchasing new equipment. 

While the economy has been good for his business, Ebels said he thinks Trump is popular in the region primarily because of his opposition to legal abortion, which is a major issue for social conservatives. 

"I’m not a diehard Trump fan by any means,” he said, “but I think he has done some good things.”

Mood of Michigan

This article is part of an ongoing series that explores voter attitudes on issues before the Nov. 3 election.

‘Our last straw’

Trump in 2016 vowed to appoint Supreme Court justices who would help overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that established a woman’s constitutional right to abortion. 

The nation’s highest court hasn’t taken up the issue since Trump appointed his first two justices to the bench, but voters here suspect it’s only a matter of time, especially if the president gets another appointment through the Senate. Trump is expected this weekend to nominate a replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last weekend.

A quarter of the county’s residents have Dutch ancestry, and it boasts seven Christian Reformed Churches, by far the largest domination.

“I can’t support Democrats for one reason alone: abortions,” said Naderhoed, a retired bread distributor. “My faith does not let me kill babies. So I don’t care who’s running for president on the Republican side. I would vote for Donald Duck compared to Democrats.” 

Naderhoed voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to do so again. He’s among a bloc of religious voters who have rallied around a twice-divorced, occasionally crude president whose lavish lifestyle appears at odds with Biblical teachings. Yes, Trump can be a bully, they acknowledge. But he's their bully, fighting for voters.

“I don’t know where Trump is as far as his Christianity, but he sure has stood up for Christians more than any president in the last 25 years that I know of,” Trippe said. “There’s a saying that when they started to throw God out of the schools and out of the political buildings, that’s when we started going downhill.” 

Several voters who spoke with Bridge cited abortion as a primary reason for supporting Trump. Such single-issue voting isn’t uncommon nationally, where as many as 1 in 5 voters have said they only favor candidates who share their view on abortion. Another poll found that abortion opponents are more likely to be single-issue voters than those in favor of abortion access.

Others in Missaukee County said they’ve been dismayed by the growing push toward “socialism” in the Democratic Party. 

“Change comes slower here,” said one woman who declined to be named because a family member was once misquoted in a news story. “I know we’re the older generation, clinging to all this stuff, but I kind of sense Trump is trying to keep America like what we grew up in.” 

“He’s our last straw,” added her husband, a retired businessman. 

Trump should “swallow his tweeter,” but a second term would be “way better for the welfare of the country” than Joe Biden, said Zuiderveen, the Missaukee County Board vice chairman.

“I just wish we could get him right out here in the country to explain a few things to him about how to conduct himself,” Zuiderveen said of Trump, who he plans to vote for again. “If he conducted himself just decent, he’d win easily, I think. But now I’m not so sure, because he offends some people by the way he carries on.”

Born Republican

It’s not easy being a Democrat in MIssaukee County, where former President Barack Obama captured only 39 percent of the vote despite winning statewide by nearly 17 points. Hillary Clinton won just 1,565 votes here in 2016. 

Local voters are requesting Biden yard signs at an unusual clip, especially those in more moderate areas like Lake City, where Trump  won 64 percent of the vote in 2016, according to Missaukee County Democratic Party Chairman Richard Renner, who said he’d consider it a moral victory if Biden tops 30 percent countywide.

"We're not foolish enough to believe that [Trump] is going to lose the county," Renner told Bridge."But we already feel like we have been successful, because enthusiasm is definitely greater than it's been in any election since 2008 for our side."

Statewide public opinion polls have shown Biden with a modest lead in Michigan. An early September survey by Glengariff Group Inc. showed Biden with a significant advantage in metro Detroit, the state’s most populous region, but Trump led the rest of Michigan by 13 percentage points. 

“For Biden, it’s not about winning rural areas,” said Czuba, the pollster. “But if he can shave just a little off the margins, that keeps the Republicans from having the kind of oxygen they need to build big numbers.”

While they’re not expecting public proclamations, Renner said Democrats here hope some disaffected Republicans will back Biden, particularly farmers hurt by the president's trade war with China, which drove down prices of various agricultural commodities before Trump responded with a federal bailout. 

Milk prices “crashed” early in the president’s term but have come back over the past year, said Hunter Kitson, who breeds cows at local farms as an artificial insemination technician. He voted for Trump in 2016 and plans to again this fall after crossing over to vote for Whitmer in 2018.

The economy was "at an all-time high" before the pandemic hit, Kitson said, explaining his support for the president. "This whole virus will pass, and I feel like we'll go back to where we were."

Biden has pledged he will not raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 a year, but Kitson said he fears the Democrat’s various spending proposals would force a middle-class tax increase, which he called the “biggest downfall” for the rival campaign. 

Younger residents in and around Falmouth are increasingly turned off by both political parties and open to new ideas, said Kitson, who is in his 20s. But he expects Trump to dominate the region again this fall. 

“I don’t know any people from my life, at least, that are open Democrats from this area,” Kitson said. “You’re not going to find them. This community is so tight-knit. Everybody knows everybody. It started generations back. You’re born Republican. You’ll probably die Republican.”

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