John Liposky’s red “Make America Great Again” hat is a conversation starter. Luckily, he is always game to talk.
The 76-year-old Waterford Township retiree has volunteered with local Republican clubs since 2010, after former President Barack Obama’s election. Liposky is a small-government advocate and says he’d be a Libertarian if there was a future in it. Instead, he tries his best to hold Republicans’ feet to the fire when he thinks they veer too much to the center.
He wasn’t always a Donald Trump supporter, but now he’s gone whole hog.
“He’s made changes other Republicans would be afraid to do,” Liposky said.
Grassroots activists like Liposky are already busy knocking on doors in Michigan, working to get crucial voters for conservative GOP candidates in 2018. But will they come out if Trump isn’t on the ticket?
“I couldn’t tell you,” Liposky said.
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With just over seven months until November, two wings of the state GOP — traditional business-friendly Republicans, and populist conservatives who emerged from the tea party movement — are competing for the affections of Trump voters to propel their candidates into office.
But Trump has put state Republicans in a pickle. Follow the party’s rightward drift in the primaries, and they risk alienating independent voters in November. But if they nominate candidates who do not hew to the president’s agenda, it’s unclear if voters who fueled Trump’s triumph in Michigan will return to the polls.
“That is going to be, without a doubt, the story of this election,” said pollster Richard Czuba, of the Lansing-based Glengariff Group Inc. “How do Republicans pivot out of their primaries to general election voters?”
The Trump test
Trump’s 2016 election spawned a surge of new activism by rural, blue-collar and socially conservative voters galvanized by the New York businessman’s tough stances on immigration and preserving U.S. jobs. Trump won Michigan by some 10,000 votes, turning out 164,000 more Republican votes than Mitt Romney did in 2012.
But in interviews with more than two dozen political insiders, grassroots activists, lobbyists, academics and business groups, there is no consensus on whether those unexpected Trump voters will show in November when his name is not on the ballot.
Even so, there is little doubt his presidency will cast a shadow.
“This is not a battle of the anti-establishment” versus the establishment, Czuba said of state Republicans. “It is very much a battle about Donald Trump. And, frankly, people who support Trump have the upper hand in the party.”
The influence of pro-Trump Republicans is on vivid display in the GOP primary for governor between the frontrunner, Attorney General Bill Schuette, and his closest rival, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. Both can be considered establishment figures, playing key roles during eight years of full Republican control in Lansing.
But only Schuette has the backing of Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
The day after Gov. Rick Snyder, the two-term, business-friendly Republican governor, offered his support to Calley, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed Snyder in 2010 and 2014, threw its powerful backing to Schuette.
“We are very respectful of (Snyder’s) support for the lieutenant governor,” Rich Studley, the chamber’s president and CEO, told Bridge. “We simply made a different choice.”
Peter Secchia, a Grand Rapids businessman and GOP donor, praised Snyder for doing a great job as governor. But he added Snyder has walked a line between being a Republican and a Millikenite, a reference to Michigan’s 1970s-era moderate Republican Gov. William Milliken.
“I don’t think there’s any future in that,” Secchia said.
While Schuette has stuck with the Trump train, Calley, who vows to continue Snyder’s economic policies, rescinded his endorsement of Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign after the release of the infamous “Access Hollywood” tapes, in which Trump can be heard making vulgar comments that allude to sexually assaulting women.
And few have forgotten that Snyder, Calley’s chief supporter, failed to endorse Trump in the 2016 campaign — a snub the president hasn’t forgotten.
But if Trump’s backing elevates Schuette in the August primary, it presents a challenge in November, when he will need the support of independents, women and suburbanites against likely Democratic nominee Gretchen Whitmer.
Trump-endorsed candidates already have lost special elections in Pennsylvania, Alabama and Virginia. Most recently, Democrat Conor Lamb was elected to Congress in a Pittsburgh-area district that Trump won by 20 percentage points.
In Michigan, gubernatorial races often are decided by independent voters from southeast Michigan. These voters — particularly women — are angry, motivated and increasingly turning toward Democrats, pollster Czuba said.
“That’s going to be the challenge for Bill Schuette, is how does he pivot?” he said. “He’s positioned well, frankly, in the primary race, but positioned terribly in the general race.”
Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, agreed, saying that whoever emerges from the GOP primary “is going to suffer from Trump being unpopular.”
Right on the rise
Establishment Republicans have been fighting off challenges from the party’s right flank for years, skirmishes that nearly cost them key leadership roles.
In 2013, then-GOP Chairman Bobby Schostak barely survived a challenge from Todd Courser — the tea party legislator who would resign from the House two years later in a sex scandal — despite Schostak being a formidable fundraiser for the party.
The next year, another tea party leader, Wes Nakagiri, challenged incumbent Calley for lieutenant governor. He lost after what the Detroit News called “a contentious year-long behind-the-scenes battle” in which allies of Snyder aggressively recruited delegates friendly to Calley.
And just last year, Trump’s Michigan campaign director Scott Hagerstrom went up against longtime establishment power broker Ron Weiser for party chairman. Hagerstrom capitulated only after the White House formally endorsed Weiser.
Political insiders say these challenges are one indicator of the forces that have helped pull the state’s Republican Party to the right.
Bill Rustem, a former adviser to Snyder, said the party has become dramatically more conservative on social and fiscal issues. There is strong resistance now to any kind of government spending — even the type of infrastructure “user fee” taxes that past Republican administrations supported.
“The difference always has been the Republicans were interested in investing in things that lasted, whereas Democrats were more interested in paying for social programs,” Rustem said.
“That was the distinction. Now we’re not there anymore.”
Eight years of Obama and left-leaning policies have contributed to the rightward shift, said Grossmann of MSU. So has the growth of conservative media, which Grossmann said help to reinforce right-leaning views.
This is not unique to Michigan. The Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center found that both parties have become significantly more polarized nationally since the mid-1990s. In a 2017 study, the nonprofit found that less than a third of voters, 32 percent, have a roughly equal mix of conservative and liberal views, down from nearly half, 49 percent, as recently as 2004.
Consider how far Republican leadership in Lansing has shifted in the past few years.
During his first term in the Legislature in 2013, Rep. Tom Leonard of DeWitt was one of the most conservative members in the House, according to Lansing political newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. That year, Republican House leaders — Speaker Jase Bolger and then-Rep. John Walsh, who served as speaker pro tempore — voted with liberals nearly 12 percent more often than Leonard, the newsletter’s analysis showed.
In the two years before his own rise to House speaker, Leonard remained one of its more conservative members. Now, Leonard finds himself at the helm of power in the House, with tea party favorite Rep. Lee Chatfield as his second-in-command. Leonard is now running for state attorney general.
Below those leaders are a sea of ideologically like-minded lieutenants. Roughly three-quarters of House committees are now chaired by Republicans with a conservative rating of 80 percent or higher, according to Lansing political news site Michigan Information & Research Service, or MIRS. Two years ago, just 8 percent of House chairs were deeply conservative.
Schostak, the former party chair, acknowledged the rise of the tea party has created challenges for Republicans, but said it has also brought new voices, which have “been helpful, to bring more perspectives and broader community representation.”
Others activists say the party’s shift can also be traced to the national party platform, which defines Republican stances and priorities (from well-known planks opposing abortion and favoring lower taxes to the more obscure, such as a call to deregulate the meat production industry) at all levels of government.
Meshawn Maddock, co-founder of Michigan Trump Republicans, which organizes support for Trump’s agenda, was part of the national committee that shaped the GOP platform in 2016.
“We worked really hard to keep the Republican Party platform conservative,” she said. “We actually made it more conservative.”
The unifying force on the right is “we don’t want (Democratic frontrunner) Gretchen Whitmer in (office), because that’s going to basically undo everything that’s been done over the last eight years,” said Tony Daunt, executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund, a group that promotes limited government and is backed by the influential west Michigan DeVos family.
Grassroots voters love authentic candidates, Daunt said. And while his group’s supporters are split between Republican candidates for governor, he said, conservatives will unify around the primary winner “and knuckle down and do what they have to do to protect the gains that we’ve made.”
The party and the people
Despite changes in state and national leadership, polling by the Lansing-based firm EPIC-MRA shows the percentage of Republicans who consider themselves conservative has stayed relatively static over the last few years, hovering at roughly two-thirds of voters.
Even so, experts told Bridge that Lansing’s increasingly conservative Legislature can be explained by Michigan’s heavily partisan House and Senate districts. That often means the real election battles are fought in the primary — where candidates compete to be seen as the most conservative.
“That typically is how we end up with these legislators that don’t seem to be a great match for the district,” said Sarah Hubbard, a Lansing-based lobbyist. “(They) come into office because they got 2,000 votes in a primary, and all of a sudden they’re elevated to state (representative).”
Once in office, GOP voters who thought they were electing small-government candidates often are frustrated by votes to increase spending, Grossmann said.
The Republican base “is perpetually disappointed, because most things that government does are liberal,” he said. They “elected a Republican governor, but he expanded Medicaid, and he wanted to spend more money on roads and he wants to spend more money on education.
“From their perspective, it doesn’t look like much success,” Grossmann said.
Just three years ago, the Michigan Chamber backed a legislative proposal to raise the state’s gasoline tax. The chamber saw the state’s crumbling roads as a threat to the state’s economic prospects, particularly after years of pro-job policies championed by a Republican governor and Legislature.
And yet the chamber got pushback “from those on the right,” said Studley, its leader. “The challenge for an organization like ours is we have to be an advocate for promoting conditions favorable to job creation and business success, and we’re not anti-government.”
Tea party organizers are incensed by Republicans who “vote like Democrats,” said Rosanne Ponkowski, president of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a grassroots group.
She and other conservative activists hope to replace “establishment Republicans” who voted for the gas tax and Medicaid expansion and against lowering income taxes with candidates who have a track record of supporting their causes in 2018.
For example, Ponkowski said, her group is throwing its weight behind Rep. Jim Runestad — who is leaving his House term early in a bid to succeed for Sen. Mike Kowall of White Lake Township, who is running for Congress.
Ponkowski said her group knows its success hinges on getting people involved at the grassroots level, noting that more than 150 people show up to the 40 events her group puts on every year to get voters involved: “We’re a big threat.”
The Trump effect
Rob Cortis never engaged with politics before Donald Trump announced he was running for president. When the campaign launched, Cortis became enamored with Trump’s promises to reinstate family values, crack down on undocumented immigrants and expand the economy.
Since then, the lifelong Livonia resident has become a local legend for his “Trump Unity Bridge,” which he has taken around the country in support of the president’s agenda. But Cortis has stayed involved with local politics as well, serving as a precinct delegate and attending events around the state wearing a Mar-a-Lago polo and his signature Bluetooth earpiece.
“My allegiance is with the Trump agenda,” Cortis said. “And if the Republican Party is supporting the Trump agenda, I’m good with it. And if the Democrats support Trump’s agenda, I’m good with that as well.”
Newly active voters like Cortis are the Holy Grail of the Republican Party in 2018 — a Trump-centric tribe that everybody wants to capitalize on.
According to EPIC-MRA, Michigan’s independent voters have generally leaned more to the right. In 2016, 52 percent of them voted for Trump, compared to 36 percent who voted for Hillary Clinton, according to polling data from CNN.
But Czuba said that’s changing. In a January survey his firm conducted for The Detroit News and WDIV-TV, independent voters were nearly 10 percent more likely to vote for a Democrat than a Republican. That’s up from October 2016, when independent voters gave Republicans a 6 percent edge over Democrats.
Voters in the political middle also are as highly motivated to vote as the party bases, Czuba said. That’s a marked change from 2016, when the center largely stayed home.
Hence the drive by Republicans to re-energize Trump-driven voters from 2016, voters who align ideologically with what Pew dubbed “Country First Conservatives,” and who activists say often run in the same circles as the state’s more conservative wing.
“Trump Republicans are their own animal,” said Ponkowski of the Michigan Conservative Coalition. “These are kind of the forgotten people of our country. … Even now, the pollsters don’t know how to find those people. They’re probably the least active, but they’re definitely out there.”
And conservatives are determined to find them.
When Leonard, the House speaker, got involved in state politics in the early 2000s, he said there was close to 20 percent turnover in delegates at the state party convention every two years.
Now, Leonard said, there’s up to 60 percent turnover “because of the new blood, or the new participation that President Trump brought in.”
The fresh interest is aided by groups such as Michigan Trump Republicans, which Maddock and activist Marian Sheridan started as a spin-off group to the Michigan Conservative Coalition to keep voters engaged.
“What we're trying to do right now is just take our megaphone, pick it up off the ground after the election and keep that going,” Maddock said.
There are indicators this group has potential to be a powerful force in local politics, as well. John Lemmermann, chairman of the Gratiot County Republican Party, said county meetings usually draw eight to 12 core members. In the months leading to the 2016 presidential election, that number swelled to nearly 50 people.
Those newcomers haven’t stuck around, but Lemmermann said he believes they’ll return when the time comes. No one knows for sure if he is right, but activists could make a huge difference at the ballot box if they do.
Trump remains, after all, wildly popular among Michigan Republicans. Steve Mitchell, chairman of East Lansing-based consulting firm Mitchell Research & Communications Inc., said his polling shows about 90 percent of Republicans still support the president and his agenda.
That’s reflected in the dearth of Republicans willing to criticize Trump, said Bernie Porn, partner and president of EPIC-MRA.
“With the strength of Republican voters still supporting Trump, you see very few Republicans willing to challenge him,” Porn said.
The race for governor
For now, the path to the Republican nomination for governor looks promising for Schuette. He’s been endorsed by populist favorites like Trump and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, and a slew of state lawmakers.
“He’s a master politician,” said Rustem, the former Snyder adviser. “He’s figuring out a way to straddle the line.”
Schuette has the largest war chest of any Republican candidate, at more than $3 million as of December, state campaign finance records show. Calley reported nearly $1.4 million. Their fundraising advantage will make it hard for any other GOP hopefuls to compete.
Lemmermann, the Gratiot County Republican Party chairman, said he continues to worry about establishment Republicans voting too liberally. But he takes heart from 2016, when Trump beat out 16 candidates for the Republican presidential nomination — most of whom Lemmermann considered “establishment products.”
And he says he’s confident that voters who supported Trump will come back in force in 2018: “I think that gives all of us some hope.”