Two presidential hopefuls made their cases before Michigan voters for the first time on Monday as they seek the Democratic nomination for the nation’s highest office in 2020, preceding a rally for President Donald Trump planned for next week in Grand Rapids.
U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, taped a town hall forum with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes in Auburn Hills, later appearing with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at a “Fems for Dems” rally in Clawson. Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, made two campaign stops in metro Detroit the same day, visiting Center Line and Ferndale.
Following a two-month exploratory phase, Gillibrand officially announced her candidacy on Sunday. At the Auburn Hills town hall just the next day, she faced questions about her plan to stand out in the crowded Democratic primary.
Gillibrand argued she was the best candidate to challenge Trump for the presidency, responding to questions she pivoted on gun control when it was convenient for her. Gillibrand, who began her political career representing a conservative district in upstate New York and received an A rating from the National Rifle Association, said she regretted not doing more to fight for gun control earlier on.
“My community didn’t have the gun violence that other parts of the state had, and in fact, the biggest issue for upstate New York was hunting rights,” Gillibrand said. “My mother didn’t just cook the Thanksgiving turkey, she shot the Thanksgiving turkey.”
Gillibrand also discussed her support for the Green New Deal, publicly funded elections and health care for all. She said she would also address student debt and its financial impact on the economy.
“Student debt is one of the biggest crises we have in this country today,” Gillibrand said. “I believe that the federal government should not be making money off the backs of our students. One of the quickest ways to get rid of student debt is to refinance all federal student debt at the lowest rate that's available.”
Gillibrand also laid out an incentive plan to address the cost of higher education.
“I also think we should make college more affordable to more kids,” Gillibrand said. “Imagine telling every American kid, if you do public service for a year, you get two years of free community college or state school. Imagine if you tell them, if you do two years of public service, you get four years free. That would create a pipeline of kids doing service for someone else.”
LSA sophomore Camille Mancuso, communications director for the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Democrats, said she was excited to see presidential hopefuls campaigning in the state.
“Michigan will be a key state in the effort to electing a Democratic president in 2020, so we are happy to see candidates already laying that groundwork,” Mancuso said. “We are looking forward to welcoming all of these primary candidates to our campus to engage the student body in this crucial election. Our organization does not endorse in primary elections, but we know the importance of political education — especially with such a large primary. We encourage students to take advantage of these candidates’ visits to Michigan, watch debates and research important policy issues as to make the most informed decision.”
Democrats are not the only ones showing interest in the state — Trump’s campaign has a rally planned for March 28 in Grand Rapids.
LSA sophomore Kate Nachazel, vice president of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, said she agreed the influx of candidates was a reflection of the role Michigan would play in the 2020 election.
“As was seen in the 2016 election, Michigan kind of became a swing state,” Nachazel said. “I think you may see it either flip back to being blue or continue to stay red. I think especially Macomb County will be a big tell for this race for the presidency and also the west side area, like Grand Rapids, which is why, I think, President Trump is hosting a rally there and trying to gear up support in that area just like he did near the end of the 2016 election.”
O’Rourke, who gained recognition following his bid to unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in November, visited Macomb on Monday, making his first stop at Hometown Heroes Coffee in Center Line then heading to Carpenters Training Center in Ferndale for a meet and greet. In a video posted to social media Thursday, O’Rourke announced his candidacy and issued a call for unity in the video, urging Americans to focus on their common goals rather than their differences.
“This is a defining moment of truth for this country and for every single one of us,” O’Rourke said. “The challenges that we face right now, the interconnected crises in our economy, our democracy and our climate have never been greater.”
After his announcement, O’Rourke embarked on a three-day trip across Iowa. He is now making stops across the Midwest in Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan — the states that helped Trump win the electoral college in 2016 — as well as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire before heading back to El Paso for a formal event to kick off his campaign.
On Feb. 25, Whitmer invited all 2020 presidential candidates to come to Michigan in a video posted to Twitter. Former U.S. Rep. John Delaney, D-Maryland, held a roundtable with small businesses in Michigan in January and Andrew Yang, a former technology executive who is running on a pledge to implement universal basic income, campaigned in Detroit in November.
Nachazel said she believes candidates should focus on issues that matter to Michigan voters, such as protecting the Great Lakes and the state’s natural resources.
“I also think jobs — because the auto industry is kind of coming back in Michigan — are going to be a big thing that the Democrats and the Republicans need to continue to show support of for the state of Michigan to get behind them,” Nachazel said.