MACKINAC ISLAND — They came to Michigan, and they recited the usual platitudes Republicans in the state have been saying for at least the past 27 years: 2016 is the year the GOP takes Michigan back in the presidential election.
Republicans haven’t won the state in a presidential election since 1988, but to the five GOP presidential candidates who came to Mackinac Island this weekend for a Republican leadership conference, it wasn’t just platitudes. They were high-confidence predictions.
At a rally on the island, Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas) vowed to campaign hard in the state, promising a repeat of the Reagan Revolution — a reference to former President Ronald Reagan’s ability to attract Democratic voters, and the groundswell of support he found among Democrats in Macomb, Mich.
Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), the winner of the weekend’s straw poll and a frequent visitor to the state, touted Michigan-focused policy — like his plan to return money to large urban areas like Detroit through what he calls “economic freedom zones.”
To reporters, he said he thought he’d be competitive in Michigan because of his positions on issues like Detroit and privacy, citing the NSA’s surveillance of cell phones through the Patriot Act.
“When you talk to college kids or you do a survey, let’s say even 40 or under, 83 percent think we went way too far in collecting all the phone records,” he said. “And being associated as one who wants to get rid of them I think helps me with the youth vote. Being a Detroit Republican, meaning I want to go after the minority vote and actually saying how I would do it, makes me different as well.”
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush told attendees that the thought Michigan — as well as several other states that typically swing Democratic — were well within the GOP’s grasp, if the right nominee were elected.
“Everybody used to think that Michigan was a blue state,” he said. “Over and over again, you hear it, right? Well, Michigan, because of Republican leadership at the state level, isn’t blue anymore. It’s red. And at the national level, it’s purple trending red. And if we elect the right nominee, it’ll go Republican in November of next year. That’s just not idle chatter. That should be our aspiration.”
And it wasn’t just the candidates who thought so. State leadership and state Republicans in attendance in many ways led the charge in purveying this optimism, pointing to Michigan’s economy, the policy work of Gov. Rick Snyder and the control the state party has over both branches of the legislature, the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office and the secretary of state.
Citing the tenure of former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), Ronna Romney McDaniel, Michigan Republican Party chairman, said the state is doing well because of its Republican leadership, and that will resonate with voters in the presidential election.
“We have a story of Republican leadership and how it’s done,” she said. “Under Jennifer Granholm, jobs were fleeing our state. Our state was on the decline. I had friends lose homes. I had friends move away from the state, have to file bankruptcy, lose their jobs. And to see that people are coming back because Michigan has come back is a wonderful story.”
The theme of the conference — Michigan: Foundation for the Future — focused on that idea. There was plenty of attention focused on the prominence of Michigan in Washington, with panelists all weekend talking about how to take lessons learned in Michigan — like revitalization efforts in Detroit or initiatives to promote skilled trades — to the national stage.
After calling Washington, D.C. broken during a panel discussion, Snyder said many of Michigan’s successes could be replicated on a nationwide level.
“We’re a great country still, but we have a broken political culture,” Snyder said. “And it’s manifested in Washington more than anywhere else.”
Whether Republicans will actually take Michigan, of course, is a question that will be decided far into the future — especially with the current state of the GOP field, where the eventual nominee could be any of the 15 candidates still in the race.
But on whether the current optimism is warranted or not, history seems to suggest that it will be an uphill battle.
“Michigan has been like the holy grail for the Republican party since the 1990s,” said Political Science Prof. Michael Traugott. “But they haven’t really experienced much success. They probably are looking at the outcome of gubernatorial contests, and see how control of that office has switched back and forth between the parties. But the social agenda of recent Republican candidates hasn’t really matched very well with the social agenda of a majority of voters in the state of Michigan.”
Conference attendees cited multiple reasons for why they thought 2016 would be different, spanning from the candidates currently in the race to the current presidential administration and Michigan’s elected leaders.
“I think that’s a possibility, especially this year because I don’t see the Democrats have much to offer,” said Tom Banks, an Ypsilanti resident.
Banks, who said he currently favored retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Cruz in the race, added that he thought the pool of candidates for the Republican nomination was much stronger than it was in 2012.
“I see the Republicans have 16 now really excellent candidates,” he said. “Any of them would be, I think, could be a winner. None of them are duds.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has since supsended his campaign.
Tanner Wright, a sophomore at Hillsdale College who’s supporting Paul, said he thought Michigan would vote Republican based on public sentiment toward the Obama administration.
“I mean, you can look back at the election of 1980, 1984, and you see that it goes red in those circumstances, when you have really unpopular Democrats — Jimmy Carter at the time — and you see a Republican win,” he said.
Sandi Holmes, an Auburn Hills resident who said she was favoring Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) or former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, was more cautiously optimistic about the GOP’s chances.
“I’m hoping,” she said. “I think our candidates are great, we have a good selection. Hopefully the people will see that as well. And hopefully Republicans will vote.”
Linden resident Denise Graves said she thought if Michigan did vote Republican, it would be due in large part to Michigan’s Republican leadership.
“I think that’s very much of a possibility,” she said. “We have great candidates, and the climate here in Michigan is moving up, you’ve seen what we’ve done under the leadership now, with it being in Republican control. And I think what is happening in Michigan is what we need to happen all over the country.”
Graves said she thought a Rubio/Kasich ticket would be the party’s best chance of success.
Traugott said for some more moderate candidates such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Michigan could be a possibility, but that holding on to a moderate enough position through the primary would be difficult.
“It would increase the prospects for the Republican party to capture the state,” he said. “But under the new primary caucus system we’ve had since 1976 … on the Republican side, in order to win the nomination, the candidates have had to take more and more conservative positions, and that comes back to haunt them in the general election. And you can see that in the posturing in the first two presidential debates.”
Romney McDaniel acknowledged that a Republican win in Michigan in 2016 would require hard work. But pointing to the number of candidates who have visited Michigan recently — 10 in the past six months — she said she thought momentum was building.
“We’re already seeing that energy around each of the candidates as they come into the state, and unfortunately, the Democrats — Hillary Clinton’s been here one time, really, since last October and that was only for a $500,000 fundraiser,” Romney McDaniel said. “She’s not interacting with Michigan voters, and Republican candidates are. We’re not taking for Michigan for granted. We know it’s going to be a heavier lift for us, presidentially, but we’re in play, and our candidates are showing that they’re taking Michigan seriously and they’re going to compete here.”