MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. – Donald Trump has long inaugurated Michigan as the crown jewel of his victory in 2016. But the president's campaign team is becoming increasingly bleak about a repeated performance in the traditionally blue Rust Belt state.
After a midterm election that decimated the ranks of Michigan Republicans, Trump's campaign sees other battlegrounds he lost last – such as Minnesota and New Hampshire – that they view as more promising.
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The assessment illustrates how Trump's support in the Rust belt states that promoted him to the presidency has softened, and exposed his outlook for a different period. While they say it's too early to write off Michigan – Trump aides say the campaign still intends to pump resources into the state – a number of public opinion polls have shown Trump in bad shape here.
"It will be tough," said Greg McNeilly, a veteran GOP strategist in Michigan. Although the president defeated tough odds in 2016 and won the state by 10,704 votes, or less than 1 point, McNeilly expects Democratic turnout to be stronger by 2020. "Trump is the underdog," he said.
The presidential position in the state, led senior GOP leaders this weekend to the biennial Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference on the picturesque island of Michigan. The event drew Vice President Mike Pence and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, among a number of other GOP officials.
As lawmakers, operatives and lobbyists traded gossip on the porch of the iconic Grand Hotel, many withdrew concerns about how Trump would fare in Michigan next year. Jamie Roe, a top Republican strategist in the state, rejected the idea that the president would leave the state as Mitt Romney and John McCain did in previous presidential campaigns.
Trump, Roe claimed, has built a lasting connection to blue collar voters in areas like Macomb County, which the president won in 2016 after Barack Obama wore it four years earlier. The Eastern Michigan county, long regarded as a state bell, is the birthplace of the so-called Reagan Democrats.
"I can tell you this: the president is stronger today than he was in 2016 in Macomb County," said Roe, himself a resident of Macomb. "I guarantee he will do better in Macomb County, and I expect the president to be there before this campaign is over."
Republican officials say they are planning a significant investment in Michigan, with 20 full-time employees expected to be distributed to the state by the end of the year. This weekend, the White House sent Pence to the off-the-grid island, recalling the 1,400-plus conferences about the violent rally he and Trump held in Grand Rapids the night before the 2016 election.
Retirement Chief Marc Short said the look would be part of a broader effort to deploy the Vice President to Midwestern states. The former Indiana governor has visited Michigan three times this year.
"I think the Vice President, like the Midwestern Governor, was a good help for the ticket in the Midwestern states that flipped in 2016. And I don't think he will spend much time here on our way into 2020," said Short. "There will be many more trips here in Michigan."
Trump's biggest challenge in the state – and the main source of campaign concern – is Wayne County, a liberal population center that includes the Detroit metro area. Hillary Clinton won the county last time with just 289,000 votes; By contrast, Obama carried it by 382,000 votes four years earlier. Although partially closing this gap, Democrats, who have lost the state only once since 1988, would sit in the driver's seat.
Trump allies say Clinton took the state for granted and failed to mobilize voters in heavily black Detroit – a fault Democrats are unlikely to make again.
His political team has spent a long time delving into voter data across the Rust Belt, concluding that Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – the two other battlefields that tipped Trump's scale – lack a similar urban center where Democrats failed to show their base .
Republicans focus heavily on Wayne County now. During a 2020-focused briefing at the White House this summer, the president asked advisors about their views on the democratic challengers. Republican National Committee leader Ronna McDaniel, a former Michigan GOP leader, said Kamala Harris could pose a threat because of her potential appeal in the county.
Wayne County was also the root of a dispute between the campaign and Senate GOP leaders over Republican Senate candidate John James earlier this year. Before James took part in the contest, the campaign conveyed concerns to the National Republican Senatorial Committee that James's bid could motivate Democrats to invest more in the state. At one point, Presidential advisers left a note to the committee describing how a campaign in the James Senate could lead to Democratic voting and potentially hurt Trump's outlook.
GOP leaders in the Senate who recruited James strongly disagreed. They argued that the 38-year-old military veteran, widely regarded as a rising star, would give the party its strongest state ticket and lift the president.
Many Republicans at Mackinac argued that winning the Michigan Democrats would not be so easy. Some predicted a backlash against the Democrats, who now hold all of Michigan's state offices. Others belittled the early polls in the presidential election because Trump's potential rivals have not been run through the general election.
Others said that if Democrats nominate a liberal candidate like Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, it could risk alienating moderate voters they need to win the state.
McCarthy predicted that the rival party would elect Warren as nominee, damaging the Democrats throughout the Rust Belt.
"I think they are moving too far [left] and that they are acting emotionally," McCarthy said.
If Trump loses Michigan and his 16 electoral votes, it would not necessarily cut his way to reelection. The president won 304 electoral votes in 2016, and means he still has a pillow that holds him above the 270 threshold. But if his problems in the state bleed over to Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which together make up 30 electoral votes, it may well be doomed for his chances.
Still, some Republicans at the conference said the GOP's problems in Michigan go beyond the presidential election to ballot contests.
As they walked into the halls of the Grand lobby adorned with photographs documenting previous visits from Republican fixtures such as George HW Bush, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan – some participants buzzed about house runs. The party has so far failed to recruit top rides in two Michigan congressional districts they lost in 2018, and raised concerns about whether they will be able to make a serious game of winning them back next year.
Still, the weekend contained some brighter news for the party. After suffering a number of congressional pensions, it looks like a longtime member to seek re-election: Michigan Rep. Fred Upton. Although he has not yet announced his intentions, the congressman, who was first elected in 1986, spent the weekend handing out "Upton 2020!" Buttons.
Upton, a moderate who has at times broken with the president, was used to coast for re-election. But last year, he barely hung around, speculating that he might join other House Republicans on the run after the exits.
Upton said the party leaders have leaned hard on him.
"If we don't run," he said, "It makes it a very competitive seat."