Mich. GOP Has ’04 Jitters

Posted February 10, 2004 at 6:24pm

Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie was met with a barrage of criticism from Michigan Republicans when he dropped in on a recent meeting of the state’s House GOP delegation at the Capitol Hill Club.

Gillespie was peppered with complaints about President Bush’s economic record in the Wolverine State, received some pointed advice on how to turn things around, and was given an urgent reminder that things need to change quickly or both the president and his Congressional allies will face a tough road there in November.

Gillespie didn’t stay around for the whole Jan. 28 session, which was hosted by Betsy DeVos, head of the Michigan Republican Party. After 20 minutes, and pleading a previous engagement, the RNC chairman slipped out, leaving an aide to face the assembled GOP lawmakers.

The incident, which Gillespie declined to comment on, demonstrates the level of anxiety Michigan’s Republicans feel about Bush’s re-election chances in their home state and how his performance might affect races down-ballot. Recent private polling done by the Bush-Cheney campaign shows his approval ratings and re-election support “in the low 40s,” according to a Republican lawmaker who has seen the data and wasn’t encouraged by it.

And while Bush remains personally popular, and his handling of the Iraq war brings high praise from Michigan Republicans, the economic conditions and the continuing hemorrhage of high-paying manufacturing jobs throughout the state, and the Rust Belt as a whole, undermines his support.

“The odds are probably overall against them,” said a Republican lawmaker privately of the chances for the Bush-Cheney team carrying Michigan in November. “Frankly, the war is popular with union guys, but job losses are really hurting us. Overall, the odds are not good.”

The unemployment rate in Michigan is at 7.2 percent, almost 30 percent higher than the national average and among the worst in the nation. The state lost nearly 300,000 jobs between June 2000 and August 2003, more than half of those in the manufacturing sector. Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) faces a $1.3 billion budget deficit, and might have to both cut spending and raise some taxes, although her own popularity ratings remain solid. Late last year, Michigan even lost its important AAA credit rating because of the state’s depleted reserve fund and still uncertain economic climate.

Bush’s March 2002 decision to impose tariffs on imported steel also hit the auto industry, the state’s most important employer, with higher production costs and has been blamed for some analysts for further job losses. In December 2003, the White House reversed the policy.

“The top issue in Michigan is the serious state of our manufacturing,” said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), who represents the Grand Rapids area and has long been vocal on the issue.

Ehlers said he and the other GOP lawmakers “emphatically” told Gillespie that despite the improvement in the national economy, the political situation is very fluid in Michigan. Their advice was to tone down the rhetoric on a brighter economic future being used by the Bush-Cheney campaign and instead step up with concrete plans to help U.S. manufacturers who are getting battered by foreign competitors.

Ehlers pointed to the recent decision by Electrolux, the vacuum cleaner maker, to shut down its western Michigan operation and move to Mexico and South Carolina, taking 2,700 jobs with it, as the latest example of job flight from his state.

“The economy seems to be improving, but as long as there are more job losses, there will be problems for George Bush in the fall,” said Ehlers.

Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.), who chairs the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign in Michigan, slammed Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the clear favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination, when asked about what will happen in November.

Miller, who was not at the session with Gillespie, criticized Kerry’s stance on the Bush tax cuts, gun control, tougher fuel-economy standards for cars — a huge issue for the auto industry, which sees it as a major threat to sales — and partial-birth abortion. Miller called the Massachusetts Democrat’s views “out of touch with Michigan values.”

Only when pressed did she talk about the president. But even Miller admits that Bush faces a tough road in securing Michigan’s 17 electoral votes.

“The economy is obviously going to be a big issue and it’s not good,” said Miller. “We do have a long way to go with the economy.”

Miller added that the economy is already turning around nationally, and said that improvement will be seen in Michigan soon as well.

The Bush-Cheney ’04 team, as it has elsewhere in the country, is building an extensive get-out-the-vote effort in Michigan as part of its “72 hour” program to turn out its supporters at the polls on Nov. 2, with a special focus on beefing up operations in the western portion of the state.

Using a city-by-city and county-by-county approach, the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign is determining “precinct teams” and “team captains” for Election Day, and hopes to have thousands of volunteers in place soon.

Last weekend, as Democrats held their presidential caucus — won by Kerry —Michigan Republicans identified and registered 120,000 new voters, said DeVos, which proves to her that Bush’s support in the state remains firm.

DeVos also lashed out at Granholm, whom she said “has been completely inactive on the issue of job losses.”

But unions, especially the United Auto Workers and Michigan Education Association, remain strong in Michigan, and have their own sophisticated GOTV networks with a track record of victory. That presence helped deliver the state to then-Vice President Al Gore in 2000 by a 51-46 percent margin.

“I think any of our Democrats still in the race can beat Bush,” said Jason Moon, spokesman for the Michigan Democratic Party.

“It’s clear to me that in Michigan and across this country we’re not going to put people back into manufacturing jobs until we put George Bush out of his job,” Kerry said in a recent trip through Michigan. Kerry is seen by several Michigan GOP political insiders as tough challenge for the Bush-Cheney ticket, although he is beatable, if he in fact becomes the Democratic nominee.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) still believes that Bush will carry the state at the end of the day.

“The president is popular here. People genuinely respect him,” said Rogers. “I think the fact is that the country is starting to turn around and that [Michigan] voters will go for George Bush.”