HOWELL, Mich. — Hundreds of former President Donald Trump’s supporters lined the streets, held up signs and flags and honked in protest as President Joe Biden traveled to deep-red Livingston County this week.
Biden came to the heavily Republican and mostly rural Howell area to pitch infrastructure and social spending legislation at a union training center, shore up his base and perhaps help potentially vulnerable Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin in the process.
The workers who train at the International Union of Operating Engineers facility, where Biden spoke Tuesday, would benefit from the spending on road, bridge and dam projects that would be paid for through a bipartisan infrastructure bill moving through Congress.
But outside the union hall and nearby in the charming downtown area, lined with boutiques and professional offices, a majestic 19th-century courthouse and a Carnegie library, some Howell residents were a little mystified by Biden’s presence.
“I don’t even really understand why he’s coming all the way to … this little town of Howell,” said Rich Bender, 76, an Air Force veteran and self-described “Republican conservative.”
Linda Kern, 66, a retired nurse who supports Biden, also was perplexed. “I did not like the idea that he came to this county … because there’s so much hatred toward President Biden in this county,” she said as she stood among the crowd of protesters and others milling around the intersection outside the union facility.
“We see it every day. People are still holding up Trump flags. They’re spewing hatred, terrible profanities,” Kern said. “And it’s our president of the United States.”
Slotkin, a former CIA analyst who served in Iraq, flipped the 8th District away from GOP incumbent Mike Bishop in 2018, becoming one of the Democrats’ “majority makers” as the party took back House control.
She’s the first Democrat to hold that seat since Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., in the late 1990s in what’s historically been a GOP stronghold. Slotkin won by just under 4 points in each of her two races; by contrast, Trump narrowly won the district, which stretches from the state capitol of Lansing east through Howell to northern Oakland County, by less than 1 percentage point in 2020.
The city of Howell is a relative oasis of progressivism compared with Republican-dominated Livingston County as a whole. Biden lost Livingston by 25 points last year; Slotkin lost by “only” 18. In Howell, the two Democrats fared comparably better — Biden lost by more than 9 points, while Slotkin lost by less than 4 points, which was an improvement from her 2018 performance.
Redistricting tea leaves
Michigan’s congressional districts are set to be redrawn later this year, and the delegation will lose one member. Draft maps under discussion generally would carve up Slotkin’s district while keeping Howell, Livingston County and nearby Lansing along with its surroundings together. Lansing is where her district office is, and Slotkin has said she’s likely to run in the district where Lansing ends up; accordingly, she’ll probably still need to face Howell voters in 2022.
Slotkin met Biden at Lansing’s Capital Region International Airport and rode with him to the event. She later released a statement that she supports an immediate vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill and hasn’t committed to the broader reconciliation package that Biden and her party’s leaders are pitching.
Slotkin said she told Biden the “human infrastructure bill needs to be both transformative and targeted” in terms of cost and deficit impact.
It’s not clear that independent streak will win hearts and minds, however, particularly when the president’s approval ratings are underwater.
“I don’t think attaching herself to him helps her at all,” said John Truscott, a former aide to onetime Michigan Republican Gov. John Engler. “If I were running the campaign against her, I’d attach her at the hip with the president — they’re one and the same philosophically, fiscally, everything.”
Truscott, CEO of Truscott Rossman, a Michigan public affairs firm that no longer does partisan work, said Slotkin drew support from moderate and conservative voters in the district in the past. And while he doesn’t think she’s in trouble in the district as currently drawn, she could be if the maps are redrawn to pack in more GOP voters.
While most people in the region vote Republican, the longtime farming area has sprouted subdivisions and shopping malls, and it’s not as conservative as it used to be — which has some residents wary.
“It used to be real conservative Republican, and I’m seeing a shift in it,” said Heather Moon, 55, a Trump supporter who owns and rents apartments in the area.
“I think there’s way too much government control,” Moon said. “I don’t like this socialism that we’re marching towards.” Describing herself as a “constitutionalist” rather than a Republican or Democrat, Moon said, “I’d vote for [Trump] again right now.”
Richard Mikula, 61, a retired Navy veteran who supports Biden, said he was “totally embarrassed” by signs and flags displayed by some in the crowd that said “F--- Biden.”
“That’s uncalled for. That’s not how adults should behave, and I just don’t like to see that, especially in my town,” Mikula said.
Mikula, who also supports Slotkin, generally backs the infrastructure and social spending legislation that Biden was in town to promote. But he said he’s leery of how it will be paid for.
“They use the term ‘we’re going to make the rich pay for it and the middle class won’t have to,’” Mikula said. “Well, that’s what I want to see, but how do you know how much the rich are paying? They always seem to have loopholes, and they get around it.”
‘Just sounds astronomical’
Other Democrats expressed qualms over the price tags of the two bills even while supporting elements of them. The “physical” infrastructure bill could add $550 billion in new spending in the coming years, while the “human” infrastructure measure could add roughly $2 trillion.
“Anything over a trillion sounds like way too much money. I mean, it just sounds astronomical,” said Kern, who favors action on climate change and government-subsidized community college but is hesitant about spending more money on child care.
The bipartisan infrastructure bill has some support among Republicans in the area, who appear dead set against the larger reconciliation bill.
“The infrastructure bill, I could probably find myself supporting that. And I think out of that will come what? Jobs,” said one man who called the Biden administration “a total disaster.” But the man, who did not want his name published, said he’s opposed to other aspects of the Democrats’ agenda, including free community college.
Slotkin has supporters and detractors while being less well-known to some residents.
“I like the fact that she’s worked for previous presidents,” said Mikula, who voted for her. “She’s got experience in the intelligence world, as I call it. She’s got a broader view of things happening than I think some people do.”
Zoren Knickerbocker, 19, who voted for Biden — but without much enthusiasm, he said — has heard little about Slotkin.
“Most of it has been … political ads either for or against her, and most of those are pretty biased one way or the other,” said Knickerbocker. He spoke near the union hall where Trump-allied protesters, a much smaller group of Biden backers and others just curious about what was going on were milling around.
One big reason for Biden’s sagging approval has been criticism of his Afghanistan pullout, something for which Slotkin and many others on both sides of the aisle have taken the president to task. Discussions with Howell residents suggest that issue hasn’t yet gone away, although it’s unclear whether it will linger into the midterm elections.
“I’m really upset with him what he did in Afghanistan … leaving behind Americans,” said Bender, echoing complaints heard from both Republicans and independents in Howell. “You just don’t do that as president.”
Jessica Fortune, 26, said Biden is “trying to do his best, but I feel like he is a little bit behind.” A Green Party voter in the past, she criticized the Afghanistan exit. “I feel like he just pulled everyone out too soon,” she said.