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Trump opens Clinton County for the Democrats

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(This is the first in an occasional look at whether Trump support is eroding in Michigan and how it could impact the 2020 election.)

For Marie Howe, the energy that lifted her campaign and may fuel the Democrats’ 2020 bid in the suburbanizing I-69 corridor in Clinton County is not hard to understand.

“For me, it’s simple — it’s what he says and what he does. A normal person would not accept what he says and what he does,” Howe said, referring to President Donald Trump.

Howe, a former legislative staffer, ran for the Clinton County Commission last fall as a Democrat and actually won her Bath Township precincts with 54% — while losing the overall district by 123 votes out of 5,833 cast. Her opponent, the incumbent Commissioner Adam Stacey, was saved by his performance in two much more rural townships north of Bath and DeWitt — Victor and Olive.

The inroads Democrats have made into the county could help imperil Trump’s chances to win Michigan next year and, with it, keep the White House.

As recently as 2016, Clinton County had zero Democratic commissioners. But in last year’s election, the Democrats came within 250 votes of having three seats on the seven-member commission — and nearing parity with the Republicans, who have long dominated county business. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also won the county, a rarity for a Democrat.

Howe says her near-victory in a traditionally Republican area came down to women voters, even Republican women, energized at the polls, and disgusted with a president she calls a misogynist and a racist. “Friends tell me now they won’t vote for him. They thought he would change things and nothing has,” Howe said.

Commissioner Dwight Washington, who represents parts of Bath and DeWitt townships along with a piece of East Lansing that juts into Clinton County, was first elected three years ago and cruised to his reelection last year with 57% of the vote. A third candidate, Johanna Balzer, fell 113 votes shy in a district that includes Watertown Township and part of DeWitt Township.

“That’s what amazed me. I had so many people out to volunteer. I didn’t go after money,” Balzer said, but the checks came anyway.

Similar to Howe, she won her home township of DeWitt with 53% but lost the race because of poorer numbers in the other half of the district. A former candidate for DeWitt Township trustee, she said that at the start of her race, “I didn’t know 10 people in Watertown Township.”

Statewide, Whitmer’s 10-point victory was similar in scope to Obama’s nine-point win in 2012. But GOP nominee Mitt Romney won Clinton County easily — by seven points while Whitmer won the county by two points.

Clinton is one of only two counties that both Whitmer and Romney won, along with Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids.

Six other counties, including Shiawassee, just east of Clinton, went the other way. All but one of those counties is losing population, while Clinton and Kent are both growing.

Eaton County, with its General Motors plants, most resembles the infamously fickle Macomb County, politically, swinging back and forth, usually picking the winner. Ingham County, already one of the state’s most Democratic counties, has gotten only more so, resembling trends in Washtenaw County. Clinton County, long the most Republican of the three counties in the Lansing metro area, had the biggest shift from 2016 when Trump won it by 13 points.

Eric Schlenkermann, a union crane operator and the chairman of the Clinton County Democrats, said they were surprised that Howe and Balzer kept it so close. “Our county is still solidly Republican,” he said. “But older-school moderate Republicans are not on board with what President Trump is doing.”

Schlenkermann became politically active when Gov. Rick Snyder and Michigan’s Republican Legislature pushed through union-busting laws repealing the prevailing wage and implementing the so-called “right to work” policy, where laborers don’t have to pay for the collective bargaining that negotiates their contracts.

Both measures were a thinly veiled plot both to sabotage organized labor and the Democratic Party, which relies on campaign donations from unions to counter the corporate checks flowing to Republicans.

But he said his fellow union members may be a harder sell than suburban women in DeWitt and Bath townships. “A lot of Trump supporters, they’re not Republicans,” he said. “They don’t agree with either party. They support Trump as an individual” — and will be hard to peel off until he’s not on the ballot.

“East Lansing and Lansing, they’re pushing north, and they’re pretty much all Democrats,” Schlenkermann added.

Former county party chairman Jim Nelson said they’ve lost union auto parts workers in St. Johns as the plants closed but also said Democrats have gained ground in the county’s southern tier.

The increased competitiveness of the county may be increasing the polarization for young people as well. Schlenkermann’s wife, Roberta Schlenkermann, a psychologist, said their daughter had been hazed at Bath High School for wearing Democratic schwag to school. “His instincts bring out the worst in people,” she said.

The Clinton County Democrats marched this Saturday at the Bath Days Festival, a lighthearted community parade in the morning before that festival’s main event — the Bathtub races down Main Street in the afternoon.

Joining the Schlenkermanns was Ted Gregg, a salty older UAW Local 6000 representative, marching in shorts and black socks. He said the Democrats need to have a positive message, on the environment, on climate change, and above all, healthcare. He felt Medicare for All is more popular than the media makes out.

“There’s a lot of nonsense that people are really happy with their health insurance, paying all these high copayments and deductibles,” Gregg said. “It’s all a lot of nonsense.”

Eric Schlenkermann said he liked how Whitmer focused on jobs, roads and the troubled natural gas line under the Straits of Mackinac, and hoped the Democratic presidential candidates kept a similarly close line on regular people’s material concerns.

“They don’t want all this bickering and division and tearing each other down,” he said, referencing the recent debate in Detroit.

A few of the paradegoers cheered the Democrats on as they marched down one street and up another in the tiny center of Bath Township. Most just smiled politely or were distracted by the shower of candy tossed by the American Legion in front of the Dems or the horseback Clinton County Sheriff deputies trotting behind them.

But at least one man outright booed them, piercing their feelings of optimism about the politics of Clinton County. “You notice how small they are,” said Tim Clay, a retired auto mechanic and steadfast Trump supporter. “All six of them.”

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