Susan J. Demas: The road to the White House runs through Michigan (so far)

Clockwise: John Delaney, Donald Trump, Andrew Yang, Kirsten Gillibrand and Beto O'Rourke.

I cut my political reporting teeth on the Iowa caucuses a couple decades ago.

And I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for a process that revolves around the next leader of the free world enjoying a bratwurst barbecue in a Clear Lake backyard, followed by voters lining up in middle-school gyms to announce their candidate picks on caucus night.

So it’s a bit of a homecoming to find that, once again, I’m living in a key presidential state in Michigan.

The Hawkeye State still holds the first-in-the-nation contest — that hasn’t changed. Michigan isn’t even one of the early states. (We learned our lesson after moving our primary up in 2008, along with Florida, and got slapped down hard by the parties).

No, our election isn’t even until March 10, 2020. That’s the week after Super Tuesday, where there are a glut of contests that can essentially mark the end of the nomination fight. However, that’s unlikely to happen next year, with approximately 386 declared candidates — and counting.

But the Mitten was one of three Upper Midwest states, along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, that handed the presidency to Donald Trump in his bank-shot Electoral College victory in 2016.

Iowa caucuses | Creative Commons

Then Democrats scored big wins in all three states during the 2018 election — especially in Michigan, where Democrats flipped all major statewide offices, including the governorship.

So it’s game on in 2020.

Now, before we go too far down this road, it’s fair to ask if this assessment is overblown. Because let’s face it. There’s often an element of boosterism when hometown analysts talk about their state’s significance in presidential elections. We all love our state and nobody wants to feel like what they do for a living is meaningless.

And everyone wants to get that invitation to yammer on national TV (which, trust me, is overblown).

Susan J. Demas

But, at least so far, it seems clear that Michigan is a top-tier electoral prize. The proof is in the presidential hopefuls’ schedules.

On Monday, we’re set to have not one, but two major Democratic candidates barnstorm through Southeast Michigan. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) was the first to announce. She’ll be doing an MSNBC town hall and a meet-and-greet in Oakland County, accompanied by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who Gillibrand endorsed during her gubernatorial primary.

Interestingly, Gillibrand specifically wanted to hold events in the 11th Congressional District flipped by now-U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester). Clearly, the senator’s campaign believes that suburban districts like that one are key.

And former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), who narrowly lost his U.S. Senate bid against the eminently unlikable Ted Cruz last year, will make a stop in a Macomb County coffee shop before he talks to the Carpenters Training Center in Ferndale. Whitmer won’t be doing any events with O’Rourke due to scheduling conflicts, but a spokeswoman said they have talked on the phone.

Gretchen Whitmer at the MDP Convention, Feb. 2, 2019 | Ken Coleman

There’s no doubt that the endorsements of both Whitmer — who’s been mentioned by national pundits as a vice presidential possibility — and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) are in high demand. (U.S. Sen. Gary Peters is up for re-election next year and is likely to keep his powder dry).

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is scheduled to drop by Michigan in May, as is Stacey Abrams, who fell short in her Georgia gubernatorial bid last year and is flirting with a presidential run. She’ll keynote the annual Mackinac Policy Conference.

Michigan already had two lesser-known presidential contenders in our midst: former U.S. Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.) and former technology executive Andrew Yang.

Stacey Abrams | Wikimedia Commons

And more are almost guaranteed to follow.

Next week, Trump will be back in Grand Rapids, where he classily announced at a 2015 rally that our first African-American president “schlonged” Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary.

Expect to see a lot more of the president before Election Day. His poll numbers are flagging here, as noted by conservative columnist Philip Klein in the Washington Examiner. That’s sent shock waves through Team Trump, especially because he’s done nothing to grow his share of the electoral map since his ’16 win.

Democrats have breached the red wall with upset wins in Arizona, Kansas and Alabama. And if O’Rourke is on the ticket, that could put Texas in play.

So Trump will need to hold onto the Upper Midwest by amping up racial rhetoric and divisive issues, like his former henchman Steve Bannon did with his rally last week hyping Trump’s wall with Mexico that was held in Detroit — roughly 1,500 miles from the southern border.

Donald Trump | Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons

It’s going to get so, so ugly. And a lot of this won’t play out in TV ads or on Twitter — there’s the stealth campaign in the bowels of the internet on YouTube, 4chan, InfoWars and Reddit where the next conspiracy theories about Democrats starting pizza pedophile rings are being birthed as we speak.

I don’t think many of us were fully prepared for the magnitude of the vileness of the campaign last time. But we know it’s coming for 2020. And for now, we can expect Michigan to be ground zero.

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Susan J. Demas is a 17-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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