After watching this week’s Democratic debates in Detroit, Michigan’s Democratic members of Congress want their party’s presidential candidates to give more attention to the bread-and-butter issues that are key for Michigan voters — which they say will be central in the effort to seize the White House in 2020.
Democratic lawmakers desperately want to push Donald Trump out of the White House, but they are not yet united around any single candidate or approach.
Two U.S. House members gave early endorsements this week, but most of the state’s Democratic national officeholders say they will wait for the process to play out. U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) came out Thursday in favor of U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who she thinks can unite the more moderate and progessive wings of the party.
Earlier this week, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) endorsed U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) for her progressive policies.
Other Michigan Democrats say they want less infighting among the party’s candidates and more of a focus on how they intend to boot Trump out of office.
“The candidate that demonstrates they have the argument that defeats Donald Trump is the candidate that a lot of Democratic voters are going to be interested in, for many, many Democratic voters.” U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) told the Michigan Advance. “The candidate that is going to beat Donald Trump is the candidate I am going to support.”
Kildee, who has represented the Flint area since 2013, said Democratic candidates missed an opportunity this week to highlight what sets them apart from the Republican Party.
“I think there was too much time trying to exploit the nuanced differences between the Democratic candidates, when there is this massive difference between all the Democrats and a person who represents a threat to everything we believe in, and that is Donald Trump,” Kildee said. “I think it was a real opportunity that could have been better utilized by the candidates.”
Trump defied expectations in 2016 when he upended public opinion polling and narrowly won Michigan by just more than 10,000 votes. His campaign has already laid the groundwork in Michigan for 2020.
Democrats say the decision to hold early debates in Detroit is emblematic of increased attention their party will also give the state during the campaign.
“There was an underestimation [in 2016] of what was happening in terms of citizens in Michigan wanting change and also the corrupting role that Russia was playing in the elections, and not a serious enough effort of understanding what was at stake,” said U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing).
Stabenow said Democrats organized like “we have not done in my lifetime” for the 2018 midterm elections and would do so again for the next presidential election. Democrats gained two U.S. House seats in Michigan in 2018.
“We understand how people feel and that we need to listen and be respectful and then be able to aggressively move forward on what real change for working people in Michigan means, and it certainly does not mean what this president has been doing,” Stabenow said.
“Obviously, Michigan is very important because we gave it to Donald Trump [in 2016],” Lawrence said. “Because of our diversity and because of the issues we are confronted with, we are very sensitive right now.”
She added: “We are planning on bringing it home in 2020.”
‘We got taken for granted’
Stabenow and other Michigan Democrats said candidates need to return to Michigan and pitch how their policies can help ordinary people in the state. Michigan has already seen a flurry of presidential hopefuls before the debates, particularly in Southeast Michigan stops.
Leaders also said they want to hear more from candidates on what they would do for the Great Lakes — a topic that did not make it into moderators’ questions at the debates.
“The bottom line for us is we are a state that makes things and grows things, and we love the Great Lakes. People in Michigan work very hard, they want to know their work is rewarded. They want very much to be able to work one job and have that be enough,” Stabenow said.
“Michigan voters and their concerns must be a priority,” U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) said in an email. “Anyone who wants to be successful here must focus more on their plans to expand job training and stand up for workers, protect the Great Lakes, make health care and prescription drugs more affordable.”
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), who has represented the 12th District since 2015, said Democratic candidates need to talk more about jobs, pensions, trade, manufacturing, climate change and the Great Lakes.
“I think this election is going to be won in the heartland,” said Dingell. “We need to hear about the issues that matter to working men and women, who are worried [about whether they can] keep their jobs here and their pensions and make enough money. They are the same things that mattered three years ago, and the Democrats did not do a good job of talking about it. We did a terrible job and that is why we lost.”
Dingell said Democratic presidential contenders need to keep coming back to Michigan after the debates to discuss these issues.
“They need to find us and need to come back and talk more. We got taken for granted last time [in 2016],” Dingell said.
Kildee said Michigan did not get the attention it should have in the debates — which he said should have given more discussion to the Great Lakes, clean water, and what the nation can learn from the Flint water crisis.
Late in the debate each night, CNN moderators asked the candidates what they would do to prevent future public health problems like the Flint water crisis.
“The question was quickly dismissed, when it is a bigger question than just the future of one city. It means to me that the lesson of Flint is not being fully understood,” said Kildee, who thinks Flint’s well-known water crisis can serve as an example of concerns about economic injustice, racial divisions and the need for more investment in infrastructure in cities across the United States.
“If you want to talk about any of those issues, there is a place 70 miles north of the Fox Theatre that is the epitome of those questions and is struggling because of a terrible set of choices made by a Republican administration,” Kildee said. “How that is not a part of the discussion bothered me quite a bit.”
‘Toe to toe’ with Trump
Lawrence’s endorsement of Harris made her the second Michigan member of Congress to endorse in the presidential race.
Lawrence told the Advance that she made the decision because she thinks the former prosecutor can unite the party and go “toe to toe” with Trump and win the White House.
“In our party we are having this major discussion about being too far to one side or too far on the other. I feel she has that right mix of both that will be able to unify the party. That is something that is going to be critical,” Lawrence said. “Some candidates are going to leave half the party behind. … Whoever is our nominee must be able to bring this party together.”
Other lawmakers have demurred on which candidates they favored. Lawrence said she wanted to come out early with an endorsement to try to move the process along. Most Democrats agree that the crowded field of 25 candidates is unwieldy.
“There are so many candidates and we need to move this can down the road here and get to some serious debate and viable candidates,” Lawrence said.
Levin said in a statement that he had not intended to endorse a candidate this early, but decided to give his backing to Warren because of her economic and social policies and leadership qualities.
“It’s going to take a fundamental change of direction to revitalize the American Dream, to rebuild our infrastructure and tackle climate change in a way that makes us a more just society,” Levin said. “And historic change requires three things: bold vision, a real, bottom-up social movement demanding change, and tough, inspiring leadership to help deliver it.”