Gogebic County is a small, rural county of 15,342 people located in the southwestern corner of the Upper Peninsula.
Among the things you’ll find there is Copper Peak in Ironwood — the only ski flying hill in the Western Hemisphere — vestiges of Michigan’s iron industry, and, perhaps, a cougar, as the Michigan Department of Natural Resources this summer reported a rare sighting.
Because of its geography, the county would seem to fit the mold of a rural area that now supports Republicans. However, Gogebic has voted for the Democratic candidate at the top of the ticket in every election this decade except 2016, when it voted for now-President Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.
Election maps show surrounding counties now vote for Republicans at the top of the ticket in almost every election while Gogebic votes for Democrats. In 2008, Barack Obama carried Gogebic by 18 points, as well as its two neighboring counties.
It’s no secret that Democrats have had a problem winning in rural areas since then. Many counties in rural areas from eastern Kentucky, across the Great Plains to the West have shifted from Democratic to Republican. Much of the U.P. has moved away from Democrats, but Gogebic has continued to defy this trend.
Understanding why Gogebic County votes Democratic so often is a window into Michigan politics and could be a key indicator of how the state will vote in the 2020 presidential election.
Gogebic could be a swing county in a swing state next year.
Take a look back at the 2010 election, which was a disaster for Democrats across the country and Michigan. Two congressional seats flipped to the GOP — including the 1st Congressional District encompassing the U.P. — as the party regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Republicans also won back the Michigan House, as well as a supermajority in the state Senate — strengthening their grip on the chamber they had held since 1983.
Republican Rick Snyder coasted to an easy victory in the gubernatorial race over Democratiic Lansing Mayor Virg Benero. Snyder’s win included many traditionally Democratic counties such as Saginaw, Bay and Marquette. However, Gogebic County voted for Bernero.
Obama also took Gogebic in 2012, as did U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), who was up for reelection. In 2014, both now-U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mark Schauer won the county. Peters won the seat, while Schauer lost to Snyder.
After Gogebic went red in 2016, both Stabenow now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won Gogebic County with 51% of the vote in 2018. That was 11 points higher than Clinton’s 40% in 2016. Gogebic essentially reverted to its traditional voting behavior last year.
The question for those watching if Democrats have a path to gain and keep rural voters is if Gogebic County can teach us something about Democratic voters in rural areas.
Joe Mack’s legacy
To understand Gogebic County, you might want to start with former state Sen. Joe Mack from Ironwood.
Mack was a giant in Gogebic and Upper Peninsula politics writ large. He was first elected to the state House in 1960 and served two terms. In 1964, Mack was elected to the Michigan Senate and served until he resigned in 1990 amid a controversy over travel expenses. He died in 2005.
He was a fierce advocate for mining and timber interests who opposed the budding environmental movement in the 1970s. Mack was a key member of the state Senate, serving on the powerful Appropriations Committee, and he was skilled at winning resources for his district.
Rick Pluta, a reporter with the Michigan Public Radio Network, covered Mack and remembered him for his passion for the western U.P.
“He was well known in the Capitol because he was such a character,” Pluta said. “He sat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and was well-schooled in the process. He was very good at tucking in line-items [budget earmarks] that helped the Western U.P. There hasn’t been anyone like him with such an outsized personality and the ability to use the budget process to help his district.”
Between Mack in the Senate, and Dominic Jacobetti as the longtime chair of the state House Appropriations Committee, the Upper Peninsula was well-represented. Its legislators worked with the Detroit delegation to ensure both areas were well taken care of in the Appropriations process.
Mack’s ability to “bring home the bacon” for his district and Gogebic County meant a lot to voters. Many of them, who are now seniors, got used to voting Democratic over the years.
G.T. Long, a longtime Democratic operative in the U.P., argues that voters in Gogebic County know where their bread is buttered and vote accordingly. Mack spent his career ensuring that the county was never forgotten down in Lansing, giving voters fond memories of the benefits of voting Democratic.
Lessons for other rural areas
Rick Sauermilch, an Ironwood local, thinks it’s the influx of young people from cities like Milwaukee and Minneapolis who have moved to the area — attracted by the budding cannabis industry and cheap housing stock — who are shaping Gogebic elections now.
“The reason other border counties haven’t seen the same [election] results is that Ironwood has amenities that people who have lived in cities are used to, such as coffee shops, brew pubs, a natural food co-op, etc. We also have a ski hills that attracts a lot of wealthy liberals to the area,” Sauermilch said.
He warned against reading too much into Gogebic County results, however.
“I have no doubt that there are Democratic Party members chomping at the bit to take credit for having tried a thing here, but realistically, it can be explained by demography,” Sauermilch said.
G.T. Long has a different take.
“It’s pretty simple. It’s the most Democratic per-population in the U.P. than in any other county,” he said. “It’s a very heavy mining area with a strong union presence that has been loyal to the Democratic Party. Gogebic is home to Yellow Dog Democrats — meaning they’d vote for a yellow dog as long as it is a Democrat. The Steelworkers union members have traditionally seen the party as the place where their bread is buttered.”
Long dismissed the 2016 election results in Gogebic as an outlier.
“The only reason they went for Trump is because Hillary Clinton was not popular. Clinton’s failure to come to Michigan hurt her in Gogebic just like it did across the state,” he said.
Pluta also notes the small size of the county makes it easier to organize.
“It is a place where a good party chair or a small contingent of devoted volunteers can make a difference,” he said.
So is Gogebic’s continued blue bent attributable to young people moving in from cities or older voters who reflexively vote Democratic — or both? While that’s still an open question, Pluta’s point about small counties with low populations, which many rural counties are, could be one answer to Democratic problems in rural America since 2016.
The key takeaway could be that all rural counties are not the same. In fact, they’re as different as the myriad of neighborhoods in big cities that Democrats know how to organize.
With the 2020 election approaching, Gogebic County could prove to be an interesting bellweather to see if the traditionally Democratic counties that gave Trump victories in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan will revert to their Democratic voting habits.
A broader question is whether or not Democrats and their progressive allies will invest the time and resources in rural counties like Gogebic or will they focus solely on running up numbers in big cities and surrounding suburbs?
The lesson that can be learned from Gogebic may be the old adage that all politics is local. And if Democrats want to win back rural areas, it will take empowering those on the ground to do the organizing necessary to win.