Michigan Democrats were stung by now-President Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 and have vowed not to have a repeat this year. 

The 2018 midterms have given many officials hope that the state can stay blue, as Democrat Gretchen Whitmer notched a big win for governor and others flipped seats up and down the ballot.

Michigan’s senior senator, U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), also won reelection, although by a smaller margin than her last two elections. She’s widely regarded as a formidable powerbroker who’s frequently underestimated, like when she knocked off GOP then-U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham in 2000.

Stabenow said that the Nov. 3 general election is critical to Michigan’s economic future. 

“It is not an exaggeration to say everything our families care about is on the line,” said Stabenow. 

Trump counter-protest of Bernie Sanders car rally for Joe Biden in Warren, Oct. 6, 2020 | Andrew Roth

She argues that a second Trump term would result in further disparities in health care, internet access and economic status between whites, poor people and many people of color. She also pointed to climate change and Great Lakes erosion on his watch.

Stabenow is a leading voice in the Democrats’ strategy this year, from getting presidential nominee Joe Biden across the finish line to flipping the state Supreme Court. A big part of that is making sure her colleague, freshman Sen. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield), staves off a well-funded challenge from GOP businessman John James, who Stabenow dispatched in 2018. And Democrats also are focused on several key congressional races and taking control of the state House.

Michigan Democratic Party (MDP) Chair Lavora Barnes said Stabenow has been a strong leader.

“It is all hands on deck this election, and Sen. Stabenow has been an invaluable member of the team working to elect Democrats up and down the ticket,” Barnes said. 

The MDP has faced some internal divisions in recent years, with big losses in 2016 prompting members of the progressive wing to clamor for more representation and some African Americans to criticize the party’s outreach.

Abdul El-Sayed at a Sen. Bernie Sanders rally in Ann Arbor, March 8, 2020 | Andrew Roth

Abdul El-Sayed is a progressive who ran for Michigan governor in 2018 and was a surrogate for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) this year. He said that while some Democrats may have some ideological differences with Stabenow, he respects her ability to reach consensus. 

“We have differences of opinion in the [Democratic] Party,” El-Sayed said. “That’s the nature of this work and though we may disagree, we disagree about means and sometimes we disagree about ends. But when you think about the direction forward, the context of a general election, there’s a lot more that we agree on than disagree on. And one of things that I admire about Debbie is that she understands how to manage a disagreement without destroying a relationship.” 

Rise to political power

Stabenow was first elected to public office in 1975. After 45 years, she knows Michigan and its 83 counties. 

Born Deborah Ann Greer in Gladwin, a town of 1,800 residents situated on the Cedar River in the heart of the state she grew up in nearby Clare, located 85 miles north of Lansing. Her family owned the local Oldsmobile dealership. Stabenow graduated at the top of her class from Clare High School and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan State University.    

At age 24, Stabenow was elected to the Ingham County Board of Commissioners. She later served as a member of the Michigan House of Representatives (1979-90) and four years in the State Senate (1991-94). 

After a setback when she lost the 1994 Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Howard Wolpe — who was defeated by Gov. John Engler, Stabenow set her eyes on Congress. She was elected to the U.S. House in 1996, serving two terms. 

Debbie Stabenow at the MDP Convention, Feb. 2, 2019 | Ken Coleman

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a key Biden ally, met Stabenow in 1994 when she was running for governor. He describes her as a great partner.

“A couple of years ago when all the budgets in Washington were caught up in gridlock, she got the Agriculture budget through,” Duggan said. “She was the ranking Democrat and it was pretty remarkable.”

The effort was important to Detroit because it offered vital Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP} funding, which provides healthy food for needy families. About 30% of Detroit households live below the federal poverty level. 

In 2000, Stabenow defied expectations and took out Abraham, becoming the first Michigan woman — and still only — elected to the U.S. Senate. 

Dem, GOP campaigns in Michigan

Today, Stabenow ranks 17th in longest tenured member of the 100-person body.

If Democrats and independents who caucus with them win a majority of Senate seats, Stabenow, 70, stands to return as chair of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee after leading it from 2011 to 2015 when Democrats were in control. She would also lead the Finance Committee’s health care subcommittee, which deals with Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. 

Stabenow chairs the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Committee and has been significantly involved in helping Democratic colleagues and congressional candidates across the country.

Bernie Sanders car rally for Joe Biden in Warren, Oct. 6, 2020 | Andrew Roth

“I’m doing Zoom fundraisers for candidates,” Stabenow said. “I’m doing one tonight for Theresa Greenfield in Iowa [the Democratic nominee challenging U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa]. Doing them quite often.”

Back in Michigan, Stabenow developed the One Campaign in 2015 and sought to enlist U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield), who’s now second vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, to assist in the revamping of the MDP’s traditional coordinated field campaign contacting voters. 

The effort focused more on direct contact through in-person and media engagement with perennial and disaffected voters earlier in the campaign cycle. It also placed more of a premium on voters of color in cities like Detroit, Flint, Saginaw and a section of Grand Rapids, traditional Democratic Party strongholds. Stabenow said the campaign carried out an important door-knocking exercise in Northwest Detroit early in the 2016 election cycle, which set it apart from previous efforts. Voters in that section of the city are among the most active for Democrats in the state.

“‘Brenda, I have this idea,’” Lawrence recalled Stabenow saying during their conversation in 2015. “’I’m going to raise money for it, and I need you on this. We need your district.’”

However, Trump, a Republican, won Michigan and the U.S. presidency in 2016. Some Democratic activists said that the failure of presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in Michigan had to do with her Brooklyn, N.Y.-based campaign handing down strategy from the East Coast. They contend Clinton’s campaign didn’t listen enough to Michigan Democrats who were seeing worrying signs on the ground, especially with low voter enthusiasm in Detroit.

Will Black men deliver for Biden in Michigan? 

“We had outside operatives trying to run field campaigns,” said Rick Blocker, 14th Congressional District Democratic Party Organization chair. 

The MDP used the One Campaign model in 2018, which many leaders credit for landing key Democratic victories: Whitmer as governor, Dana Nessel as attorney general and Jocelyn Benson as secretary of state. The party also flipped two U.S. House seats, with now U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester Hills) winning the open 11th District held by then-U.S. Rep. Dave Trott (R-Birmingham) and now-U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) ousting then-U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester).

“We want to make it very clear that we aren’t just talking about knocking two weeks before the election [for the One Campaign],” Stabenow said.

Brandon Dillon, a former Michigan Democratic Party chair, praised Stabenow’s efforts to build a “machine” and fight to keep Michigan a blue state.

“She has been a driving force in raising money to push candidates and make sure that people don’t lose focus on races down the ticket,” Dillon said.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint Twp.) also praised Stabenow.

“The One Campaign [for Michigan] was her idea, and she really brought us together around it and it’s been a pretty effective campaign tool for us,” Kildee said. “She conceptualized it. She branded it. It has really made a difference for us.”

Michigan Trump campaign photo

A spokesperson for the Michigan Republican Party did not return a request for comment for the story. Michigan GOP Chair Laura Cox said this week that the party has made 6 million voter contacts in Michigan.

The Michigan Trump campaign said in a news release last week that it’s knocked 1 million doors and “has held thousands of in-person events, activated tens of thousands of volunteers, and registered more voters than ever before.”

“Trump Victory Michigan’s data-driven ground game cannot be matched by Joe Biden’s last-ditch efforts, and our army of volunteers will ensure that Michiganders once again vote for President Trump and his record of Promises Made, Promises Kept,” Trump campaign spokesperson Chris Gustafson said.

The national campaign has kicked off “Operation MAGA” in key states, featuring Vice President Mike Pence and Trump’s family members like son Eric Trump, both of whom have campaigned in Michigan this week. This was launched after the president was diagnosed with COVID-19.

“Operation MAGA will fire up the entire MAGA universe to keep President Trump’s campaign at full speed until our commander-in-chief returns to the campaign trail,” said Trump Campaign Manager Bill Stepien. “Vice President Mike Pence, the first family, our coalitions and our grassroots supporters will be out in full force to show the real enthusiasm behind the president’s reelection and to show we’re working as hard as he always does. We also encourage all of the president’s supporters to pick up the banner themselves by volunteering in our grassroots Army for Trump, flying their Trump flags, putting out more yard signs and wearing their MAGA gear proudly.”

Trump to stump in Muskegon

There’s been no shortage of Michigan visits from Trump, Biden and their surrogates in recent months.

Although Biden consistently leads Trump in Michigan polls this election, not everyone is impressed with the Democrats’ campaign.

Adolph Mongo, a Detroit-based political consultant who has Democratic Party leanings, contends that Democrats’ 2018 success has more to do with a growing number of women being elected to public office than Stabenow’s work with the One Campaign. 

Thirty-seven women were elected to the U.S. House in 2018 for the first time, a record. And nine women were elected governor. Mongo also pointed to the election of progressive group of women known as “The Squad,” Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit). 

Biden spending the day in SE Michigan Friday

“I’m trying to figure out who she got elected?” Mongo said of Stabenow. “There’s a movement across this country that is pushing progressives and women of color. There’s a movement and Debbie Stabenow is not part of that movement.”

Liano Sharon, a Michigan Democratic Party member who sits on its state central committee, said that Stabenow does have influence because of her position in the Senate, but he’s critical of her ideology. (Stabenow was the 31st most liberal member of the Senate last term, while Sanders was second, according to GovTrack). Sharon and other progressives have sought to gain a foothold in the party and prefer leaders like Sanders, Nessel and Tlaib. 

“She’s a typical establishment politico who isn’t really interested in trying to help people and isn’t interested in going against her major donors,” Sharon said about Stabenow. 

But Barnes said the senator continues to be a key party leader, especially in a crucial election year. 

“She continues to be a fantastic voice for the One Campaign for Michigan, always talking about the importance of our field operation and the work that we do to engage voters in all 83 counties,” Barnes said. “Her willingness to help raise the visibility of candidates and assist them in fundraising has proven to be very successful. We are thankful for her commitment to Michigan Democrats.” 

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.