Celebrating the conclusion of the Russia investigation, President Donald Trump tried to reset his reelection message on the campaign trail in Michigan Thursday, as he looks to keep his support in rust belt areas that slipped away from the Republican Party in 2018’s midterm elections.
Trump took several victory laps during his first rally since the conclusion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election, as the crowd chanted, “No collusion, no obstruction.” “This has been an incredible couple of weeks for America,” said Trump, who has not yet seen the full Mueller report. “The economy is roaring, the ISIS caliphate is defeated 100 percent, and after three years of lies, and smears, and slander, the Russia hoax is finally dead. The collusion delusion is over.”
"It's interesting. Robert Mueller was a God to the Democrats,” Trump told the crowd of thousands. “He was a God to them until he said 'no collusion.' They don't like him so much now."
The president used the probe to make a nostalgia-based pitch to voters: re-litigating the 2016 election and reminding voters of why they supported him, despite the low odds the media and pollsters gave him of winning then. Trump got the loudest cheers when he brought up border security, a topic his supporters are quite familiar with.
“You were with me,” he said. “I won’t forget it. And you’ll be very proud looking back that you did it. You took back your country.”
But the president also mixed in local issues — funding for the Great Lakes restoration (which cut against his own White House’s budget proposal) and bringing back car companies (which are struggling in places like Ohio) — and largely stuck to his prepared remarks on the economy, which political strategists in the state say remains the No. 1 issue for voters in the area. Trump detailed his achievements on jobs, wages, trade, and the stock market.
Trump spoke at a packed Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, an area that has now become a crucial 2020 battleground. It was here that Trump gave his last campaign speech of 2016, taking the stage after midnight — hours before his surprise victory boosted by rust belt voters. Trump won Kent County, which includes Grand Rapids, by about 9,500 votes in 2016 and carried the state narrowly by about 10,700 votes.
But last year’s election results in Michigan included major red flags for Trump: In 2018, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer became the first Democrat in a governor's race to win Kent in more than two decades. Not only did she win it by a larger margin than Trump did, but she also won eight other counties the president carried in 2016.
“It's not an area that he can take for granted,” said Dennis Darnoi, a GOP strategist in West Michigan. “If he loses Kent County, it's very hard to see how he carries Michigan.
Whitmer is already being talked about as a potential 2020 vice presidential candidate. During the rally, Trump did not mention her by name but told attendees not to give their “Democrat governor” any credit for his accomplishments.
Recent polling has shown that problems for Trump have persisted in the state beyond the midterm election. A EPIC-MRA poll conducted this month of Michigan voters found Trump losing support among both Republicans and independents in the state. More than half of the likely 2020 voters surveyed said they believed the country was headed in the wrong direction and 49 percent saying they would vote to replace Trump.
“The fact that Trump is having to spend time in Grand Rapids in that media market shows you how difficult it is for a Republican to win Michigan,” said Jeff Timmer, another GOP consultant in the state. “Doing it again is not going to be impossible, but it's going to be an uphill battle.”
“The planets have to align just so, like they did for the president in 2016 when he won by 10,000 votes,” Timmer said.
Republicans were largely able to maintain Trump’s gains in Ohio in the 2018 election, but in other key rust belt states he carried in 2016 — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — they lost every statewide contest on the ballot and watched Democrats make gains in suburban districts.
Seeing an opening, 2020 Democratic contenders have been heading to — or announcing plans to visit — Grand Rapids and other parts of Michigan in recent days. “Right now, West Michigan is the new battleground,” said John Sellek, CEO of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs and who ran Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign in Michigan.
But Trump supporters at the rally remained confident about the president’s chances in Michigan for one reason: The media and pollsters said the same thing in 2016.
“We were told that no Republican candidate could ever win the presidency through Michigan again...And last, we were told the only way he got here was the collusion with the Russians,” Michigan state House speaker Lee Chatfield told the cheering crowd before Trump’s remarks.
“The fact is that he proved all of that wrong, and let me go a step further: Not only did Donald Trump become the only Republican to win the presidency in Michigan in the last 30 years, with our help, he's going to do it again in 2020.”
Those waiting in line and inside the arena repeatedly mentioned “closet Trump voters” in Michigan who would come through for the president in 2020, but for now, make his support hard to gauge.
“Same thing they said last time,” said Josh Woodruff of Sanford, Michigan. “When I talk to people, I think I see more support for him now than there was before.”
Although Trump is now making health care, which played a big role in Democrats’ success in 2018, a priority, Sellek said an economic, manufacturing, and infrastructure focused campaign message would resonate most with the voters Trump needs to keep.
Only one of about a dozen rally attendees BuzzFeed News spoke with brought up health care when asked about the issues they cared about the most. Trump talked about the issue only briefly in his remarks, but it’s one, those close to him say, he thinks is a vulnerability for him.
Democrats running to replace Trump have continued to keep health care front and center.
Democrats are also already getting help from a pair of outside groups — Priorities USA and American Bridge — which recently announced an early investments of about $150 million together in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Trump’s 2020 campaign has been ramping up its staffing, fundraising, and infrastructure in an effort to take advantage of a drawn out Democratic primary. Asked about their plans to keep Trump’s support in Michigan, a campaign spokesperson said they will share the president’s “undeniable list of achievements” and show voters that he “will continue to fight for forgotten men and women across the country.”
In his nearly 90-minute remarks at the rally, Trump listed off all his accomplishments, saying voters now have an established record to compare with the Democratic Party, which he described as the “party of hoaxes and delusions.”
“Now I've done it,” he said. “It should be easy, don't you think?”