GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — The 50 or so party faithful gathered at a western Michigan GOP headquarters prayed for President Donald Trump’s re-election and hummed with excitement about his upcoming visit — a meeting-turned-pep rally for the effort they’ll mount on his behalf in 2020.
“Are we ready?” former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land asked the group assembled in Grand Rapids on Monday night.
“Yeah!” the crowd cried back.
The area around former President Gerald Ford’s hometown has been very good to Trump, helping deliver him to the White House in 2016 with a victory in a blue state he wasn’t supposed to win. But as he returns to Grand Rapids on Thursday night for a rally that will celebrate the completion of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, there is cause for worry.
The Democratic-leaning city and the historically Republican turf surrounding it in Kent County have seen a rise of Democratic activism and electoral success since Trump took office. Democrats also are benefiting from demographic changes, as the area has grown younger and more diverse, and there are signs the improving economy also could be helping them.
Last fall, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer won the governor’s race over a Trump-endorsed candidate with help from voters in Kent County. She was the first Democratic gubernatorial nominee to take the county since an incumbent won it in 1986. Democrats also picked up a longtime GOP-held state Senate seat and made gains on the county board.
Local Democratic leaders also point to a flurry of new organizations that popped up to oppose Trump and promote progressive causes, from women’s marches to environmental concerns.
“I haven’t been to this many marches since the 1960s,” said Frank Lynn, former chairman of the Kent County Democratic Party.
His successor agreed — and said the new wave of activism also has provided “an army of motivated volunteers.”
“I think there will be an even higher level of motivation in 2020,” Chairman Gary Stark said.
But for all the enthusiasm among Democrats, Trump’s supporters could be newly energized by the Mueller investigation ending with no evidence of collusion with Russia.
“Democrats are in a pickle and they put themselves here” by trumpeting the investigation, said Brian “Boomer” Patrick, communications director for Republican U.S. Rep Bill Huizenga. “All the eggs were in one basket on the Mueller report.”
Trump campaign officials acknowledge that they face a battle holding the states Trump swung away from Democrats in 2016, including Michigan and Wisconsin, and that Trump’s likeliest path to victory in 2020 almost requires them to do it.
Still, they insist that the lesson of the 2018 midterms is that Trump’s core supporters are still enthusiastic about him — as evidenced by several victories in races in which the president invested his time. And in 2020, Trump himself will be atop the ballot and actively campaigning.
“There’s nobody that excites and unites voters like President Trump. He brings in new voters that would never be involved in politics,” Republican National Committee spokesman Rick Gorka said. “When you have that bully pulpit, and Air Force One lands in your state, it moves people and it moves numbers.”
The Trump campaign is hiring 10 regional political directors for swing states in the coming weeks. The RNC field operation in Michigan has been continuous since before the 2016 election cycle.
Meanwhile, RNC officials say, Democrats must struggle through a fractious primary with more than a dozen candidates fighting for the nomination.
Republicans will focus on what they call Trump’s biggest successes, including low unemployment, tax cuts and putting the Islamic State group “on the run.”
The party already has been painting the Democratic field as “very extreme,” criticizing their support for proposals such as “Medicare For All” and the Green New Deal, which they say would destroy Michigan’s manufacturing and agricultural sectors.
“Whoever emerges, I think there will be very stark differences in policies and beliefs,” said Michigan GOP Chairwoman Laura Cox.
Democrats are also planning their offensive. Parties in Michigan, Wisconsin and five other battleground states are joining with the Democratic National Committee to train organizers, particularly young people of colour, to organize on college campuses and in their communities. Organizing Corps 2020 hopes to have 1,000 trained organizers by this summer.
The Democratic group Priorities USA also plans to spend at least $100 million in battleground states, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida.
Two 2020 candidates, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, campaigned in Michigan this month, and Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Kamala Harris of California have stops scheduled in coming weeks.
Kent Boersema, a 31-year-old security officer and member of the Kent County GOP’s executive committee, said he thinks the president will do even better in the area in 2020, as people who supported GOP rivals Ted Cruz or John Kasich in 2016 get behind him this time.
“I got friends that I know — didn’t vote for Trump in 2016, but they’re voting for him now in 2020. He’s going to have a more solid, cohesive Republican Party behind him,” he said.
Still, he said, Kent County has become more of a swing area politically than the GOP stronghold it once was.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” he said.
Burnett reported from Chicago. Associated Press reporter Zeke Miller contributed from Washington.