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Democrats, GOP both target voters behind cracked 'blue wall'

By Sara Burnett and David Eggert/Associated Press • Apr 29, 2018 at 12:00 PM

WASHINGTON TWP. — Automotive engineer Steve Semian credits Barack Obama with rescuing the auto industry and with it, much of Michigan. But the 47-year-old from Macomb County, north of Detroit, says it was the state's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who "helped us pull through" after a long economic downturn. And now it's President Donald Trump who's fighting to restore the country's manufacturing might.

So as the midterm elections approach, Semian is leaning Republican.

"Of course we can always point and find blame and all the other rhetoric that's going on with all of (Trump's) personal issues," he said as he watched his 7-year-old son's baseball practice outside an elementary school last week. "But as the end result, he's keeping our jobs stable."

Both parties are paying particular attention to the mood in places like this because of the decisive impact the upper Midwest had in the 2016 presidential race, and could have again this fall in determining control of Congress.

Michigan, where Trump will travel this weekend for a rally, is one of the states that Hillary Clinton counted on to help her win the presidency in 2016. Instead, its voters — part of a so-called "blue wall" that traditionally backed Democrats for president — delivered Trump to the White House.

At stake this fall in the region are roughly a dozen closely contested congressional races that could help swing the House, where Democrats need to pick up about two dozen seats for a majority. Democrats also will try to win back governorships in Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, and keep Senate seats in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Macomb County, the site of Trump's rally, is among the predominantly white counties known as a base for "Reagan Democrats" — blue-collar voters who abandoned the Democratic Party for Ronald Reagan, but who can be intriguingly movable.

Obama won the county twice, then Trump carried it by more than 11 percentage points.

To win statewide this year, Democrats must win over a lot of politically moderate people in places like Macomb County, plus coax more sporadic voters such as African-American supporters in Detroit to the polls — a plan that fell short in 2014.

Both parties are focused intensely on Michigan's wealthiest and most educated congressional district to the west of Macomb — the kind with Republicans who are typically least enamored of Trump — where GOP Rep. Dave Trott is retiring. A large field of candidates includes business executive Lena Epstein, an ardent Trump supporter, and Democrat Suneel Gupta, a former Groupon executive.

In the governor's race, Attorney General Bill Schuette, who will attend this weekend's Trump rally in Washington Township, is leading the GOP field, while former legislative leader Gretchen Whitmer is considered the Democratic front-runner.

Democrats are emboldened by recent wins in places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and by the high emotions of their backers. Last week, a fired-up crowd of 6,700 flooded a state party convention. Later, Whitmer said enthusiasm across the state is "like nothing I've ever seen before" and declared: "We are on the brink of a big change in Michigan."

Still, many are skeptical about a new blue wall in a place where Republicans have dominated state government for the last seven years.

"I think what we had was an Obama wall," said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon. In addition to winning traditionally Democratic-friendly young people, moderate independents and African-Americans, Obama swept some conservative counties after his aid for the auto industry.

"To the extent that we can rebuild, I think that's really what we're trying to focus on: How do we put that coalition back together?" asked Dillon.

How Michigan's economy will affect the election is debatable. While the state is in its ninth straight year of recovery, not all the jobs are back, and crumbling infrastructure, especially potholed roads, is high among voter concerns.

The Michigan Democratic Party hired six regional coordinators in early 2017, and is now spending 30 to 40 percent of its budget on its ground game, up from barely 5 percent in 2015.

Matt Morrison, director of the AFL-CIO-affiliated organization Working America, says Democrats need to work on their message.

"People are really keen on understanding 'How am I going to make a living and what's the future hold for me?'" said Morrison, whose organization is conducting one-on-one "front porch conversations" with voters.

In the African-American community, where Democrats need strong turnout to win statewide, there's worry about a drop in turnout of 5 percentage points in Detroit in 2016 and the fact there's no viable African-American Democratic candidate for major office this year.

Democrats aren't the only ones counting on strong feelings about Trump.

Trump's Michigan admirers are "very, very passionate about the president, and those people are still involved," said Juston Johnson, political director for the Republican National Committee.

The RNC has been training thousands of volunteers and talking up issues that "test off the charts" in the state, such as infrastructure investment and pursuing trade deals favoring American workers, said Johnson.

Take voter Terri Rogulski, a real estate agent from Washington Township, where new housing developments seem to be going up all over the place. She says 2017 was a peak year for her industry, which she attributes to tax cuts and the strong economy.

Rogulski plans to vote Republican in 2018.

"Everything's good. My paychecks are larger. I like that," she said. "We needed a change and we got one."

Associated Press reporter Alice Yin contributed from Lansing, Michigan.

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