WASHINGTON – Returning to a battleground state that was key to his victory in 2016, President Donald Trump will kick off a new phase of his campaign when he travels to Michigan on Thursday.
Call it the post-Mueller phase.
Buoyed by a summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that found “no collusion” with Russia, Trump is certain to highlight those findings at a time when he is also reasserting his agenda on health care, trade and other issues.
The political symbolism of Michigan is hard to miss: A triumphant president, free from a cloud that hung over the White House for months, will return to Grand Rapids, the site of the final rally of his 2016 campaign that some analysts believe pushed him over the edge to victory in the Wolverine State.
But Trump will find a more complicated landscape when he arrives in the state he won by less than one percentage point in 2016. Democrats won all four statewide races in Michigan in last year’s midterm and polls show Trump’s approval there is below the national average.
The Thursday night rally will be Trump’s first in the Rust Belt since last year’s midterm election.
“This is his entry back into the Midwest,” said Steve Mitchell a pollster and Republican strategist based in East Lansing. “But I believe Michigan is going to be very difficult for him to take in 2020 unless there’s a viable third-party candidate.”
Promoting his Grand Rapids visit on Twitter, Trump said he “will be talking about the many exciting things that are happening to our Country,” including the automobile industry that is central to Michigan’s economy.
Trump, post Mueller
Trump has been taking a victory lap in Washington since Attorney General William Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report found his campaign did not conspire with Russia in the 2016 election. Now he’s taking that celebratory circuit on the road.
Mueller made no determination about whether Trump sought to obstruct justice, but the president’s supporters have dismissed that equivocation, focusing instead on Barr’s determination that the evidence Mueller collected did not, in his view, constitute a crime.
The president railed against the investigations – some of which are ongoing – throughout the midterm campaign. While it’s likely he’ll do so again in Michigan, analysts said the probes will probably not drive a lot of votes.
“The Mueller report doesn’t change anybody’s mind on anything,” said Lansing-based pollster Richard Czuba. “It’s all baked in.”
Since the release of Barr’s four-page summary, the White House has embraced a two-pronged approach: criticizing Democrats who questioned Trump while stepping up a focus on policy. The Trump administration surprised observers Monday when it asked a court to toss out the Affordable Care Act in a lawsuit filed by Republican-led states.
Trump has also increased his outreach to lawmakers on trade this week, meeting with Republican lawmakers on a pending trade agreement with Mexico and Canada.
But at least some of those policies have made for tricky politics in Michigan. Farmers in the state have been hit by lower prices, in part because of trade tensions with China that Trump has initiated. Auto executives, including GM CEO Mary Barra, have pointed to Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs to explain recent plant closures.
Michigan’s unemployment rate stood at 4 percent in February, slightly above the national rate of 3.8 percent but still well below its position two years ago.
Return to Michigan
Grand Rapids was the site of Trump’s last campaign stop in the 2016 campaign, a raucous affair that didn’t end until the early hours of Election Day itself. Given the close margin in a state that was originally touted by Democrats as part of Clinton’s infamous “blue wall,” some analysts said Trump’s rally may have put him over the top.
“President Trump expanded the map, winning states that Republicans had not won in decades,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement. “Among these states was Michigan, a state that no Republican nominee had won since 1988.”
That candidate was President George H.W. Bush. Four years later, Michigan voted for Democrat Bill Clinton instead.
But Trump’s favorability rating dropped to 40 percent in a recent EPIC-MRA poll, down from 43 percent favorable when the same pollster questioned voters in October. That same poll found more than half of those surveyed either plan to vote for someone else or are considering doing so next year.
The rally will be Trump’s 18th in Michigan since he announced his candidacy in 2015, according to the campaign – his sixth in Grand Rapids. Kent County, which surrounds the city, is considered a traditional GOP stronghold, though it has become more competitive recently.
“That’s why he’s going back there,” Mitchell said. “If you don’t have Kent County, it’s very difficult to win the state.”