Welcome to The 8th

by Tyler Scott and Kate Wells | February 19, 2020

Welcome to Michigan’s 8th Congressional District: a toss-up district in a toss-up state.

From now through November, we’ll be bringing you here. Not to blast you with the latest polling numbers or snarky soundbites (if 2016 taught us anything, it’s that the political professionals can miss something fundamental happening in this country.) We’re taking you into the lives of voters, their worlds, and their beliefs. So that when 2020 happens, whatever happens, you’ll understand why.

In Michigan, a crucial swing state Trump carried by just 10,704 votes, the 8th District U.S. House race is expected to be among the most competitive. Drawn (and redrawn) to increasingly favor Republicans, GOP congressmen held the seat for nearly 20 years, and voters went for Trump in 2016. Then, in 2018, it flipped, booting out incumbent Mike Bishop and electing political newcomer Elissa Slotkin.

“It’s such a battleground,” says Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor for The Cook Political Report. “So this is going to attract a lot of national attention. It really is one of the purest toss-ups in the country. And it’s a place that both parties are putting a lot of time and attention and money.”

Downtown Rochester Hills, MI

Blue, red… and northern Oakland County

Think of the 8th as three chunks. You’ve got Ingham County, home to the state Capitol and Michigan State University (youth vote!). It’s a Democratic stronghold, and while national Republican groups are trying to make inroads (more about their college campus campaigns later), it’s considered solidly blue.

As you move east, you hit Livingston County: Small-town Howell, Brighton with its burgeoning downtown, and the rolling farmlands of Hartland. It’s a mix of small towns and rural communities. This is MAGA country. It’s a bedrock conservative district, where local GOP groups are active, organized, and fired up for Trump in 2020. (Check in later this week, because the Livingston County Republicans and a group called Protect Our Republic are holding a candidate forum for the five primary candidates vying to take on Slotkin in November.)

But the real battleground is this little corner of the 8th, in northern Oakland County.

So my colleague Tyler Scott and I piled our audio equipment into my aging Kia Soul (look, it’s very roomy for a car seat, OK?) and drove there to find out what’s on voters’ minds.

Oakland County for Trump?

In Rochester Hills, one of the state’s wealthiest cities, there are strong pockets of support for Trump.

Rochester Hills, MI

“I think most people are for Trump,” says Connie Calabro, carrying shopping bags as she comes out of a Whole Foods. She’s 88, a devoted Catholic with a big laugh and Carol Channing energy. A longtime Trump supporter, she says the pro-Trump chorus got louder post-State of the Union. “His speech was great! One thing I’m really proud of is, he got religion back in schools. I love that. And jobs! The unemployment rate was down.”

“People need to get past ‘orange man bad,’” says a small business owner from Lake Orion, walking through downtown Rochester with his wife. They asked us not to use their names. “I’d lose all my clients,” the wife laughs. She says her customers are split about 50/50 between Democrats and Republicans. (We hear this kind of thing a lot: people wary of voicing any political opinion on the record. We’ll be diving more into that later.)

Trump’s tax cuts have “saved our family twice now,” the husband says. “We saved a lot of money. So when they say [the tax cuts are] for the 1%, it’s complete bullshit. It’s not. It’s for normal people. Now, maybe we’re a little different because we own our own businesses. But we’re definitely middle class.”

The changing suburban vote

But parts of northern Oakland County are changing: Slotkin turned both Rochester Hills and Rochester blue in 2018. And these college-educated, suburban voters – especially women – who were part of the “blue wave” two years ago, are even more motivated to defeat Trump in 2020.

“I actually think that having Trump on the ballot is probably going to help [Democratic candidates in 2020],” says Kevin Church, a member of the North Oakland Democratic Club.

“And maybe those sort of ‘part-time Democrats,’ I call them – or you know, Democrats that, they come out once in a while. But with somebody like Trump on the ballot, they’re going to say, ‘I need to get out on November 3 and get rid of him.’”

Church, who spoke to us at a campaign event for Jody LaMacchia, a Democrat running to unseat incumbent Republican John Reilly in the Michigan House, says he sees women as the key to defeating Trump in 2020.

“The Democratic women, especially the ones that I hang out with here, they are fired up and ready to go. And the thing that Elissa [Slotkin] did was get a lot of independent and even Republican-leaning women to go over to go to her side.”

U.S. Rep. Slotkin, a former CIA analyst and Department of Defense official in both the Bush and Obama administrations, upset Republican incumbent Mike Bishop by only about 13,000 votes. Since then, she’s become a rising Democratic star, and is consistently pulling in staggering fundraising numbers for her re-election bid. But her support for impeachment put an easy target on her back for Republicans.

Is it all about turnout? What about swing voters?

There’s a debate amongst the folks who run election models: Will the outcome of the 2020 election depend more on turnout, or on the candidates’ abilities to persuade “swing” voters?

So far in our reporting, swing voters have been hard to come by. But we did find one in the 8th: His name is Joe Jakubowski, he’s 65, lives in Rochester Hills, and is spending his semi-retirement taking care of his aging mom, playing a lot of music, and even trying out a little improv.

“I’ve probably been a Democrat most of my life … but I have voted Republican. I voted for Trump,” he says. “But I also voted for Obama both times…. It depends on the individual and what’s going on in the world these days.”

With Trump, he saw someone who could be a bull in a china shop. “I thought I saw a change agent, really. To try to cut through some of the bureaucracy. And boy, was I right there!” he laughs. “But maybe not in the way I thought, originally.”

Like so many voters, Jakubowski is fed up with the current political system. But he feels Trump has gone too far. “His wholesale cutting of regulations in all areas, I mean, you can go oil and gas industry, you can go environmental – it’s really, the beneficiaries are not the people, it’s the corporate world.” Look at what’s going on with the Attorney General, William Barr, Jakubowski says. “C’mon…. Everybody’s a ‘yes man’ now, everybody that Trump has in his administration.”

Now, his vote is up for grabs. He likes Bernie Sanders – another candidate he hopes might be able to flip the whole system on its head.

“I’m trying to get somebody with some honesty!” Jakubowski exclaims.

Over these next several months, we’ll be talking to as many voters as we can in the 8th. We want to know what they believe, what they want from politicians, and why they vote how they vote. And if you’re a “swing” voter in the district, or if you’ve sat out previous elections but are committing to cast a vote in this one, we want to hear from you. You can reach us at the8th@michiganradio.org.

Photos by Katie Raymond for Michigan Radio