Former President Trump is headed to Michigan on Saturday for the latest in a series of campaign rallies.
But the event, to be held in Warren, will only sharpen questions about whether Trump’s influence is backfiring against the GOP in general election campaigns.
The most prominent candidate Trump has backed in the Wolverine State, conservative commentator and gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon, has lagged incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) by double digits in recent polls.
Not so long ago, Whitmer was a top Republican target. Conservatives believed they could capitalize on discontent with her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular.
Instead, the GOP has a candidate who hews to a hard-line anti-abortion position, meanders on whether the 2020 election was legitimate, and is suffering from a massive fundraising disadvantage.
When Trump endorsed Dixon in the GOP primary in late July, he promised she was a “Conservative Warrior” who was “ready to take on one of the worst Governors in the nation.”
But even some Republicans don’t think a Trump rally is going to turn things around for Dixon, who trailed Whitmer by 16 points in a poll last week from the Detroit Free Press.
“Here is the problem with these events: What does Trump do? He talks about the candidate he is allegedly there to support for about 60 seconds, he may or may not insult the candidate — as he did with J.D. Vance — and then the rest of it is the Trump Grievance Tour,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.
Heye added that Trump’s grievances — generally revolving around false claims of election fraud — “are of interest only to Trump, as opposed to the issues the candidate would prefer to be talking about.”
Dixon and Ohio’s Vance — who is in an unexpectedly close race against Rep. Tim Ryan (D) for a Senate seat being vacated by Republican Rob Portman — are far from the only Trump-backed candidates mired in general election trouble.
In Pennsylvania, Trump’s picks in Senate and gubernatorial races alike — Mehmet Oz and Doug Mastriano, respectively — are struggling. In Georgia, former football star Herschel Walker lagged Sen. Raphael Warnock (D) by 4 points in a Fox News poll this week.
On Thursday, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report shifted its rating of the gubernatorial races in Michigan and Pennsylvania from “lean Democratic” to “likely Democratic.”
Jessica Taylor, Cook’s Senate and governors editor, wrote that, in Michigan, the “race could have been different had the Republican primary…produced a stronger nominee.”
Given Dixon’s parlous position in the polls, it is surprising that Trump is continuing to tie himself to her rather than cutting her loose. The former president is notoriously prickly about suggestions that he is unpopular or that his appeal is waning.
On Thursday alone, the former president’s main leadership political action committee, Save America, sent out emails linking to articles from conservative publications showing favorable national poll numbers in a hypothetical match-up against Biden; superior support for Trump over Biden in Texas; and comments from House GOP campaign head Rep. Tom Emmer (R-Minn.) praising Trump as a “tremendous partner” for the party’s candidates.
Save America also blasted out another article headlined, “Donald Trump is Ranked Number 1 Presidential Golfer in history by a Landslide.”
Jenna Bednar, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan, said that, even if it looks like Dixon is bound for defeat, Trump’s real purpose is to bask in adulation and to promote the prospect of a 2024 White House run.
“For sure he is here to support Dixon, but he is also here to support himself — literally, in the sense of his as-yet-undeclared candidacy. He’s here to say, ‘Mar-a-Lago raid be damned and Jan. 6 Committee be damned, I am still here.’”
But Bednar claimed that it’s far from clear Trump will even improve Dixon’s position, much less catapult her to victory.
“He is going to mobilize the portion of the Republican Party that is completely committed to what he stands for, but he is going to demobilize the middle,” she said.
For all the inevitable focus on Trump, however, Bednar also emphasized that abortion is a huge issue in the Michigan race.
She noted not only the Supreme Court’s late June verdict striking down the right to abortion but also the fact that Michigan voters will weigh in on an abortion-specific ballot measure.
That measure, if approved, would explicitly provide the right to abortion in the state constitution.
Dixon is opposed to abortion even in cases of rape or incest. In an August interview with Fox 2 Detroit, she said abortion should be allowed only for the “life of the mother.” In cases of rape, she asserted, there could be “healing through that baby.”
Whitmer, by contrast, is a strong advocate of the right to abortion.
Trump will do his best to stir up the GOP base on Saturday.
But Dixon is a serious underdog.
Michigan, which Trump won in 2016 but lost in 2020, could be about to deliver another defeat by proxy to the former president.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.