Supporting Anti-Lockdown Protests In Michigan Could Hurt Republicans In November

May 1, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem
A protester holds a sign at the State Capitol in Lansing, Mich., Thursday, April 30, 2020. Hoisting American flags and handmade signs, protesters returned to the state Capitol to denounce Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-home order and business restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic while lawmakers met to consider extending her emergency declaration hours before it expires. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

WASHINGTON — GOP lawmakers in Michigan’s state legislature want to take Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer to court over her decision to invoke emergency powers during the coronavirus crisis.

The dispute started in March when Whitmer declared a state of emergency as Michigan was reporting its first COVID-19 cases. A few weeks later, as cases skyrocketed, Whitmer ordered residents to stay indoors and non-essential businesses to temporarily shut down.

The move was praised by residents who agreed that strict measures were necessary to stop the deadly disease, which has killed nearly 4,000 people and infected tens of thousands in the state.

But it also angered conservatives who accused Whitmer of abusing her powers and violating people’s constitutional rights. As a result, when the governor announced the lockdown would be extended until mid-May, protesters showed up at her front door with ‘Trump 2020’ signs.

The demonstrations continued on Thursday when hundreds of people — some openly carrying rifles — descended on Lansing, pushing inside the state capitol as lawmakers debated whether to extend the governor’s stay-at-home order. In the end, the GOP-led legislature did not approve the extension, but Whitmer was able to prolong the state of emergency until May 28 by issuing a new order.

Michigan Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield said he was “disappointed” on Thursday that the governor didn’t compromise with Republican lawmakers. “Today, we offered our hand of partnership to the governor. No politics.” Chatfield tweeted. “We’re all in this together and we should all work together.”

President Donald Trump has voiced his support for the anti-lockdown protesters. “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” Trump tweeted on Friday. “These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely!” Last month, Trump provoked a media storm when he tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” after the April 15 protest in Lansing.

The anti-lockdown protests have fueled headlines across the country as political pundits deliberate on their significance for the upcoming presidential race. Some commentators say they could spark a backlash against Democrats at the polls in November. 

But Adrian Hemond, CEO of Grassroots Midwest, a bipartisan political consulting firm, says the controversy could end up hurting Republicans more than Democrats.

Hemond says the anti-lockdown protests don’t reflect how most Michiganders feel about the governor’s stay-at-home order. “The overwhelming majority of people think that we should be taking a cautious wait-and-see gradual approach with lifting the lockdown, or think we shouldn’t even contemplate it yet,” Hemond says.

His view is supported by recent polling on the issue. According to a survey released Thursday by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm, 66% of Michigan respondents say they oppose protesters who want to immediately re-open the country, and just 18% say social distancing measures should be relaxed.

Hemond says supporting anti-lockdown protests could alienate some key Republican voters who may be in favor of a slower re-opening of the economy due to concerns for their health. “Republicans are losing on this issue with the constituency that is most core to them, which is older voters,” Hemond says. “Older voters in general are very supportive of what’s been identified with the governor here as the Democratic position — stay at home, stay safe.”

Michigan saw one of the most hotly contested races in the 2016 presidential election, with Donald Trump defeating Hillary Clinton by a historically thin margin of just 0.2%. 

Participation was relatively high in 2016, with 63% of eligible Michiganders showing up to the polls. Hemond says it’s still unclear how the coronavirus will affect voter turnout this year, but absentee voting will surely play an important role.

“We don’t know how comfortable people are going to be leaving their homes to vote,” Hemond says. “So my view is that whichever side is more effective in investing in their absentee vote in Michigan is going to prevail here.”

In 2018, Michigan voters passed a ballot measure to add “no-reason” absentee voting to its constitution, a law that allows any eligible voter to cast an absentee ballot without having to provide an excuse. The 2020 election will be a litmus test for that new measure.

Before the state’s Democratic primary in March, the number of absentee ballot applications was up 70.5% from the same point in 2016, according to the office of Michigan’s Secretary of State. “You’re going to see sky-high absentee voting in Michigan in the November presidential election,” says Hemond.

For Democrats, getting voters to hit the polls in urban areas like Detroit’s Wayne County, which counts more than 1.7 million residents, will be critical, Hemond says. But they’ll also have to capture some working class voters in more rural areas, which Hillary Clinton failed to do in 2016.

“If Biden is able to perform credibly with that constituency and keep turnout at reasonable levels in Detroit, I expect he’ll prevail,” Hemond says.

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