It is no surprise that in the run-up to this week’s Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan made their first joint campaign appearance in the key battleground state of Ohio. More interesting is that Romney and Ryan took their pre-convention tour to a Midwestern state that went for Barack Obama by double digits in 2008: Michigan.
No GOP presidential candidate has carried Michigan in almost a quarter-century, and four years ago Obama won here in a 16-point landslide. This November, however, Romney sees Michigan as ripe for a pickup.
Most polls show Obama leading here narrowly, but Romney strategists point out that their man is nearly tied with the president before the TV ad war between the campaigns has even begun. Michigan is one of 11 states where the Romney campaign is fully staffed with a battleground footprint and money flowing in.
So can Romney pull an upset here? While he emphasized his Michigan roots this weekend with an ill-considered birther joke, his favorite-son status gets him only so far. After all, most Michigan voters have only distant memories of his father’s tenure as governor in the 1960s, and Romney barely squeaked out athree-point primary win over Rick Santorum in his home state.
But a number of factors suggest that Romney has a shot in Michigan. For one thing, since Obama’s 2008 victory, Michigan voters put the House in GOP hands and have elected a Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who campaigned (like Romney) on his experience in the private sector. Since taking office, Snyder has erased a $1.5 billion budget deficit and cut corporate taxes by $1 billion a year — and Michigan’s unemployment rate dropped from over 13 percent in 2010 to 8.6 percent in June. If Michigan voters are comfortable enough to put a chief executive in charge in Lansing, it stands to reason they would also put a chief executive in charge in Washington.
Despite the recent progress, Michigan is not yet out of the woods economically. The state is still in its 48th straight month of above-8-percent unemployment and has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation. The election will turn on jobs and the economy — and those are the issues Romney and Ryan emphasized at a rally in Commerce this weekend.
But the Romney campaign has also been highlighting two other issues that have particular resonance in Michigan. One is the administration’s contraception and abortifacient mandate, which hurts the president with the socially conservative Reagan Democrats in such places as Macomb County. There are 2.4 million Catholic voters in Michigan, and Obama’s assault on religious liberty has alienated many of them. In May, the Michigan Catholic Conference filed suit against the Obama administration over the Health and Human Services mandate — and Catholic priests will be preaching against it in parishes across the state between now and Election Day. Look for Romney to underscore his opposition to the HHS mandate — and his endorsement by Lech Walesa — with these Catholic voters, many of whom are of Polish and Ukrainian descent.
The second issue is welfare reform. Welfare fraud is fresh on people’s minds here, thanks to the news of a Detroit area woman who was recently caught continuing to collect benefits despite winning a $1 million state lottery prize. Michiganders have a strong work ethic and remain justly proud of their state’s role as a pioneer of welfare reform in the 1990s. The charge that Obama is gutting welfare reform hits a nerve here.
For these and other reasons, some Michigan Democrats are increasingly worried that Obama may be taking victory here for granted. Local Democratic pollster Bernie Porn recently told the political newsletter MIRS that the Obama campaign seems to be “of the opinion that the bailout and loans he approved for the auto industry is such a powerful message that’s going to win the day for him. But I think he could be waiting too long.”
Romney knows he must win key battleground states, like Ohio, and take back states such as Virginia and North Carolina, which George W. Bush carried but John McCain lost in 2008. But he is also making a serious play for a few additional states no Republican has carried in the past five elections. His selection of Ryan as his running mate has put one of those states — Wisconsin — in play. And while a GOP victory in Michigan is still a long shot, Romney is betting he can also become the first Republican to win the state since 1988 — and with it the White House.
Marc A. Thiessen, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, writes a weekly online column for The Post.