OXFORD, Mich. — On a quiet cul-de-sac across the road from Glass Lake and not far from her subdivision’s golf course, Jody LaMacchia was doing something that only a few years earlier would have seemed unthinkable: asking strangers for money.
“I am running to be your state representative in 2020,” she told a small group in this Republican-leaning suburb of Detroit. “I am tired of all the toxicity in our politics.”
Down the hall, a half-dozen campaign volunteers were complaining — in often alarming terms — about the Republicans and Trump.
To Katie Weston, LaMacchia’s best friend, who typically votes for Republicans, the doom and gloom seemed a bit too dramatic, especially when the economy is surging and unemployment is so low.
“It’s stuff like this,” Weston whispered with a shake of her head.
Where women like LaMacchia, 47, and Weston, 49, come down in 2020 is likely to play a decisive role in whether Democrats hold the U.S. House and win the presidency or Trump reigns again. Suburban women were a big part of why Democrats romped in Michigan in 2018, taking the governor’s mansion and flipping two congressional seats in a state that was key to Trump’s 2016 win.
Now, nearly a year later, LaMacchia and Weston were trying to find some steady ground amid the Democratic Party’s leftward lurch and Trump’s attacks on lawmakers of color — and looking for a presidential candidate they could support.
LaMacchia threw herself into Democratic politics shortly after Trump moved into the White House. In 2018, she even persuaded Weston to vote for Democrat Elissa Slotkin, a CIA veteran who bested a Republican House incumbent by promising to work across the aisle and restore civility to Washington.
Both friends kept an eye on this week’s debates in Detroit. LaMacchia’s newfound activism landed her tickets for her and her wife. Weston, who lives two doors away from LaMacchia in a house with a matching floor plan, watched the debates on television until she said she couldn’t take any more.
Weston was looking for someone steady who wouldn’t disrupt the country’s economic success under Trump. “He does have some good ideas,” she said of the president, “but his points get washed away when he opens his mouth and spouts off.”
LaMacchia was looking for a candidate who could speak to the same Democratic and independent voters whom she has been trying to reach in her fledgling run for the Michigan House.
“We need someone who can appeal to everyone,” LaMacchia said, “not for strategy’s sake, but for the sake of unity.”
LaMacchia’s journey to this moment began on election night in 2016 as she watched in shock as the returns came in for Trump. For the next week, she said, she was too depressed to do anything more than go to work and sleep.
“I ate SpaghettiOs with Parmesan cheese for dinner in bed,” she said.
Weston was shocked, too. “I thought: ‘You know what? This is going to shake up all of Washington. Nobody is going to be happy about this,’ ” she said. “And in some ways, I didn’t necessarily think that was bad.”
LaMacchia attended the Women’s March on Washington the day after Trump’s inauguration and then helped start NOW-MAD — North Oakland Women Making a Difference — to work on behalf of Democratic candidates in her largely Republican suburb.
Today, her group boasts more than 600 members, and LaMacchia is trying to upend a four-decade Republican victory streak in her state House district. Since January, LaMacchia has raised $31,000. Twice a week, she and eight to 10 volunteers canvass her district in search of the 25,000 to 26,000 votes she figures she will need to win.
Often they focus on new subdivisions, which have drawn independent and Democratic voters to the district. Her opponent, state Rep. John Reilly (R), is a hard-line conservative who vowed to oppose any new taxes until the government eliminates waste and has suggested landlords should not have to rent to gay people. He won reelection in 2018 by more than 10 percentage points.
“I am a small-government person,” he said recently. “I want more liberty. I want people making more personal decisions. I want less taxes.”
He also has been a staunch backer of the president, calling Trump a “passionate uniter” who has been “remarkably patient with his opposition.”
LaMacchia, who would be the first openly gay woman elected to the Michigan legislature, is betting that her increasingly wealthy suburban district is looking for a different kind of unity.
To succeed, she will need voters like Weston, who says she is socially liberal and fiscally conservative. Weston bristles these days when LaMacchia refers to her as her “Republican friend.”
“Drives me insane. I’m not your Republican friend. I’m not your poster child,” she told LaMacchia recently. “I’m very middle-of-the-road.”
Weston could not bring herself to vote for Hillary Clinton, whom she viewed as insincere and corrupt. She liked Trump’s policies but not his over-the-top rhetoric.
Asked whether she voted for Trump, Weston said, “I withheld.”
Even though Weston has donated to LaMacchia’s campaign and plans to vote for her, their conversations about politics remain fraught.
“We’re not trying to start a fight,” Weston recalled them agreeing before one recent conversation about politics. “We’re just talking.”
The women met 15 years ago at the Oakland County courthouse, where they help parents navigate high-conflict custody disputes. They bonded over the collapse of their first marriages, raising boys and their stressful jobs. Today, they are co-workers, neighbors and best friends.
Recently, they were sitting at the fire pit in LaMacchia’s backyard when she unloaded on Trump.
“Well, it’s time to go,” Weston said after a few minutes before walking home.
LaMacchia quickly regretted her outburst.
“It doesn’t help anything,” she said. “It doesn’t get us anywhere.”
Instead, she said, she has learned to “plant seeds,” inviting her friend to come along with her to check out more-moderate Democratic politicians. She has also learned to avoid particularly emotional topics, such as the humanitarian situation at the southern border.
“Some things, I think when you hear them,” she said, “you can’t un-hear them.”
LaMacchia and her wife, Samantha, were in their seats at the Fox Theatre in Detroit by 5 p.m. Tuesday, three hours before the moderator posed the first debate question.
Back in the suburbs, LaMacchia’s volunteer campaign staff, a group of suburban moms she had met through the Women’s March and her party activism, gathered at a bar in a converted church to watch the debate.
The talk at the debate turned to the cost of the government-run health-care programs proposed by the Democratic Party’s liberal wing. The rifts on the stage matched the divisions in the suburban bar.
Eileen Nolton, LaMacchia’s volunteer canvassing director, was willing to pay more in taxes so everyone would have access to health care. In 2008, her husband was laid off from his job at General Motors, and the sole plan they could afford was one that covered only catastrophic illness. That experience opened her up to the need for big change, she said.
Her husband, now back at work as a design engineer at GM and sitting next to her at the watch party, disagreed. “It’s going to cost everybody more money,” he said.
At the same table, Tricia Kohler, the volunteer campaign manager, listened intently as Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., described being approached by a 13-year-old who was “shaking and crying,” fearful of gun violence in his school.
Kohler, a mother of two daughters whose path to politics began with the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, looked as if she might cry, too, before Nolton broke the tension. “This debate makes me want to stress-eat,” Nolton said.
After the debate, LaMacchia felt overwhelmed by the choices. “It’s really a lot to take in,” she said. The crowd in the debate auditorium responded most enthusiastically to Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), but LaMacchia worried their ambitious proposals to raise taxes and remake capitalism would not go over well with her neighbors.
“I feel like Mayor Pete speaks in a way that could reach a lot of people in my district,” she said. “But he’s so young, and I don’t know if his being gay will be an issue.” LaMacchia and her wife turned onto the interstate, heading back to their home by the lake.
She wondered whether Weston could vote for any of the candidates. “I am always looking at these events through the lens of, ‘What’s Katie thinking?’ ” she said.
The next day, the two friends met for lunch.
“So did you watch?” LaMacchia asked.
“A little, until I thought my head was going to explode,” Weston replied. She had been turned off by Warren and Sanders and their big-government proposals. Buttigieg seemed “bright,” she said, but didn’t have enough experience.
“Just like going from being a reality-television star to president,” LaMacchia joked.
“Trump ran a business, too,” Weston replied.
LaMacchia and her wife were back in line at the Fox Theatre for the second night of the debates. Weston was in the family room with her 19-year-old son, Connor Dopke, who was home from college and playing video games.
Dopke was steering his video game motorcycle down a digital mountain trail and sharing his limited-government philosophy with his mother. The country, he said, could get by just fine with just 10 basic laws. All the others, establishing things such as the minimum wage, Medicaid and Medicare, were unnecessary. He even doubted the need for Social Security.
“Oh, honey, now you’re worrying me,” his mother said.
The two briefly discussed affirmative action. Her son said it was unnecessary and “another form of racism.” Weston countered that the government had a responsibility to help the less fortunate and address disparities in opportunity.
“We are very blessed,” she told her son.
They switched the television to the debate, which was entering its second hour. Weston settled in to watch, with her husband, Tom, joining later. On the stage, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang was calling for a universal basic income of $1,000 per month that would make up for job losses caused by automation.
“That is insane,” Weston said. “Are you serious, dude?” The economy in Michigan is booming, and companies are struggling to find workers.
“I’m not paying for that,” her son said.
No one in particular either night jumped out to Weston or her son. Her husband, who voted for Barack Obama and then Trump, was drawn to Buttigieg. “I just want a president who can bring people together, be levelheaded,” he said.
The candidates started in on their closing statements. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee warned that the “survival of humanity on this planet” was at stake if the country did not move quickly on climate change. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) fretted about a possible nuclear war.
Almost all of the candidates described Trump as an existential threat to a country facing a frightening number of crises. Weston’s husband flashed a look of mock horror. “From global warming to nuclear holocaust,” he said.
“That’s what I don’t like about all of this,” Weston replied. “It’s just doom and gloom, doom and gloom.”
LaMacchia emerged from the theater and was sorting through her own first impressions of the coming election, which she described as the most important of her lifetime. Former vice president Joe Biden seemed old and too burdened by his past.
“I loved him with Obama, but he’s got so much to answer for in his history,” LaMacchia said. She liked Inslee’s clarion call for fast action on global warming, but doubted he could win. “Maybe he’d be good for EPA,” she said, referring to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Her favorite on the second night was Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who hadn’t really been on her radar. She liked his positive message. “He might appeal to folks in my area,” she said. “Everyone is craving unity, someone who can bring both sides together.”
She was eager to get back home and ask Weston about him.