A Look At One Of The Most Significant Political Borders In Michigan

Oct 26, 2018
Originally published on October 26, 2018 3:03 pm
Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Michigan was part of the reason Democrats felt so confident during the last presidential race. They imagined a great blue wall stretching across the Great Lakes through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. The industrial Midwest had been a core of Democratic support for years. All of those states went for President Trump partly thanks to white working-class voters who used to reliably support Democrats. Now President Obama has come to Detroit, where he spoke tonight. He won the state twice, and he's hoping to revive those coalitions for the midterms in just over a week. I came here to see whether these political shifts are permanent.

ZACH GORCHOW: This I believe is the most significant political border in the state of Michigan now.

SHAPIRO: This is a five-lane road called Dequindre. It's more functional than beautiful - lots of strip malls and residential developments. The man walking alongside me is Zach Gorchow, editor of a statewide news service called Gongwer which covers Michigan politics.

Why did you choose this place to meet?

GORCHOW: Well, on the west side is the city of Troy, which is in Oakland County.

SHAPIRO: If we turn left right now...

GORCHOW: If we turn left.

SHAPIRO: ...We'll be in Troy.

GORCHOW: Yes. And on the east side, if we turn right, we would be in the city of Sterling Heights, which is in Macomb County. And these two communities in these two counties are really emblematic of this divide that's happening nationally where college-educated voters are tending to move away from the Republican Party toward the Democrats, and those white working-class voters who don't necessarily have bachelor's degrees are moving away from the Democrats and toward the Republicans.

SHAPIRO: Two communities right next to each other moving in opposite political directions. Wealthier Troy, where Gorchow grew up, is shifting away from strict Republican rule.

GORCHOW: The idea that they could be represented by a Democrat or Democrats in the state Legislature to me is shocking. You know, these are areas that used to elect their members to the Legislature by 70, 75 percent for the Republicans.

SHAPIRO: And across the street, working-class Sterling Heights is becoming less solidly Democratic.

GORCHOW: I mean, that is a chasm of a difference. And it's on either side of the road here.

SHAPIRO: These shifts could determine whether Republicans hold onto the Michigan governor's mansion. And it could even influence which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives.

All right, well, let's explore these areas. We've walked Dequindre. Now let's see what lies on either side of it.

First we turn left into a community with lots of people like Kathleen VanPoppelen. She's got a master's degree and a nursing job with a good salary.

KATHLEEN VANPOPPELEN: I love Michigan. And I love living here. No hurricanes, no mudslides, no typhoons, just good old Midwest values.

SHAPIRO: Have you considered yourself a Republican all your life?

K. VANPOPPELEN: Since I was in high school - very conservative.

SHAPIRO: Have you ever voted for a Democrat?

K. VANPOPPELEN: No.

SHAPIRO: And yet here you are wearing a pin on your coat for a Democrat for Congress.

K. VANPOPPELEN: Correct. I have a T-shirt, too.

(LAUGHTER)

K. VANPOPPELEN: But you can't wear it at work.

SHAPIRO: Educated suburban women are becoming disillusioned with the Republican Party across the U.S. And for VanPoppelen personally, this political shift is an earthquake. For her, it has a lot to do with President Trump.

K. VANPOPPELEN: It's like we're all on a reality show, but we didn't sign up to be participating in it. The only reality show I want to be on is "Survivor" if they will ever pick me. But, no, I didn't sign up for this one.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

K. VANPOPPELEN: I'm serious. I tried six times to be on it.

SHAPIRO: Was there one moment that made you change your mind and say, forget it; for the first time in my life, I'm going to vote for a Democrat?

K. VANPOPPELEN: Yes. It was the shooting in Florida, that high school shooting on Valentine's Day.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas...

K. VANPOPPELEN: Yes, that one.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

K. VANPOPPELEN: And I was having lunch with a lot of my nursing school friends. And we've all known each other since 1976. We all started nursing school together then. And we were lamenting. And I said, we can't lament anymore. We have to do something about this. We can't just sit back and wring our hands anymore. What are we all going to do? So that's what happened.

SHAPIRO: Her sister invited her to see the Democratic congressional candidate at a house party, and VanPoppelen fell in love. Now she's knocking on doors with her daughter, a lifelong Democrat. It's the first time they've ever supported the same candidate.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.

BROOKE VANPOPPELEN: Hi, my name's Brooke. This is my mom, Kathleen. And...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, Kathleen.

B. VANPOPPELEN: ...We're volunteers for Elissa Slotkin for Congress.

SHAPIRO: A Republican incumbent represents the district right now. If it flips, that could determine which party controls the House.

K. VANPOPPELEN: Will you sign a pledge card that you're going to vote for her?

SHAPIRO: So that's the west side of Dequindre, the road separating these two communities. Now let's visit the east side of the street.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: There you go. You're welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: That's OK.

SHAPIRO: The Sterling Frights Halloween festival is a sea of children and their parents. There are a bunch of superheroes that come up about to my waist, some unicorns. There's a little flamingo being pulled around in a wagon. Sterling Heights, where this is located, is historically a blue-collar, union, Democratic-voting area. And it's been shifting more purple.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Get your Halloween bands.

RYAN LIETAERT: I'm Ryan Lietaert.

SHAPIRO: Looks like you've got a newborn baby here.

LIETAERT: We do, yep.

SHAPIRO: How old is she?

LIETAERT: She's like 10 days.

SHAPIRO: Oh, my goodness, that's amazing. Congratulations.

LIETAERT: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: He's a pipefitter wearing a union hoodie. The baby girl in his arms is his third child.

LIETAERT: You know, we've got tons of work. Businesses are growing. I mean, I get to see the inside of it. All these places that we do jobs for, they're all expanding. And things are looking positive.

SHAPIRO: Who do you give credit for that?

LIETAERT: I don't know. I guess Obama got things rolling decent. And, you know, since Trump's come on board, obviously the stock market exploded.

SHAPIRO: At least it did at first. In the last month, stocks have lost most of their gains from the previous year. Lietaert supported Obama in 2008 and Trump in 2016.

What do you think led to you making the shift from blue to red?

LIETAERT: Well, honestly I just didn't really care for Hillary Clinton.

SHAPIRO: And now that Trump is in office, how do you feel about the job he's doing?

LIETAERT: I mean, I don't have any complaints.

SHAPIRO: Other people we met in Sterling Heights switched parties in 2016 and are ready to switch back, like Matthew Fair. He just recently returned to work in the auto industry. He got laid off during the economic crash and worked as a truck driver for several years. He supported Trump in the last election.

MATTHEW FAIR: I figured - because he had a business background figured he was - you know, would do a lot better for the country. Not that Obama didn't. Obviously that was a mistake.

SHAPIRO: So you were an Obama-Obama-Trump voter.

FAIR: Yep.

SHAPIRO: And you're regretting the decision.

FAIR: Now that I look back, yes. I think a lot of people around here, you know, wanted - want a little bit of change. You know, but obviously maybe he wasn't the right candidate.

SHAPIRO: Tell me why you say that.

FAIR: Because of the way Trump's actually portraying the country, you know, on a - actually a national and a social media way.

SHAPIRO: In the last two years, President Trump has transformed the Republican Party with a focus on trade barriers and immigration enforcement. He's also reshaped the coalitions that Republicans and Democrats need to win elections. Here in Michigan, people will cast ballots just over a week from now in a competitive governor's race and several tight congressional races that could determine control of the House. The results here could tell us a lot about whether the transformation President Trump began is a realignment that will last.

(SOUNDBITE OF IAMNOBODI'S "MAKE ME FEEL LIKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.