Getting ready to leave for Dearborn, Stabenow told me she was going to shake 600 hands there. Toward the end of the shift change, I asked her if she’d hit her handshake goal.
“Oh yeah,” she told me. “We’ll have to count the list. But at least.”
An aide followed up later. They’d counted: 1,500 glossy pieces of paper, each with every name and face on the ticket on it.
Later that night, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell listened as Stabenow told the University of Michigan College Democrats about her two hours in the parking lot.
Dingell loves that people call her Debbie Downer, and she tends to point that out as often as she reminds people that she’d spent the last month of the 2016 election warning that Trump could win.
She’d just come from a plant herself, down in Flat Rock, south of Detroit and near the Ohio border. Some workers saw her and started clapping along as they chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!”
“The mood is still there,” Dingell said. “It could go either way.”
The downfall of Bill Schuette, Michigan’s Republican attorney general, started in Pennsylvania in 2014.
Staring down another late-breaking Democratic primary for governor that year, a group of consultants and activists came together and decided they weren’t going to wait for the results. They started raising money to pay for polls and research on Tom Corbett, the incumbent Republican who went on to be the only GOP governor who went down in 2014.
The staff at Progress Michigan took notes. They’d raised a few hundred thousand dollars in the 2016 cycle, but with national donors suddenly interested in Michigan, they’d begun amassing what would be a million dollars of independent expenditure money. By the end of June 2017, that was enough to start testing how to attack Schuette, the attorney general and longtime fixture of the Michigan GOP.
They started in Southfield, at an office building, with a group of women, mostly white, heavily middle-aged. They showed pictures of Schuette on the job, with his family, on his own, with other politicians.
“He looks kind of shady,” one woman said.
They started testing “Shady Schuette” on the five remaining focus groups. It stuck. Soon the phrase was in digital ads, which they were targeting by IP addresses, watching for who was at certain events, then popping up on their home computers. It chased him everywhere, even onto the stage of the Republican primary debate, with one of his opponents calling him that to his face, and another, the sitting lieutenant governor, launching a whole TV and web campaign around shadyschuette.com.
“For your opponents to pick up your messaging and put millions in ads behind it is like jujitsu,” said Patrick Schuh, the Michigan state director of America Votes, which also joined the effort, along with the League of Conservation Voters and the union- and Tom Steyer-backed group For Our Future.