In Michigan, a Suburban County That Flipped Blue Isn’t Looking Back

WATERFORD, Mich. — As President Trump prepares to campaign on Friday at an airport hangar in Waterford, a city in Oakland County northwest of Detroit, he’ll find the place very much changed from the last time he visited there for a rally five weeks before the 2016 election.

That year, Michigan Republicans held a majority in the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, the governing body of the county’s 1.2 million people, reflecting the party’s dominance across the state, whether it was with congressional seats, or in the State House and State Senate.

But now Oakland County, which was solidly red 12 years ago, is solidly blue, becoming a prime example of the changes that are taking place in many of the nation’s suburbs.

This year, voters in this suburban area outside Detroit are poised to elect its first Democratic county executive: Dave Coulter, a former teacher and public relations executive who began his political career in 2003 when the county was solidly Republican.

“I remember getting up there with all of my great ideas on transit and regional cooperation, but thinking we need more numbers,” Mr. Coulter, 60, said of his campaign for the Oakland County Board of Commissioners, which at the time had a 19-to-6 Republican majority. “And it’s been a dramatic shift.”

This is a county that was dominated by Republicans. Its former executive, L. Brooks Patterson, served in that role beginning in 1992 and was so popular that in 2004, Democrats didn’t even field a candidate to run against him.

“I could run a line across the county and it would be 70 percent Republican,” Judge Jim Alexander, 71, of the Oakland County Circuit Court, said about the county’s political makeup in the 1990s when he served as chairman of the Oakland Republican Party. “But it’s just not that way any longer. We’ve become a microcosm of the country.”

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That red dominance began to shift in 2008 when Barack Obama carried the county by 14 percentage points. Two countywide seats — treasurer and prosecutor — were won that year for the first time by Democrats, and in 2012, Republicans lost two other countywide seats. Hillary Clinton won the county by eight points in 2016.

Still, when Mallory McMorrow, an advertising executive, decided to run for public office in 2017 for the first time — as a Democrat — Michigan Democratic Party leaders could only chuckle.

“They told me, ‘That’s cute, you’re going to get destroyed,’” said Ms. McMorrow, who was seeking to challenge the seat of State Senator Marty Knollenberg, a Republican. “That was kind of the attitude. Nobody took it seriously at all.”

But 2018 proved that the blue shift was here to stay.

Ms. McMorrow won her race for State Senate. And a number of other seats also flipped from red to blue: two more in the State House and two congressional seats in Oakland County. Democrats took a slim majority in the County Board of Commissioners for the first time ever. And of course, the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, won the county by a margin of 17 points that year. The county also helped elect Dana Nessel as state attorney general and Jocelyn Benson as secretary of state, flipping those seats from red to blue.

The shift was partly driven by demographics. A county that was 93 percent white in 1980 was only 75 percent white by 2019. Coupled with that, Mr. Patterson’s goal of turning Oakland County into “Automation Alley,” a landing spot for high tech businesses tied to the automotive industry, lured diverse and highly educated young people with good-paying jobs who in turn, brought their politics.

“There were a lot of the unintended consequences of Automation Alley,” Mr. Alexander said of Mr. Patterson’s push, which began in the 1990s. “Those tech people moved in and they were younger and more liberal individuals.”

In 2019, with a first 11-to-10 majority on the Board of Commissioners, Democrats had the power to name a successor to Mr. Patterson when he died that year at the age of 80. They appointed Mr. Coulter, who is now running for the seat in 2020 against the Republican, Mike Kowall, a former state legislator from White Lake Township in western Oakland County.

Now, 2020 is looking to be an even bluer year for Democrats in Oakland County. Mr. Coulter’s internal polls show him and Joseph R. Biden Jr. ahead by more than 20 points there. Republicans’ internal polling also shows double-digit, albeit somewhat smaller, margins.

A New York Times/Sienna poll of Michigan taken from Oct. 23-26 shows Mr. Biden with an eight-point lead over Mr. Trump. The loss of Michigan would not be a fatal blow for Mr. Trump, who won the state in 2016 by a margin of 10,704 votes, but it is one of the three states, along with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, that flipped from blue to red in 2016 and gave him the electoral votes he needed to win the White House. Mr. Biden has been holding on to a consistent lead in all three states since this summer.

Mr. Coulter, who is gay, said he had noticed such shifts reflected beyond the numbers. After having to hide his sexual orientation early in his professional career for fear of losing his job, Mr. Coulter said it hadn’t been an issue this year. “Not even in an under-the-radar type of way,” he said.

Credit...Emily Rose Bennett for The New York Times

Richard Czuba, a pollster from Glengaiff Group, whose latest survey of Michigan voters has Mr. Biden leading by nine points, had dire predictions for the county’s Republican Party.

“Oakland County is going to be a blood bath for the Republican Party, it’s that simple and that blunt,” he said. “High concentrations of college-educated voters and women have taken control of the conversation.”

Even Republicans have resigned themselves to their likely fate. Mr. Kowall acknowledged that he had decided to run against Mr. Coulter for the county’s top spot at the last minute because no one with much name recognition had stepped up. “It’s going to be tough this year,” he admitted.

Meshawn Maddock, an Oakland County resident who is one of the volunteer leaders of the group Women for Trump in Michigan, said that while she doesn’t believe the polling numbers, “Winning Oakland County, I agree, will be a miracle if it happened.”

Regardless of the dynamics, neither party is taking the suburban vote for granted. Vice President Mike Pence attracted several hundred Trump supporters to a rainy rally in Waterford last week. And Senator Kamala Harris, Mr. Biden’s running mate, took a swing through Oakland County on Sunday, hitting both the Democratic strongholds of Southfield and Pontiac, as well as the more purple city of Troy. Mr. Biden is visiting Michigan on Saturday, and will be accompanied by Mr. Obama.

Still, it seems that Mr. Trump’s unpopularity across the county is another factor for its blue turn.

Lori Goldman, of Bloomfield Hills, who after the 2016 election formed Fems for Dems, a group for suburban women in Oakland County that works to elect Democratic candidates, has seen her ranks grow to nearly 9,000 members.

“If I was not subjected to the PTSD of 2016, I could probably say I feel very comfortable that we’ll prevail,” she said of Democrats’ prospects this year. “But I won’t take that for granted. Women blame themselves. I blame myself that I didn’t bloody my knees, crawling to more houses, knocking on more doors to get more people to vote in 2016. But that’s in the past. No one is going back to sleep. No one’s going back to their La-Z-Boy. We’re here to stay.”

Mr. Alexander, who as a judge must remain nonpartisan, wouldn’t say who he was voting for but said that many of his Republican friends had made up their minds: They are leaning toward Mr. Biden.

“There are a lot of Republicans who believe that right now that the party has left them,” he said of some conservatives who feel hostility from Trump supporters. “Now, if you’re a moderate Republican, if those even exist anymore, you’re not welcome.”

As for Ms. McMorrow, the conversations she had while meeting voters during her campaign two years ago made her realize that the blue Oakland tide is resilient, at least for now.

“A lot of the people running for office in 2018 for the first time built up some pretty significant volunteer infrastructures and I’ve been waiting to see that fade and it never did,” she said. “It just shows that we can make a difference fairly quickly.”

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