Whatever I'm Thinking

Manistique — The Battle for Michigan

February 25, 2012

The Michigan primary is next Tuesday. Since political talk can sometimes become dry I thought I’d combine a travel post with some thoughts about the upcoming contest. In fact, my first blog post was such a combination — “Mennonite Pastries Banned in Cimarron Kansas” — and I thought it came out well, photos and all, so here goes. (All photos are my own, taken in February 2009.)

Manistique, a town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula along the Lake Michigan shoreline, is so small that it reminds me of an Alaskan town, or what I imagine an Alaskan town might look like.  Few of the buildings here are as tall as two stories and there are just a couple of those.  Streets are lined with piles of shoveled snow that can dwarf the cars parked next to them. In fact, in the wintertime snowmobiles become as common a means of transportation as cars. When I was here in February 2009 the noontime temperature struggled to reach 17 degrees, and that was on a sunny day.

Manistique, Michigan, February 2009

At the turn of the 20th Century Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (known as the “U.P.”) was famous for its Jacobsville red sandstone, a burgundy red stone in demand worldwide. Architects loved to use Jacobsville for the facades of their best structures since artisans could carve intricate designs into the stone without compromising its strength. Jacobsville was used in the Tribune Building in Chicago and at the original Waldorf-Astoria in New York among many other places.  Manistique has one such Jacobsville building — it originally housed a prominent bank but now a home health agency occupies the first and second floors.

Corner bank building, Manistique, Michigan, February 2009

Manistique is the seat of Schoolcraft County. The courthouse here is a fairly new ranch-style building that does not photograph well.  The only markers are the county’s war memorial in front of the adjacent sheriff’s office.

Schoolcraft County Courthouse, Manistique, Michigan, February 2009
Schoolcraft County in the state of Michigan

Behind the courthouse, I saw two official Schoolcraft County Sheriff’s Department snowmobiles parked in a trailer.  So — the local police chase ne’er-do-wells on snowmobiles! Can you imagine if Hollywood was to make a tv show called “The U.P.”?  These cop snowmobiles would be on the opening credits tearing paths through the wilderness with sirens blaring and emergency lights blazing red and blue over the snow trails! Wouldn’t that put Erik Estrada’s old CHiPs motorcycles to shame?

Official Schoolcraft County Sheriff’s Department Snowmobile Cruisers (“Sheriff” emblem on visor)

I ate lunch at the Cedar Street Café and Coffee House. This is a fine place, built into one of the refurbished older business buildings in the old town business district. Such cafes are becoming common in small Midwestern towns. Yet they shouldn’t be called “mom and pop” places because typically they are run entirely by women entrepreneurs. The inside decor was inviting — festive Mardi Gras beads bedecked the wooden tables while oil paintings (for sale by local artists) decorated a wall of exposed brick.  Painted on the opposite wall was a country mural covering over 20 square feet from the hardwood floor to the antique pressed metal ceiling. By the way, the sausage gumbo here was just fantastic — rich brown gravy with chunks of sausage and spices over rice.  Of course, I don’t know if any Louisianan would call it “gumbo” but being authentic doesn’t matter if you’re just plain good.

What’s interesting about Manistique politically is that it sits in the heart of former Democrat Bart Stupak’s 1st Congressional District, most of which was on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The majority of the people in the U.P. are the descendants of German and Polish immigrants who came here in the late 19th century to work the iron mines and rock quarries. It is a heavily Catholic, heavily Democratic, working-class region. Bart Stupak has represented the district since 1993. Obama won this district 49%-48% in 2008.

Yet Michigan’s 1st District went Republican in the elections of 2010 for the first time since 1933. Here’s what happened. During the Congressional debate over Obamacare in 2009, Stupak led a group of pro-life House Democrats wary of passing Obamacare since they feared the bill would mandate government funding of abortions. They held out for a while, but long story short Stupak and his gang finally caved to pressure from Speaker Nancy Pelosi and voted for the legislation. In return for their votes, they were given a pledge that Obamacare would not fund abortions, but the pledge turned out to be phony and Bart Stupak became very unpopular with his Catholic, working-class constituency. Stupak decided to retire rather than run for re-election in 2010 and has since taken up the lobbyist’s trade.

In Tuesday’s primary, the focus will be on Romney versus Santorum, although Ron Paul will get some votes. Gingrich isn’t campaigning in Michigan, choosing instead to concentrate his energies on upcoming primaries in the South.

Romney is the home state guy, of course. Mitt’s father George Romney was Michigan’s governor for many years. That will mean a lot. Residents of the U.P. (called “Yoopers”) are proud to be from Michigan. Local radio broadcasts Detroit Tigers games, not the Milwaukee Brewers even though Milwaukee is a shorter drive than Detroit for most yoopers.

At the same time, these are exactly the kind of voters Rick Santorum is banking on. They are Catholic, working-class, rural, Democratic historically but not afraid to switch parties.  Michigan’s is an open primary, meaning that registered Democrats can cross party lines to vote in the Republican primary. This might boost Santorum’s turnout in the U.P., and apparently, his campaign has picked up on this possibility and has scheduled a Santorum campaign rally in the U.P.’s largest town of Marquette. (Info here. The link was good as of 2/25/12)

The Michigan Primary will put to the test two competing opinions of Santorum’s campaign strategy.  On one side is demographics expert Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute. (Henry is an old graduate school colleague of mine — he’s a very bright guy and has an unstoppable hook shot.) He wrote a piece a few weeks ago called “Two Decades Too Late” in which he described Santorum’s campaign strategy as an attempt

…to resurrect the Reagan general-election strategy of 1980 — first and foremost, to win over the conservative base on fiscal and social issues by portraying himself as a man of principle, the only candidate who will not waver.

But, according to Olsen, Santorum’s strategy is doomed to failure because the demographics of 1980 have changed during the past 30 years — a resurrection of the coalition with the old “Reagan Democrats” is no longer possible. In a nod to the timeliness of Olsen’s piece, the archetypes of the 1980 Reagan Democrats were Michigan voters.  We’ll see how many Reagan Democrats turn out for Santorum Tuesday night.

On the other side of the strategy, argument is Jeffrey Bell, an “early supply-sider” and author of the forthcoming book, “The Case for Polarized Politics.”  In a recent interview with James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal (“Social Issues and the Santorum Surge“), Bell argues that social conservatism is a winning strategy for the GOP because its appeal is strongest amongst not the wealthy but the working class:

Mr. Bell notes that social conservatism is largely a working-class phenomenon: “Middle America does have more children than elite America, and they vote socially conservative, even though they might not necessarily be behaving that way in their personal life. They may be overwhelmed by the sexual revolution and its cultural impacts.”

Mr. Bell squares that circle by arguing that social conservatism is “aspirational” and “driven by a sense in Middle America that the kind of cultural atmosphere we have, the kind of incentives, the example set by the government, is something that has to be pushed back against.”

In an ironic twist, Santorum has become identified with the social issues mostly because of the media’s portrayal of him as such. He has not actually campaigned on contraception, abortion, or gay marriage. I can personally attest to this fact as I’ve attended four Santorum events and at none of them were these issues part of the candidate’s speech. Not once.

So, Michigan will be a test. Romney has the home-state advantage while Santorum tests his campaign strategy.  We’ll see what happens in Manistique.

Snow-bound church, Manistique, Michigan, February 2009

A list of all photo posts from the American County Seats series in TimManBlog can be found here.

I’m trying to travel to all of America’s county courthouses, and each month a post about my visit to the most interesting county seats. It’s only a hobby — but donations are greatly appreciated to help defer my costs.


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