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As primary voters in Michigan head to the polls Tuesday, there are constant reminders that while the state has largely recovered from the harsh toll of the economic downturn of 2008, it remains a place of transition in the era of President Donald Trump.
A competitive race to succeed a two-term Republican governor, and key U.S. House races around the cities of Detroit and Lansing have put Michigan front and center in the 2018 midterm landscape. For some Michigan voters, Tuesday’s primary is about sending a message not just to the president, but to the nation about how the state views itself in the Trump era.
“Over the last year and a half people have realized that the auto industry doesn’t have a hold on the economy and Michigan,” Ashwin Rane, a 24-year-old who works as a sales engineer in the auto industry, told ABC News, “If anything that’s shown them that they need to diversify and also bring people along with automation.”
Rane was attending a rally for Abdul El-Sayed, a Democratic candidate for governor pushing a policy agenda that includes a “Medicare for All,” healthcare system and tuition free public colleges, and would be the nation’s first Muslim governor if elected in November.
But El-Sayed, who was joined on the campaign trail by Sen. Bernie Sanders last weekend, remains and underdog on the Democratic side. Gretchen Whitmer, a well-connected former state Senate leader, has the backing of locally prominent elected officials like Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Rep. Debbie Dingell, as well as a host of labor groups like the United Auto Workers (UAW).
Shri Thanedar, a self-funding businessman who has poured nearly $10 of his own money into his campaign, has also tried to claim the outsider mantle in the race, running ads mocking mispronunciations of his name and plastering his face on billboards in and around the Detroit area.
At her final campaign stop before Election Day, Whitmer told ABC News that she’s proud of the “issues-based” campaign that she’s run.
“This is about all of us, and that’s why the politics of division and the games that people are playing, I’m not going to participate in it, we’ve got work to do,” Whitmer said while an 80’s cover band entertained a group of supporters gathered at a bar in downtown Lansing.
On the Republican side, a dynastic battle of sorts has been slowly simmering between the state’s Attorney General Bill Schuette, who has the backing of President Trump, and Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley, who has the backing of incumbent Gov. Rick Snyder.
Both races encapsulate the battles raging within both parties: Democrats debating the degree to which they need to embrace the hard-left policies of Sanders, while Republicans triangulate around a President who has proved himself a chaotic and destabilizing force on the midterms.
Paolo Raimondi, an engineer in the auto industry from the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, expressed concern over President Trump’s trade policy and its potential impact on the state of Michigan.
“There is definitely a bit of worry because there are businesses constantly going into the U.S., out of the U.S. and a lot of the questions are up in the air because of tariffs and everything like that,” Raimondi told ABC News, “It’s definitely keeping people on edge about whether or not they want to bring business into the U.S. or if they want to keep it overseas.”
But while the primary election in the state may settle many unresolved political questions, the questions about where Michigan and its economy go from here linger in the minds of many of the business owners and voters that call it home.
As the old lingers, Detroit embraces the new
The economic transition in Michigan is seen starkly within the Detroit city limits, where new businesses are flocking but troubles still persist. Those struggles are personified in the still vacant buildings that symbolize the economic powerhouse that Detroit once was, buildings like Michigan Central Station, which has stood vacant in the shadow of downtown Detroit in the city’s Corktown neighborhood.
The vacant building, shuttered officially in 1988, was purchased by the Ford Motor Company in May for redevelopment, a sign of the continued change and progress the city has seen since Gov. Snyder appointed an emergency manager to oversee the city’s finances in 2013.
Slows Bar BQ, which has operated in the Corktown neighborhood since 2005, is one of the many businesses that has experience the ups and downs of Detroit’s economy in recent years.
Terry Perrone, the managing director of Slows, told ABC News that while Detroit’s economic comeback is a welcome sight for businesses in the city, there is still a desire among residents to maintain the same character that has always defined the Motor City.
“I love this city, and so do the people in this neighborhood that call it home,” Perrone told ABC News, but added that one of the main challenges is dealing with Detroit’s still outdated infrastructure.
“We’ve lost power three times this summer alone,” Perrone said.
The challenge of balancing the new and the old is a struggle seen in cities across the Midwest, and Detroit’s continuing economic transition demonstrates that it is no exception.
From Detroit to Lansing, congressional races loom large
Aside from the governor’s race, competitive congressional primaries are taking place across southeast Michigan.
In Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, nestled in the suburbs northwest of Detroit, the retirement of GOP Congressman Dave Trott has sparked crowded primaries on both sides of the aisle.
Leading on the Democratic side are Haley Stevens, the former Chief of Staff to the Obama administration’s bailout of the auto industry and healthcare start-up co-founder Suneel Gupta, the brother of CNN medical reporter Sanjay Gupta.
On the GOP side, Lena Epstein, who chaired Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign in the state, is facing three current and former state legislators in her bid to succeed Trott.
In the 8th Congressional District, which spans from the state capitol of Lansing to the exurbs of Detroit, GOP Rep. Mike Bishop is facing a tough re-election bid against whoever emerges from a field of well-funded Democratic challengers. Bishop’s likely opponent is Elissa Slotkin, a former Obama Defense Department official.
In the city of Detroit and the immediate suburbs, successors to two political legends will be elected this year.
The resignation last year of longtime Rep. John Conyers over allegations of sexual misconduct has sparked a crowded race to replace him in a deep blue inner-city Detroit district. Former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who would be the first Muslim woman if elected, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and Bill Wild, the mayor of the suburban town of Westland, are the top three Democrats in contention to represent Michigan’s 13th Congressional District.
Rep. Sander Levin, who has held a Detroit area congressional seat since 1983, is also retiring this cycle, and his successor in the state’s 9th congressional district will either be his son, Andy Levin, or the EMILY’s List backed former State Rep. Ellen Lipton.