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Michigan's progressive voters: Nov. 3 won't be repeat of 2016

Craig Mauger   | The Detroit News

Porter Hughes, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Michigan, lets out an exasperated sigh as he reveals the candidate for whom he cast his absentee ballot in the Nov. 3 election.

Hughes, who's studying political science and helped with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign in Michigan's Democratic presidential primary, voted for Democratic nominee Joe Biden — something he didn't think he would do months earlier.

While much of the media spotlight is on undecided voters in the middle of the political spectrum, some Democrats in Michigan are increasingly focusing on far-left progressive voters, like Hughes, who might not be thrilled about the former vice president but could be crucial to the state's outcome.

"It was hard," explained Hughes of deciding whether to vote for Biden, support a third-party candidate or write in Sanders' name. "It was not an easy decision for me to make.

"I might have done a protest vote in a normal year. But I view the pandemic response as abysmal, and I don’t want to be in this anymore."

There were similar messages from a handful of progressive voters and leaders in Michigan in recent days about their decision to support Biden against President Donald Trump, even though they disagree with Biden's stances on key issues, such as how aggressively to combat climate change and expand health care coverage through the federal government.

Their decisions on whether to support the Democratic nominee could be crucial in Michigan, a state Trump won by 10,704 votes in 2016, his smallest margin of victory nationally.

Green Party candidate Jill Stein got 1.1% of the votes — or 51,463 votes — in Michigan, nearly five times the amount of Trump's margin over Democrat Hillary Clinton. Clinton received 295,730 fewer votes in Michigan than President Barack Obama did four years earlier.

Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson received 3.6% of the votes or 172,136 votes.

Now, Democratic groups, activists and the Biden campaign are working in Michigan to ensure base voters who might have stayed home in 2016 don't this fall.

Among them is Abdul El-Sayed of Ann Arbor, a 2018 candidate for governor, a CNN commentator and a Sanders supporter.

Progressive voters have a "responsibility" to get behind Biden and they could make the difference in the election in Michigan, said El-Sayed, who unsuccessfully ran to the left of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer two years ago.

While Biden doesn't support expanding government-run health insurance to all U.S. residents and the most aggressive proposals to respond to climate change, democracy is at risk if Trump is reelected, El-Sayed contended.

"I'd rather be walking forward than being dragged on my rear end backwards," he said. 

El-Sayed has a political action committee called South Paw that's working to turn out progressive voters in Michigan. The group has sent out 1.5 million text messages and 263,000 calls, targeting those who backed Sanders, young people and other groups, he said.

Biden a 'Trojan horse'?

Trump's campaign has been arguing the former vice president is too far to the left — although Sanders supporters disagree. Current Vice President Mike Pence said in Grand Rapids on Wednesday that Biden is a "Trojan horse for the radical left" who would support a "government takeover" of health care.

Health care policy was a main disagreement in the primary fight between Sanders and Biden. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, and his supporters have championed the idea of the federal government providing health care for everyone. His idea is known as "Medicare for All." Trump's campaign has labeled it "socialized" medicine.

Instead of guaranteeing health insurance for everyone, Biden wants to build on the current Affordable Care Act and offer a "public option," like Medicare, that individuals could purchase. The option would reduce costs for patients by "negotiating lower prices from hospitals and other health care providers," his campaign website says.

The public option would send America on a path to "socialized medicine," Pence contended last week. Conservative critics have argued that creating a public option eventually would result in the federal government tilting the playing field toward government health plans that compete with private health plans and paving the way for a single-payer or totally government-funded health care system. 

When it comes to climate change, many progressives support the Green New Deal, a proposal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a 10-year mobilization.

Biden has called for investment in electric vehicles and other new technologies. The Democrat's campaign website calls for a "clean energy revolution," but he's spoken out against the 10-year deadline in the Green New Deal.

During an ABC town hall on Thursday, he said the country needs time "to be able to transition" to get to net-zero emissions.

Stakes motivate the left

On other hand, Trump's administration has rolled back environmental regulations put in place by former President Barack Obama and moved to exit the Paris Agreement, a multiple-nation effort to combat climate change.

During the Sept. 29 presidential debate, Trump said he wants to do "everything we can" to have "immaculate" air and water. But when asked if human pollution contributed to climate change, he responded "to an extent yes," adding "a lot of things" do. He also noted that carbon dioxide emissions have declined during his administration despite leaving the Paris Agreement.

Citing health care and climate change policy, among other issues, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, one of the original sponsors of the Green New Deal, said there's a possibility that this year will be a "fundamental transition point" in American history.

Levin said he feels encouraged about passing transformative legislation during a Biden administration and argued the former vice president would hire "progressive people" to help run the government.

Voters of color, young voters and climate change advocates didn't come out in big enough numbers to help Clinton win Michigan in 2016, Levin said.

"They will come out in big enough numbers for Biden," he said.

Michelle Deatrick of Ann Arbor, the national chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee Climate Council, echoed the ideas. There's been a tremendous amount of energy among progressive organizations, said Deatrick, who's founder and lead organizer of Our Revolution Michigan.

She avoided specific comparisons to 2016, but said of Nov. 3's election, "the starkness of the tragedy is really apparent to everyone. We are seeing across the breadth of the Democratic Party incredible turnout and volunteerism."

Sanders helps Biden

Biden's campaign itself has also worked to consolidate support among those who backed Sanders in the contentious Democratic primary fight.

Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, received 36% of the vote in Michigan's March 10 primary. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who also ran to the left of Biden but shut down her campaign before Michigan's primary, still got 26,148 votes in the state, or 2%.

Biden got 53% of the vote.

Sanders has campaigned for the former vice president in Michigan, appearing in Ann Arbor and Macomb County on Oct. 5. Warren has done virtual events targeting Michigan.

El-Sayed, who endorsed Sanders in the primary, was one of the progressives chosen to serve on "Unity Task Forces" set up by Biden and Sanders to work on policy development. El-Sayed said every time he's reached out to Biden's campaign, he's gotten a "listening ear."