When I spotted Michigan GOP chair Saul Anuzis at the CPAC confab here in Washington a couple of weeks ago, I had to approach him and ask: Is the Michigan primary really up for grabs? This was just a few days after fmr. Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum's upending of ersatz front-runner Mitt Romney in the Minnesota and Colorado caucuses and Missouri's "beauty contest" primary, and the previously unthinkable - a Romney loss in the state he was born - was starting to seem possible. Anuzis confirmed re: Santorum: "I think he'll play" in Michigan - especially "Downriver" in the white working class enclaves south of Detroit - "because Michigan is the home of Reagan Democrats."
Anuzis is perfectly positioned to address that question. Not only is Anuzis a pol schooled in the nuts and bolts of electoral politics through decades of service in the trenches of Michigan Republican electioneering, keeping his ear tuned to the grassroots, but Anuzis has agitated for the GOP to adopt a take on the campaign style, message and demographic targeting that has propelled Santorum this far in this Republican nominating cycle.
In two runs for RNC chair, Anuzis sold himself as the only guy who could appeal to that fabled political animal, the Reagan Democrat. Macomb County - Detroit's blue collar suburb - is the spiritual home the Reagan Democrats, who are hawkish, socially conservative but often economically populist, off the free market reservation. Anuzis even openly bragged that he was once a Teamster.
The Romney political clan hails from a bordering jurisdiction, the more affluent suburban Oakland County. Oakland was once rock-ribbed Republican, but a Democratic trend has culminated in a handy Obama win in 2008.
Michigan offers familiar political terrain for Santorum; his homestate Pennsylvania shares many Rust Belt demographic and voting behavioral traits with the Wolverine State. Santorum has built his career appealing to voters like those in Macomb County: pro-life and pro-gun but also loyal to their Big Labor local. Santorum has campaigned in Michigan against a backdrop banner that reads "Made in America," a obvious nod to blue collar voters.
So Anuzis might find vindication in his strategy in the seeming waning appeal of a Midwestern "regular Republican," struggling to take a statewide primary even with the GOP name-brand name Romney attached.
Yes, the Oakland county voters who once would have driven home a comfortable Romney Republican primary victory are defecting to the Democratics - especially the college-educated ones - but as The Examiner's senior political analyst, Michigan native Michael Barone reminded us in his column last Sunday, "it's also true that there just aren't so many voters in [Reagan Democrat country] any more; voter turnout there is way down. (Santorum's own) Pittsburgh is our one major metro area with more deaths than births. There aren't as many neighborhoods filled with devout Catholics with large families as there were 50 years ago."
Anuzis has joined the rest of Michigan's political establishment in backing Romney this time, but Santorum "will play" strong here by using Anuzis' favored playbook.
Given the Reagan Democrats' demographic decline, a Santorum strong showing might ironically foreshadow longterm electability challenges for the GOP.