United Auto Workers members attend a rally in Detroit on Sept. 15, 2023. | Paul Sancya/AP Photo
Republicans are testing whether they can widen the Democratic Party rift exposed by the United Auto Workers strike as they try to reclaim the Senate and the White House.
The GOP sees the UAW walkout as a potential lifeline in Michigan, where politically weakened Republicans are now plotting how best to seize on a tension point between Democrats’ clean-energy agenda and their pro-labor roots. President Joe Biden is pressing for more electric vehicles to achieve his climate goals, but workers who produce parts like batteries for those cars are often non-union and make less money.
“What do you expect would happen when you push policies that will kill off people’s jobs?” said Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.). “Putting climate change policies over people is absolutely ridiculous, and we cannot stand for it.”
Democrats dominated in statewide races in recent cycles, with Biden winning in 2020 and Democrats retaking the state legislature and governor’s mansion. The Republican Party is largely in shambles there, and the national party hasn’t won a Senate seat in Michigan since 1994. But now, they see a potential opening.
It’s too early to know how long the strike might drag on, but the walkout has added building pressure on Biden to work with both sides to reach a deal before 150,000 union members across several other states take similar action, spurring major economic consequences.
In the coming days and weeks, Republican campaigns and national party leaders will be monitoring the state-of-play and polling as they determine just how much to lean into attacks on Democrats’ clean energy agenda, but also against the president, who is being accused of not having done enough to avoid the standoff.
That said, it’s hardly a clear or easy line of attack for Republicans, who aren’t explicitly supporting the union.
Former President Donald Trump is jockeying for a UAW endorsement for his 2024 White House bid. Trump, who according to the Detroit News is weighing a trip to Michigan, urged the union to place “the complete and total repeal of Joe Biden’s insane Electric Vehicle mandate” at the top of their list of demands. His former vice president, 2024 hopeful Mike Pence, hit a similar note on Sunday.
“I also think that this green agenda that is using taxpayer dollars to drive our automotive economy into electric vehicles is understandably causing great anxiety among UAW members,” he said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Other Republicans followed suit, with a National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson calling out Michigan Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin — Democrats’ favored candidate for the state’s open Senate seat — for her Thursday vote allowing state-level limits or bans on gas-powered cars as choosing her “party over Michigan.”
Among the Michigan GOP politicians who sounded off in support for the strike are several members of the congressional delegation, one top Senate candidate and another likely Senate contender who was a former UAW member himself.
“One thing that the strike might be able to do is highlight the conflict that it’s creating with working class Americans, and that might end up being very beneficial to Republicans,” said Saul Anuzis, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. “As Rahm Emanuel used to say, ‘I’ll never let a crisis go to waste.’ This might be that crisis that takes a lot of blue-collar, working class Americans to sit there and say, ‘We’re getting shafted by these left-wing policies that are really not very practical.’”
The resounding response is emblematic of a shift in the Republican Party cultivated under Trump. In a GOP that has been traditionally less friendly to unions, many Republicans see the UAW strike as an opening to continue the work Trump began in 2016 to position their party for a play at these blue-collar workers in 2024.
Though Republicans might often clash with union leaders, Trump’s economic message in 2016 resonated with an unusually large number of rank-and-file union voters, helping him capture the industrial midwest. And in turn, his support bolstered Republicans in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
“I mean, you look at Macomb County, which is the home to Reagan Democrat. All these union workers in 2016 weren’t satisfied with Democratic policies, and they put Trump into office. And if Democrats both statewide, but more importantly nationally, don’t respond to this strike and respond to the UAW’s demands sufficiently, it may come to bite them,” said Michigan Republican Jason Watts, who was removed from his post as a local party treasurer in Michigan after publicly breaking with Trump in 2021.
Michigan will be a battleground up and down the ballot in 2024. With an open Senate seat, several competitive House seats and a contested presidential contest, many ambitious Republicans moved quickly to weigh in on the side of the auto workers.
“UAW workers get up early every morning and work hard for a living — that’s the Michigan way. Meanwhile, coastal elites in the Biden Administration wake up and go to the couch where they’ll work from home,” said Rep. John James (R-Mich.), who won his seat in 2022 by less than 2,000 votes, in a statement.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s retirement gives Republicans a chance to win a Senate race for the first time since 1994. But Michigan, a state Trump won in 2016 but lost in 2020, is not among the GOP’s top targets.
“Autoworkers are crucial to our economy and after years of concessions, they deserve a fair deal,” said former Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who just launched a Senate campaign.
Another potential Senate contender for the Republican nomination is former Detroit Police Chief James Craig, who worked at a Chrysler plant as his first job out of high school, also released a statement slamming Biden’s electric vehicle push.
In an interview, Craig said the strike makes him more likely to run for the open Senate seat and that Republicans needed to shift away from anti-union stances.
“Some get it, some don’t,” he said. “You get some of the old establishment Republicans who have always done it a certain way and who are resistant to change.”
“I will be a candidate for the workers because I am a worker,” he said.
The issue does not mean that Republicans are suddenly the party of labor. The Chamber of Commerce, which historically has sided with Republicans, slammed the Biden administration policies as “unionization at all costs” for the strike.
Though Trump has made overtures to union members, union leadership is still closely aligned with the Democratic party, and Republicans notably aren’t discussing wages or cost of living in their statements, issues of utmost importance to union members.
Watts said that the party’s outreach to “Trump Democrat union folk, is on a precarious edge.”
“You can’t push it too much,” he said. “But we’ll always take a shot at converting or bringing those union members to the tent.”
Olivia Beavers and Ursula Perano contributed to this report.