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Trump to skip second GOP debate and head to Detroit to court autoworkers instead

Former President Donald Trump speaks at an event in Washington on September 15.
Jose Luis Magana
/
AP
Former President Donald Trump speaks at an event in Washington on September 15.

Former President Donald Trump will skip the debate stage in California on Sept. 27. Instead, he will head to the Motor City that day to join striking union autoworkers as they call for better contract terms from the Big Three automakers, according to a source familiar with the plans.

Trump's forthcoming trip to Detroit is the latest play in his pitch as an attractive alternative to President Biden, the incumbent Democrat who won the UAW's coveted endorsement in 2020. Biden also won a solid majority of the votes of union households in that election, helping him carry battleground states including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all states that Trump had won in 2016.

While the UAW has historically endorsed Democratic candidates, the union has so far declined to endorse Biden in his quest for a second term. The union and its new president, Shawn Fain, have said they need to see more from the president before they make any endorsement.

Trump's visit also sets up a unique political triangle between the union and two leaders.

Last week, Biden threw his support behind the UAW after the union went on strike, saying that automakers have not fairly shared the record profits they've made in recent years with the UAW, and need to go further in their offers.

"Auto companies have seen record profits, including in the last few years, because of the extraordinary skill and sacrifices of the UAW workers," Biden said. "Those record profits have not been not been shared fairly in my view with those workers."

United Auto Workers members walk the picket line at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., on Monday.
Paul Sancya / AP
/
AP
United Auto Workers members walk the picket line at the Ford Michigan Assembly Plant in Wayne, Mich., on Monday.

Even as the UAW holds Biden's feet to the fire, the chance that a Trump endorsement from the union is forthcoming is extremely unlikely as Fain has said on more than one occasion that another Trump presidency would be "a disaster."

Responding to Trump's planned visit, Fain did not mince words.

"Every fiber of our union is being poured into fighting the billionaire class and an economy that enriches people like Donald Trump at the expense of workers," Fain said.

"We can't keep electing billionaires and millionaires that don't have any understanding what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to get by and expect them to solve the problems of the working class," he continued.

Still, even without a splashy endorsement from the top brass, many union autoworkers are voters and, in swing states like Michigan, Trump showing up for selfies and handshakes could be just appealing enough to some members of a beleaguered workforce.

Skipping the debate

Trump's avoidance of the debate stage is unsurprising. For the first GOP debate in Milwaukee, Trump instead appeared in a one-on-one interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson that aired on social media site X.

He and his campaign have repeatedly claimed that because he is a frontrunner in the Republican primary, he does not need to appear alongside the other candidates. In fact, ahead of the first debate, Trump said he did not want to give attention to other campaigns by standing center stage.

"Some of them are at one and zero and two. And I'm saying, 'Do I sit there for an hour or two hours?' Whatever it's going to be, and get harassed by people that shouldn't even be running for president? Should I be doing that?" Trump asked rhetorically in his interview with Carlson.

"I just felt it would be more appropriate not to do the debate," he explained.

But the UAW strike has presented a new kind of opportunity, not just to counter-program but to do so in a way that allows him to be a man of the people, providing a new kind of media narrative.

UAW may not be welcoming

So far, the UAW has not welcomed outside intervention in contract negotiations. After a supportive statement directly from Biden, Fain criticized his viewpoint that negotiations had broken down.

In this file photo, President Biden listens during an event in the South Court Auditorium  on the White House complex, Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022, in Washington.
Alex Brandon / AP
/
AP
In this file photo, President Biden listens during an event in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex on Feb. 22, 2022, in Washington.

Biden has called himself the "most pro-union president in history" repeatedly and with this high-profile strike in Detroit, that self-assessment will be challenged.

In speaking with union members ahead of the strike, many declined to say who they planned to vote for, but one thread ran through the different conversations — they want the politicians they support to have their backs.

That is likely why Trump is planning this trip to Detroit. Because if he can meet with autoworkers and hold a Trump-style rally that energizes the crowd, he hopes to show the UAW that he is the candidate who has their best interests at heart.

Importance of Michigan

It is also no accident that Trump is focusing on Detroit. It is the "home area" of the Big Three automakers: General Motors, Ford and Stellantis North America. But it is also a state that got away from Trump in 2020. After Trump won Michigan narrowly in 2016, part of his stunning victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Biden flipped the state back to blue.

Trump, in his strategy focusing on the general election instead of giving too much attention to the primary, is focusing on these battleground states and Michigan is on that list. With a high population of blue collar workers — many of whom broke for Trump in 2016 — appealing to the labor union could be enough to swing the entire state.

As Trump learned in his previous two general elections, margins matter. And in a state like Michigan, where there are tens of thousands of union autoworkers, performing marginally better could change the outcome.

But Detroit is still a deep-blue city politically and the UAW is still an institution that aligns with Democrats most often. Plus, Michigan isn't as much of a swing state as neighboring Wisconsin or nearby Pennsylvania, particularly with a Democrat in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and a narrow Democratic majority in the state legislature.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.