The Ballenger Report reminds you that the 2024 Almanac of American Politics will be released next month (August, 2023) and can be purchased online at https://www.thealmanacofamericanpolitics.com/ or by calling 1-888-265-0600. Use the code “BALLENGER15” for a 15% discount during check-out … The volume includes a brilliantly written chapter on Michigan’s history and on the politics of the Great Lakes State over time, right up to the present. Don’t miss it! (Read the sneak peek below). No, The Ballenger Report has nothing to gain financially from recommending this. By alerting you, we feel we’re just doing a “public service.”
For more than five decades, the Almanac of American Politics has set the standard for political reference books. Now the Almanac is publishing its 17th edition (once every two years), with some 2,200 pages offering fully updated chapters on all 435 House members and their districts, all 100 senators, all 50 states and governors, and much more.
Readers can receive a 15 percent discount if they purchase the 2024 edition through the Almanac’s website — https://www.thealmanacofamericanpolitics.com/ — and apply the code (BALLENGER15) at checkout. The offer is good through August.
Louis Jacobson, a senior author of the Almanac and a contributor to seven volumes, writes the 100 state and gubernatorial chapters. Here is the chapter he wrote for the Almanac about Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer:
Michigan stunned the political world in 2016, when it was one of the three states, along with Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that enabled Donald Trump to win the presidency. Since then, it has moved back toward the Democrats, first in the 2018 midterm elections, when the Democrats flipped the offices of governor, attorney general and secretary of state; then in 2020, when Joe Biden defeated Trump in the state by 154,188 votes; and finally in 2022, when voters recoiled at the prospect of reimposition of 1931 abortion ban and at a Republican ticket enmeshed in election denialism, handing Democrats unified control of state government for the first time in 40 years.
Nearly 200 years ago, when the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville wanted to visit the American frontier, he boarded a boat and steamed across Lake Erie to visit the Michigan Territory. Tocqueville was not the first Frenchman to travel there. In the 17th century, French explorers and missionaries sailed the Great Lakes and slapped their version of Indian names on the landscape, which is why Michigan’s “ch” is pronounced like “sh” and why Mackinac is pronounced with a silent final “c”. (But Michiganders don’t carry it to extremes: Detroit ends with a robust English “oit”.) Michigan was not effectively occupied by the United States until 1796 and was bypassed in the initial westward rush into Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. In 1831, Tocqueville was still able to travel through virgin woods occupied by Indian tribes.
But, later in that decade, Michigan was settled in a rush by Yankee migrants from upstate New York and New England, who cut down trees and built farms and orderly towns complete with schools and colleges. Politically, Michigan was full of Yankee reformers who hated slavery, manned the Underground Railroad, promoted temperance and in 1855 gave Michigan a constitution that banned (as its successors have done to this day) capital punishment. Michigan was one of the birthplaces of the Republican Party, which held its first official meeting in Jackson in 1854, and up through the 1920s, Michigan was one of the most Republican states in the nation.
After the Civil War, Michigan developed an industrial economy. Its Lower Peninsula was mostly covered with trees, and lumber was the first boom industry on which Michigan relied too much. (Even today, half the state’s land area remains forested, supporting a popular hunting culture, though one that’s declining as baby boomers age.) Forests were clear-cut or swept by blazes such as the 1881 fire that burned out half of Michigan’s “Thumb.” In the late 1800s, huge copper deposits were discovered on the Keweenaw Peninsula, which juts from the Upper Peninsula into icy Lake Superior. (The state includes 40,000 square miles of the Great Lakes, making almost half of Michigan water.) Immigrants from Italy and Finland, Cornwall and Croatia found work in the mines.
Then came the auto industry. A combination of accident and shrewdness— the prickly genius of Henry Ford and the willingness of local bankers to finance auto startups— ensured that America’s fastest-growing industry for the first 30 years of the 20th century was centered in Michigan. Detroit became a boomtown, the nation’s fastest growing major metropolitan area after Los Angeles, which was then much smaller. The three county Detroit metro area zoomed from a population of 426,000 in 1900 to 2.2 million in 1930 (today it’s 3.9 million). The auto industry drew labor from outside Michigan, from southern Ontario, and from the farms of Ohio and Indiana. It attracted Poles and Italians, Hungarians and Belgians, Greeks and Jews. During World War II and the two following decades, it attracted whites from the Kentucky and Tennessee mountains and Blacks from the cotton country of Alabama and Mississippi.
This influx of a polyglot proletariat eventually changed Michigan’s politics. The catalyst was the Great Depression of the 1930s and company managers’ desire to use machines efficiently, treating employees as extensions of machines and with great distrust. Autoworkers became militant, and more militantly Democratic. Michigan politics became a kind of class warfare, conducted with a bitterness that split families and neighbors. The unions mostly won, because autoworkers and post-1900 immigrants were larger in number and produced more children than did outstate Yankees or management. With continuing growth, though, economic issues turned less bitter. Republican George Romney, the former American Motors president elected governor in 1962, and his successor, William Milliken, accepted the social welfare policies endorsed by the UAW leadership and the Democrats. Michigan supported one of the nation’s most distinguished and extensive higher-education systems, built state parks and recreation areas, and pioneered efforts to end racial discrimination.
Michigan grew faster than the nation as a whole from 1910 to 1970, and successive censuses and reapportionments increased its House delegation from 12 to 19. But by 2022 its House delegation had fallen back to 13. Since 2010, the state’s population has grown by a sluggish 1.5 percent.
A key turning point may have been changes in the domestic auto industry. After the UAW’s strike against General Motors in 1970, the union won its central demand: “30 and out,” retirement after 30 years on the assembly line. That, in turn, led to demands for costlier retiree health benefits on top of those negotiated for active workers. The assumption was that the Big Three— General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler—would continue to dominate the U.S. auto market as they had for decades and would be able to afford top-shelf benefits. The reality turned out to be different: Foreign competitors began producing better and cheaper cars that were more responsive to changes in gas prices and consumer preferences, first in Europe and Japan and then in nonunion plants in the United States.
In the city of Detroit, the population fell from 1.8 million in 1950 to 713,000 in 2010 and 632,464 in 2021. Starting with riots in 1967, crime rates in Detroit remained intolerably high for 25 years, and much of the city simply vanished— houses were abandoned or burned down, commercial frontage had nearly 100 percent vacancy rates, and the downtown was a beleaguered fortress surrounded by vacant square miles. Detroit’s crumbling architecture helped give birth to a subgenre of photography called “ruin porn.”
Detroit began rebounding in the 1990s. Crime and welfare rolls were down, new sports stadiums and even some new housing were built downtown, and old theaters were refurbished. The decade that began in 2000 paused this comeback, as the Big Three, desperate to generate cash to pay huge costs for workers’ and retirees’ benefits, squeezed their subcontractors into bankruptcy, and GM and Chrysler followed in 2009; Ford managed to stay afloat only by mortgaging almost all its assets in 2007. But Michigan recovered along with the rest of the nation: After the Great Recession, the Big Three resumed making profits, and GM and Chrysler began buying back government-owned stock. After spending several years in the biggest municipal bankruptcy in the history of North America, Detroit struck a “grand bargain” with the state’s GOP leadership in 2018—the final financial restrictions were lifted, leaving the city entirely free of such oversight for the first time since the 1970s.
Over time, the auto industry became more high-tech, with fewer unionized workers and higher skill requirements.
In 2020, workers at GM went on strike— the longest since 1970—but it ended with an agreement after 40 days. By the time the coronavirus pandemic hit, Michigan had replaced all the manufacturing jobs it had lost during the Great Recession.
Then, in 2021, GM made the blockbuster announcement that it would stop manufacturing passenger vehicles fueled by gasoline by 2035, shifting entirely to electric. It spent $2.2 billion to retool its Detroit-Hamtramck complex, newly dubbed Factory ZERO, to build the electric GMC Hummer. The following year, GM announced it would invest $7 billion on four manufacturing facilities focusing on the electric market, including a new, $2.6 billion battery factory near Lansing, in collaboration with the South Korea-based LG Energy Solution, and a $4 billion conversion for a factory in Oakland County near Detroit that would enable it to build electric versions of the Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra. These projects received state incentives and federal loans.
In 2022, Bloomberg calculated that Michigan saw the fastest post-pandemic economic comeback of any state with a population greater than 2 million. (Rural voters were less enamored of zero-emission technologies than automakers were; in 2022, voters in Montcalm County, northeast of Grand Rapids, passed several local ordinances to block a 375 megawatt wind-energy project.)
Michigan’s population today would be smaller without a steady influx of immigrants; the foreign-born now constitute nearly 7 percent of the population. Michigan leads the nation in residents with Arab ancestry, due to a nearly continuous influx since the late 1800s. Arabs now account for an estimated 2 percent of Michigan’s population, centered on Dearborn and other neighborhoods in the Detroit metro area. The Lebanese, Iraqi, Palestinian and Yemeni communities are well-established, as are Chaldeans, or Iraqi Christians, in such Detroit area localities as West Bloomfield, Warren, and Sterling Heights. In 2018, Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian, was elected to a House seat representing Detroit; later, her seat shifted to mostly suburban Wayne County. Michigan has historically ranked high nationally in refugee resettlements. The state is 14% Black and almost 6% Hispanic. In 2022, officials announced a $270 million project (including $105 million in federal funds) to restructure Interstate 375 in a way that seeks to restore Detroit’s Paradise Valley, which was a thriving, predominantly Black district until the highway was built in 1964.
Politically, Michigan was heavily Republican from the 1850s through the 1920s, then developed a partisan equipoise during the 1930s that it has largely maintained since. Historically, the city of Detroit has been strongly Democratic; Flint, Saginaw, and the Bay City corridor, with their blue-collar heritage, also leaned to the Democrats, though they have become more competitive in recent years. With their educated, government-employee workforces, Lansing, the state capital, and Ann Arbor, home of the University of Michigan, have become Democratic strongholds.
Much of the rest of the state has been Republican and is getting more so; the Upper Peninsula, historically Democratic, followed the rest of rural America, turning strongly red. One of the most notable shifts, however, has been in Grand Rapids. The region has a large Dutch-American population and many Christian conservatives, and it’s home to the DeVos family, which founded the multi-level marketing behemoth Amway and became major Republican donors and promoters of conservative policies. But in the Trump era, metro Grand Rapids became bluer, like many urban and suburban areas across the country. In 2022, Democrat Hillary Scholten won the Grand Rapids-based 3rd District seat, after GOP primary voters (with a little help from Democratic ad purchases) nominated former Trump Administration official John Gibbs over incumbent Rep. Peter Meijer, a moderate.
In 2016, Trump won the state by about a fifth of a percentage point, bolstered by blue-collar voters fleeing the Democrats. But in 2018, the Democrats snapped back, as Gretchen Whitmer won the gubernatorial race by nine percentage points and two other Democratic women flipped statewide offices: Dana Nessel as attorney general and Jocelyn Benson as secretary of state. Democrats also seized two formerly Republican congressional seats. Then, in 2020, Biden won Michigan by a margin large enough that it didn’t even rank among the seven closest states in the nation, leveraging upturns in the Oakland County suburbs of Detroit and in Grand Rapids’ Kent County as well as narrowing his deficit in blue-collar Macomb County. Despite Biden’s win, Trump targeted Michigan as a state where the result might be reversed, strong-arming local election officials and pressuring legislative leaders (unsuccessfully) to adopt the GOP Electoral College slate.
The obsession with overturning the election within the Trump wing of the GOP helped sow the seeds for the GOP’s troubles in Michigan in 2022. In the seemingly competitive races against Whitmer, Nessel and Benson, Republicans nominated conservative commentator Tudor Dixon and two active election deniers, Matthew DePerno and Kristina Karamo, respectively. Republicans were further hobbled by the unpopularity of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, which put the 1931 abortion ban back in play. Voters quickly placed a measure on the ballot to enshrine abortion rights. A third boost for Democrats came from a successful ballot initiative passed in 2018 that empowered a commission to redraw the congressional and legislative maps, which had leaned toward the GOP for the prior decade. Together, these factors enabled the Democrats to win enough seats to seize both legislative chambers and to win the most competitive congressional races. Whitmer, Nessel and Benson all prevailed by between 8 and 14 points, and the abortion-rights measure passed by a 57%-43% margin. Voters also approved a separate ballot measure that fixed a nine-day early voting period and a requirement for absentee ballot dropboxes.The combination of a good election cycle for the party and the state’s continuing importance to Electoral College math convinced Democrats to move up Michigan’s presidential primary to the fifth spot. Republicans, meanwhile, doubled down on their formula from 2022, choosing Karamo—who hadn’t conceded her loss for secretary of state—as the new state party chair. In response, establishment Republicans began “directing money, manpower, and other crucial resources to a collection of conservative outside groups” as a way to “shun” the Karamo-led party organization, the Dispatch’s David Drucker reported in February 2023.
Meanwhile, Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, riding a blue wave of dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump and with outgoing GOP Gov. Rick Snyder, won the Michigan governorship in 2018. After four years of battling a Republican legislative majority—and becoming a target of rhetorical attacks from Trump and a foiled kidnapping plot—Whitmer won a double-digit reelection victory in 2022, aided by voter backlashes against the overturning of Roe v. Wade and a GOP ballot stocked with nominees who argued that the 2020 election should be overturned.
Whitmer was raised as one of three children in Grand Rapids and East Lansing. Her father served as chief of the state Commerce Department in a Republican administration and later as CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield; her mother, a Democrat, was a senior lawyer in the state attorney general’s office. They divorced when she was young. Whitmer earned a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University and has spoken of her early desire to become a television sports correspondent. But after taking a political internship in Lansing, she changed her career focus and enrolled in law school at Michigan State. Less than three years after earning her law degree, Whitmer won a state House seat, prevailing in an expensive primary by just 281 votes. She served six years in the House, then won a state Senate seat, rising to become the chamber’s minority leader for her final four years—the first woman to lead a Senate party caucus in Michigan.
As a legislator, Whitmer leveraged her oratorical skills and procedural knowledge to become an effective critic of Snyder and the GOP legislature, waging war against right-to-work legislation and other Republican priorities. In 2013, Whitmer announced in an emotional floor speech that she had been raped in college. She told her story during debate over legislation to require abortion insurance to be purchased separately from private health plans. Only four of 38 senators at the time were women, and Whitmer decided that someone had to make a compelling case against the measure. The speech attracted national attention, but the bill passed on a near-party-line vote. “It didn’t change a damn thing,” Whitmer told Michiganbased journalist Tim Alberta. “The next morning, I was about as depressed as I’ve ever been, because I’ve just laid my soul bare.”Whitmer considered a run for attorney general in 2010, but decided against it. Four years later, facing Senate term limits, she considered a gubernatorial bid, but once again opted against a run. In 2018, Whitmer saw her opening, with Snyder term-limited and unpopular due to the Flint water crisis on his watch. It also proved to be a much friendlier year for a Democrat to run in than either 2010 or 2014. Whitmer became the first Democrat to announce a candidacy, a tactic observers later credited with keeping a number of major Michigan Democrats out of the primary, including Sen. Gary Peters and Rep. Dan Kildee. From the start, Michigan Democrats were optimistic about their chances: In addition to the burst of Democratic enthusiasm in the Trump era, they expected to ride a backlash against Snyder.In the Democratic primary, Whitmer was the establishment candidate, as well as the only woman in the race. Whitmer had vastly more political experience than either of her challengers—Abdul El-Sayed, a 33-year-old former city of Detroit health director, and Shri Thanedar, a deep-pocketed entrepreneur from Ann Arbor. Both attacked from her left. Late
in the primary campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders and future Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, two of the party’s biggest names on the left, came to the state to campaign for El-Sayed. But primary voters concluded that Whitmer was plenty progressive. She supported a $15 minimum wage, legalized marijuana, and universal preschool, and they liked her focus on nuts-and-bolts issues such as highway funding, which was encapsulated in her campaign slogan, “Fix The Damn Roads.” Whitmer took 52 percent of the primary vote, besting El-Sayed with 30 percent and Thanedar with 18 percent. To ease any residual friction with progressives and Detroit Democrats, Whitmer tapped as her running mate Garlin Gilchrist, an African American who had served as director of innovation and emerging technology for the city of Detroit.
The Republicans also had a competitive primary, with two main contenders: Bill Schuette, who had served two terms as attorney general, and outgoing Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. Snyder, who had clashed with Schuette over prosecutions in the Flint crisis, backed Calley, but Trump backed Schuette. Schuette took 51 percent, Calley got 25 percent, state Sen. Patrick Colbeck got 13 percent and obstetrician Jim Hines won 11 percent.
The strains between Snyder and Schuette permeated the general election, with Snyder all but ignoring the GOP nominee. Schuette attacked Whitmer over her handling of early complaints about sexual misconduct by Larry Nassar, the gymnastics doctor at Michigan State University who would subsequently be convicted of serial sexual molestation and child pornography. But the overall political environment drowned out other concerns, and Whitmer won, 53%-44%. She took roughly twice as many counties as Hillary Clinton had in the presidential race two years earlier, flipping Kent (Grand Rapids), Eaton (suburban Lansing), Bay (Bay City), Saginaw (Saginaw) and, perhaps most importantly, the working-class Detroit suburbs of Macomb. Following Schuette’s loss, Republican legislators sought to handcuff Whitmer and other incoming Democrats by curbing the executive branch’s powers. But after a national backlash, Snyder vetoed the measures.
In her first year in office, Whitmer notched some victories, including a bipartisan compromise on a long-simmering issue, the state’s no-fault auto insurance system, which had left Michigan with some of the nation’s highest rates for motorists. But Whitmer and the legislature fought endless battles over the state budget, and the issue that had been a centerpiece of her campaign, fixing the roads, crumbled amid opposition (including among Democrats) to her proposal to hike the gasoline tax by 45 cents per gallon. In 2020, Whitmer buoyed environmentalists and frustrated energy interests by moving to shut down an oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac that had been operating under a state easement for the past 67 years. She called the pipeline “a ticking time bomb,” but following some legal setbacks, the case continued to languish in the courts.
For Whitmer, 2020 was dominated by a cascade of challenges prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Whitmer took an aggressive stance and became a fixture on television. She imposed limits under what many saw as dubious interpretations of executive powers that became targets of legal attack by the GOP-controlled legislature. The moves sparked armed protests outside—and even inside—the state capitol, and Trump and his allies elevated Whitmer as a pandemic villain. Tensions reached a crescendo in October, when federal and state officials announced charges against 13 men for allegedly planning to kidnap Whitmer. (After one unsuccessful prosecution of some of the suspects, the government won convictions in 2022 against several others, resulting in sentences ranging from 7 to 16 years in prison.) Whitmer had to deal with another crisis, too: the collapse of two dams that resulted in the flooding of Midland and resulted in a spate of lawsuits against the state.
Despite national conservatives’ demonization of Whitmer, Joe Biden made her a finalist in his vice presidential search in 2020. Whitmer didn’t get the nod, but she did help Biden reverse his 2016 loss in the state, and she became a prominent voice countering claims of election irregularities by Trump and his allies.As Whitmer entered the second half of her term, she faced a legislature that was still under GOP control. She sparred with legislators over the contours of a tax cut plan, but the two sides were able to work together on a plan for spending federal funds on infrastructure, including drinking water systems, internet access, roads, bridges and dams. She also signed a budget bill in 2022 that was hammered out with legislative leaders. Whitmer expressed support for a plan to reopen the shuttered Palisades nuclear plant on Lake Michigan. But the issue that defined her reelection was abortion, following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. The decision meant that Michigan was poised to fall back to a 1931 abortion ban that did not include exceptions for rape and incest. Whitmer promised to “fight like hell to protect every Michigander’s right to make decisions about their own body with the advice of a medical professional they trust.” She worked with Attorney General Dana Nessel to fight the 1931 law in court, and she signed an executive order telling state agencies not to cooperate
with out-of-state authorities seeking to investigate or prosecute abortions.The GOP primary to nominate a challenger turned out to be wild. First, five candidates were bounced from the ballot after the state elections bureau found that circulators had forged thousands of signatures on their petitions; one of the rejected candidates was the early frontrunner, former Detroit Police Chief James Craig. That left conservative commentator Tudor Dixon, car dealer Kevin Rinke, real estate investor and Jan. 6 participant Ryan Kelley, chiropractor and anti-lockdown activist Garrett Soldano, and pastor Ralph Rebandt, plus three write-in candidates, including James. Trump, Michigan Right to LIfe, the state Chamber of Commerce, and the Michigan-based DeVos family, longtime GOP donors, endorsed Dixon. To varying degrees, the candidates cast doubt on Biden’s victory in the state in 2020. Dixon finished first with 39 percent, followed by Rinke with 21 percent, Soldano with 18 percent, Kelley with 15 percent, and Rebandt with 4 percent.This set up Michigan’s first ever woman-vs.-woman gubernatorial election. Abortion became a driving issue; Dixon said she was “pro-life with exceptions for the life of the mother,” while Whitmer said “the only reason Michigan continues to be a pro-choice state is because of my veto and my lawsuit.” Enthusiasm behind an abortion-rights measure boosted Whitmer, as did the GOP’s selection of election deniers as nominees for attorney general and secretary of state. Whitmer won, 54%-44, flipping two counties she had lost in 2018, including Grand Traverse (Traverse City), while losing one she had won, Gogebic, a small county in the Upper Peninsula. She improved her winning margin by about five percentage points in Kent County (Grand Rapids), Kalamazoo County (Kalamazoo), Marquette County (Marquette), Oakland County (suburban Detroit), and Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor), while improving her edge by a smaller margin in Macomb. Whitmer did see eroded margins in Genesee County (Flint) and Muskegon County (Muskegon), but still won both counties by double digits.In the meantime, Whitmer looked forward to working with a newly forged Democratic majority in the legislature. After her reelection, Whitmer signed bills that expanded affordable housing, decreased taxes on retirement income, and expanded Michigan’s civil rights law to sexual orientation and gender identity. Most importantly, in March 2023, Whitmer signed a repeal of the state’s right to work law enacted a decade earlier by a Republican legislature and signed by Snyder.Whitmer also applauded efforts by the national Democratic Party to move Michigan up in its primary schedule. She garnered the attention of pundits as a possible presidential candidate of her own. “There’s no doubt that her name is going to be very much in the mix when people are talking about national leaders in the future,” Democratic eminence gris David Axelrod told the Washington Post’’s Ashley Parker. “That was an impressive win on difficult terrain, but she’s proven herself to be smart and resilient and she has a kind of non-coastal appeal.” But Whitmer insisted that she would serve out her term as governor, telling WXYZ-TV shortly before Election Day, “Everyone else speculates and writes stories without actually talking to me, but no, I’m running for four more years as governor…”