Unlike what happened nationally, it was a true blue wave — not a blue ripple or a purple puddle.
The Nov. 6 general election clearly represented a big Democratic victory, as the party swept all of the state constitutional offices; retained a U.S. Senate seat; net-gained two seats in the U.S. House of Representatives (dragging the GOP down from the 9-5 advantage in the delegation it had enjoyed since 2010 into a 7-7 tie); picked off a state Supreme Court seat (knocking off a Republican justice and reducing the GOP’s high court majority to 4-3); and annexed all eight educational board seats (two on each of the U-M, MSU, WSU and SBE panels) — those four boards will now have, respectively, 7-1, 6-2, 7-1 and 6-2 Democratic majorities. Democrats also picked up five seats in both the state Senate and House of Representatives and made gains on county boards of commissioners, but more on that below. And the three statewide ballot proposals — each with far more Democratic support than Republican — all prevailed.
It was the best Democratic showing since 2012, and rivaled the party’s blowout victories in 2006 and 2008.
Voter turnout in a non-presidential year was a record high 4.3 million, and the percentage of registered voters who cast ballots (52%) in a gubernatorial election was the highest since 1962, when incumbent Democratic Gov. John Swainson faced a challenge from Republican George Romney, who won.
This was the only election in our collective lifetimes in which anyone reading this article could NOT have voted straight-ticket by checking off (or filling in) a single icon at the top of the ballot. And it will almost certainly never happen again, because Proposal 3 inks into the state Constitution that straight ticket voting must henceforth be an option. But did this year’s ban on straight-ticket voting have any effect on the Nov. 6 outcome? Democrats (“Make it emphatic, vote straight Democratic”) have always believed that it did and would, while Republicans, who were the authors of this year’s ban, have felt that STV hurt them. Hard to prove that it made any difference this year one way or the other — if the electorate voted straight-ticket, it did so with elbow grease, proceeding race-by-race down the ballot, supposedly taking more time that might have produced long lines and provoked outrage from psephologists. But such complaints never materialized, and reports of intimidated voters were few and far between. Such is usually the result when the aggrieved party emerges triumphant.
Republican U.S. Senate nominee John James exposed chinks in incumbent Debbie Stabenow’s armor, particularly by playing the war hero/veteran’s card, against which she had no real defense. Still, Stabenow had more than enough other advantages to surmount that. Stabenow may be slightly weakened as a political force going forward, but she survives to torment the GOP indefinitely, perhaps achieving Diane Feinstein-like octogenarian status unless the Republicans can finally pull things together with the right candidate in the right year with the right issues.
Gretchen Whitmer, a former state Senate Minority Leader, won the Governor’s race almost by default, starting with a walkover Democratic primary triumph against two hitherto unknown male candidates with exotic names. She was then able to capitalize on a national climate propitious for her party, and she was running against a wounded Republican nominee, Bill Schuette, who emerged from his GOP primary win over Lt. Gov. Brian Calley with favorable/unfavorable numbers that were under water. With most of the news media cheering her on, Whitmer also had more campaign cash, particularly at the end. Her famous “Fix the Damned Roads” mantra may have been an empty slogan, but what did it matter? It was what voters wanted to hear, and it was far more inspired than Schuette’s pedestrian “Paycheck Agenda.” And then there is the core certainty in the media’s mind that Michigan’s governorship always changes party hands every time the seat comes open — after all, it happened in 1982, 2002 and 2010, didn’t it? That continues to prove true, until it doesn’t. Meanwhile, once the happy talk subsides, observers will realize that Whitmer faces major challenges going forward. After going out of her way to alienate GOP lawmakers during her 14 years in the Legislature — particularly in her four years as Senate Democratic Leader —she may have a tougher time than usual getting majority Republicans in the House and Senate to cooperate with her agenda. As one of the least effective caucus leaders of either party in either chamber in the past half-century, she may find herself mired in gridlock reminiscent of the 2007-2011 era — the only thing different today is that the economy (and attendant state revenue) is so much more robust than it was then.
Predictably, second-time-around Democrat Jocelyn Benson won the Secretary of State’s race — ending 24 straight years of Republican rule — because of higher name ID, more money and the fact that she had her party’s wind at her back. She’s got stronger credentials to run elections than anyone ever to seek the position, but she’s also the most partisan occupant of the office in the past 60 years. That may come into play as she runs the controversial new independent commission approved by voters (Proposal 2). Any whiff of partisanship in the uncharted cumbersome reapportionment process that lies ahead will be challenged at every turn by Republicans in the legislative and judicial branches of government. Moreover, Democrats should be careful what they wished for — if new Congresswomen Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens are re-elected in 2020, their seats and a host of other Democratic MCs in Southeast Michigan are far more likely to become victims of redistricting than are Republicans outstate.
Democratic Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel, who squeaked to victory by a single percentage point simply because she had a “D” next to her name in the right year, is obviously suspect by a majority of the state’s voters (she won a plurality of the votes cast, not a majority). Any missteps will be pounced on, and Whitmer and Nessel MUST get their acts together on key issues — ranging from Line 5 to a host of lawsuits, particularly those linked to the Flint Water Crisis — or Nessel will create problems for the governor as well as for herself.
What about the Republicans? Is there any hope for them going forward? It may not be as bad as conservatives think. The hand-wringing by naive right-wing pundits that the GOP is doomed to extinction because legislative and Congressional maps will be rigged against them are evidently unaware that Republicans regained control of both chambers of the Legislature in 1966 after the notorious Austin-Kleiner gerrymander that had delivered big-time for Democrats two years earlier backfired in spectacular fashion against the “Ds.” Another Democratic gerrymander (Hatcher-Kleiner in 1972) injured Republicans during the decade that followed, but the GOP rebounded in 1982 to set the stage (with the help of recalls) for Senate hegemony for the next four decades.
The Michigan GOP surely must be relieved that it emerged from 11/6 with majorities in both chambers of the legislature that are no weaker than it has enjoyed for most of the past 20 years. The party must realize that its monster supermajorities in the Senate of 26-12 and 27-11 over the last eight years were an historical aberration. What exists now is not a “new” normal; it’s the same normal.
And what about county boards of commissioners? Amazingly, in what is considered a Blue Wave year, Democrats netted only 10 seats statewide out of more than 600 officeholders in 83 counties statewide — the poorest showing by the winning top-of-the-ticket party in six decades. In fact, Republicans still own 421 seats on county boards, the Democrats only 191 (10 are Independents). Two counties flipped to Democrat control, but one converted to Republicanism. Why is that? Maybe because, despite the record turnout that is always supposed to benefit Democrats, Dems won only 53% of the statewide vote at baseline, not the 55%+ predicted by political bean-counters.
2020 promises to be a very different year. Maybe it will be even better for Democrats, but it may also be worse.
I am wondering if you think the GOP built momentum in the last few weeks, if they were always (or at least since Kavanaugh) as energized as Democrats, or something else?
David Richards says
I would not discount the Democrats’ performance on county boards. The number of office holders may be one-sided in favor of Republicans, but when you look at population, the largest counties now have Democratic majorities, with Oakland County being the significant changeover. I don’t have the total in terms of either population or voters, but I suspect that a large majority of Michiganders are represented at the county commission level by Democrats, and this is a change.
John James has a bright future ahead for the GOP. He is everything that the Democrats fear in a GOP candidate. I suspect that we have hardly heard the last of him.
Lawrence Kestenbaum says
Washtenaw County will have an all-Democratic county board next year. Democrats won the single remaining Republican seat, the territory along the southern edge of the county from Milan to Saline to Manchester. That district was regarded until now as safely Republican, but it voted for Gretchen Whitmer and other Democrats in 2018.
Washtenaw County is a blue county getting bluer. It was once one of the most Republican counties in the state,one of only 18 Michigan counties to vote against Franklin Roosevelt all four times. In 2016, Donald Trump got the lowest percentage for a Republican presidential nominee since Taft in 1912. This year, the Democratic gubernatorial ticket got 72%, which is probably the highest ever seen here.
The leftward trend affects all parts of the county. The big suburban townships are all governed by Democrats now. The number of GOP county commissioners has gradually dwindled down to none, which is to say, even the most Republican one-ninth of the county can’t reliably elect a Republican commissioner.
No question Washtenaw County has drifted so far out in left field that it’s in danger of dropping off the edge of Michigan. You’ve become the “California” of the Wolverine state! — but, hey, Larry, that’s good for you — you’re a Democrat!
Lisa O’Connor says
Yes,years ago, Washtenaw County used to be “Margaret O’Connor territory.”
Thank you Bill, another terrific commentary.