Can Democrats win back the Michigan House after a decade?

By: - October 25, 2020 9:32 am

Michigan House of Representatives | Susan J. Demas

Updated, 4:12 p.m., 10/25/20

During a presidential election year, most of the attention is on the top of the ticket and top-tier congressional races. But control of Michigan’s House of Representatives is also at stake on Nov. 3.  

Republicans currently hold a 58-51 voting advantage and have targeted several Democratic districts in areas where President Donald Trump is popular. One seat is vacant, which was held by the late Rep. Isaac Robinson, a Detroit Democrat who died of a suspected COVID-19 infection in March. 

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson noted that more than 1.5 million absentee ballots had already been cast. Dennis Darnoi, a Republican consultant who tracks voter data, said the Republican House candidates throughout the state will be helped by Trump’s visit to Lansing on Tuesday and he expects other GOP surrogate campaign stops by both parties leading up to Election Day. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has made several visits to Michigan and his vice presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), is scheduled to visit Detroit on Sunday. 

Darnoi believes that more Republicans than Democrats will cast their ballot in person on Nov. 3.   

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“I think Republicans are doing what they need to do, albeit late, to make sure that their voters turn out,” he said. “These races will be really, really tight.” 

If Democrats can flip at least four seats — something they’re hopeful will happen if Biden wins Michigan — they would appear to take control of the chamber for the first time in a decade. The GOP flipped the House during the 2010 red tide that swept Rick Snyder in as governor, which led to Republicans controlling the redistricting process. 

Swing Left is a national progressive grassroots nonprofit that is working to get Democrats elected across the nation. It has raised almost $200,000 for Michigan House candidates. 

“This is one of the Democratic Party’s best chances to take back the House in some time,” said Ryan Quinn, Swing Left political director. 

Democrats are aiming for five seats, as they can’t count on the vote for speaker of state Rep. Karen Whitsett (D-Detroit,) who is virtually a shoo-in to be reelected in a deep blue seat. Whitsett has been silent on the question. She has battled with members of her caucus, joined Republicans in a slapdown of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s powers to address the COVID-19 crisis, and has been reprimanded by her local party organization after publicly thanking GOP President Donald Trump during her bout with COVID-19. 

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A tie has happened in recent Michigan history. After both parties ended up with 55 members following the 1992 election, the caucuses agreed to have a power-sharing arrangement for the 1993-94 term that included having co-House speakers, Democrat Curtis Hertel Sr. of Detroit and Paul Hillegonds of Holland. 

The Senate is not up for election this year; members’ four-year terms expire in 2022. Republicans, who have a 22-16 member advantage, have controlled that body since 1984. 

So even if Democrats do seize control of the House, Senate Republicans likely will still be able to block Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s agenda if they want.

All eyes on Oakland County  

Oakland County — a wealthy metro Detroit fiefdom that used to be a GOP stronghold — is expected to play a key role in the 2020 election from president to control of the state House. 

“The path to the majority goes through Oakland County,” said state Rep. Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Twp.) House Democratic caucus campaign chair.

Democrats are running a slate of women, many of whom have been significantly outraised their GOP counterparts. But the House GOP caucus has been filling in gaps with contributions to Republicans, state campaign finance reports show.

Democrats are targeting working families and college-educated voters who have voted Republican in the past, but don’t support the right-wing policies and rhetoric offered by the Trump administration and GOP leaders in the state House and Senate.  

Two years ago, state Rep. Mari Manoogian (D-Birmingham) flipped the open 40th District, a long-held Oakland County seat. 

“Folks who have traditionally voted Republican no longer identify with the current version of the Republican Party,” Manoogian told the Advance this summer.

Oakland County Republican Party Chair Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski, who served in the state House between 1997 and 2003 and was majority floor leader, believes that all of the Oakland County House races will be “competitive.” But he told the Advance he has a good feeling about the slate of GOP candidates in his backyard.

A bellwether for both parties might be in the open 45th House District, which includes Rochester and Rochester Hills, and is held by term-limited Michael Webber (R-Rochester Hills). The race features Democrat Barbara Anness, a Rochester Community Schools Board of Education trustee, and Mark Tisdel, a Republican who serves on the Rochester Hills City Council. 

Big-name endorsements have been a trend this year, especially as national Democrats have been paying more attention to state legislative races. Both Biden and Harris had endorsed Anness. Former U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester Hills) backs Tisdel, as does GOP Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard.  

Darnoi believes the race is one to watch, but Republicans will hang on and win it.  

“I know that suburban women are leaving the Republican Party, but I just think at a local level the 45th is going to be a very, very contested seat,” said Darnoi, who worked for Bishop when he represented the area in the Senate. “It’s just hard for me to see it go [Democratic.]”    

Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.) (left) and Democrat Julia Pulver (right)

There are several high-spending races in Oakland County where Democrats are optimistic. 

First-term Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.) won the 39th District seat in 2018 against disgraced Democrat Jennifer Suidan, who later received probation for embezzling campaign funds. Berman has notched a conservative record, backing the effort to impeach Whitmer over her COVID-19 orders and opposing federal aid for coronavirus.

This time around, he faces Democrat Julia Pulver, a former emergency room nurse with a national profile for her abortion rights commentary who ran for Senate in 2018. 

Raczkowski said he believes Berman will hold the district because he “has done an incredible job connecting with the people of West Bloomfield and Commerce. He comes from that district. He was born and raised in that district. He attends synagogue in that district.” 

The 38th House District, which includes Novi, South Lyon, Lyon Township and Walled Lake, is open. Democrat Kelly Breen, who lost the district in 2018 to now-term-limited Rep. Kathy Crawford (R-Novi) faces Republican Chase Turner, who worked as a field director for 2018 GOP congressional nominee Lena Epstein, who lost to now-U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Rochester).

Republican Chase Turner (left) and Democrat Kelly Breen (right)

Turner is running on a “change” platform, despite the fact that Republicans control the House. Raczkowski said he “was born and raised in that district and he understands the people of Novi, South Lyon and Wixom very well.” 

The 38th District does not include Wixom, but encompasses Lyon Township, South Lyon, Novi, Northville and Walled Lake.*

Rep. Andrea Schroeder (R-Independence Twp.) also is trying to stave off a challenge in the traditionally red 43rd House District from Democrat Nicole Breadon. 

Democrats want to hang on to the 27th House District, which includes Berkley, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Huntington Woods, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge and Royal Oak Township and is held by term-limited state Rep. Robert Wittenberg (D-Huntington Woods). It’s a matchup between Democrat Regina Weiss and Republican Elizabeth Goss.

They also want to maintain the 37th House District, which includes Farmington and Farmington Hills and is held by term-limited House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills). In that race, Democrat Samantha Steckloff, the daughter of Farmington Hills Mayor Vicki Barnett, is running against Republican Mitch Swoboda.

Other races at play

Republicans aren’t just playing defense. They have several seats in metro Detroit, greater Lansing and Bay County that they’re hopeful of flipping.

That includes the 19th House District in suburban Wayne County that’s held by first-term Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia). Republicans have nominated Livonia school teacher Martha Ptashnik.   

In the 19th District, which covers the Northville, Plymouth and Canton Township in Wayne County, freshman Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) is being challenged by John Lacny, a Marine veteran and retired supply chain manager.

Freshman Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta Twp.) represents a 71st District seat in Eaton County outside Lansing that both parties have won in the last decade. Republican Gina Johnsen is trying to take it back.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

State Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City) wants to win his third and last term in the 96th District, but Republicans are hoping Trump’s record of stealing votes in the Saginaw-Genesee-Bay region will lift GOP nominee Timothy Beson.

Another seat some Republicans had thought they could flip on the strength of Trump’s 2016 performance was the 25th District in Macomb County, currently represented by freshman Rep. Nate Shannon (D-Sterling Heights). However, Republican officials have sought to distance themselves from nominee Paul Smith, who this month defended those arrested in the right-wing terrorist plot to assassinate Whitmer.

“What a totally bogus sham,” Smith said on Facebook, as reported by the Detroit News. “These citizens never did anything illegal. Law enforcement is employed to punish people who COMMIT crimes, not people The Governess simply HATES. You can legally hurt Whitmer by voting out her minions.”

Smith has run for office several times and his far-right views are well-known. Deadline Detroit reported that the Secret Service once questioned Smith for “carrying a protest sign featuring an illustration of [then-President Barack] Obama impaled through the skull by a spear” in 2009. Smith also held similarly violent signs about former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Meanwhile, Democrats have their own targets in the Traverse City area, which has trended blue, and West Michigan, where U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph), Michigan’s longest-serving legislator on Capitol Hill, is facing a strong challenge from state Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) in the 6th Congressional District. That may hurt down-ballot GOP candidates.   

With embattled Rep. Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg) term-limited in the 104th District in northern Michigan, Dems hope Dan O’Neil, who also ran in 2018, can defeat Republican John Roth. 

The 61st House seat in Kalamazoo County is open with state Rep. Brandt Iden (R-Oshtemo Twp.) term-limited. Democrat Christine Morse is matched up against Republican Bronwyn Haltom. 

There’s also the 66th District on the west side of the state. Rep. Beth Griffin (R-Mattawan) is defending her Berrien County seat against Democrat Abigail Wheeler. 

There’s always the possibility of a few surprises on Election Day. Republicans have made some noise about knocking off first-term Rep. Sheryl Kennedy (D-Davison) with Republican David Martin. Freshman Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet) is facing a spirited challenge from 21-year-old Chokwe Pitchford.

Clarification: The original story included a quote from Raczkowski about the geography of the 38th House District. The story has been updated with the correct makeup of the district.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.