In Michigan, ‘red wave’ spin gives way to a blue ‘blowout’

Experts point to abortion rights support, nonpartisan redistricting for Democratic wins up and down the ballot

By: - November 11, 2022 6:47 am

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the Michigan Democratic Party’s Election Day watch party in Detroit on Nov. 8, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

“This is absolutely historic, an epic landslide for pro-democracy Michiganders.”

That was the assessment of Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan GOP executive director now with the anti-Trump Lincoln Party, after seeing the midterm election results Wednesday morning. 

Democrats in Michigan have made history for the first time in four decades by taking back control of both chambers of the state Legislature. Voters also reelected the entire Democratic ticket for governor, attorney general and secretary of state — who beat a slate of Republicans who repeatedly denied the results of the 2020 election former President Donald Trump lost to President Joe Biden. 

And the victories came even after most pundits predicted a national “red wave” that could even crash in Michigan, even though top Democrats had consistently led Republicans in polling here.

“This is a really big deal,” said Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond. “Democrats did everything right here, but this is really a historic collapse from the Michigan GOP. This should have been a close race for governor, and it was not. It was a blowout. Republicans should have retained the majority in the Michigan House, and they didn’t.”

Many election experts and political strategists in Michigan pointed to the newly redrawn districts, the support for the pro-abortion rights Proposal 3 and Republican voters pulling away from Trump-style candidates for the big wins among Democrats.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who beat GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon in Tuesday’s election by 10.5 points, faced hurdles in her first term working with a GOP-controlled Legislature. 

This is absolutely historic, an epic landslide for pro-democracy Michiganders.

– Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan GOP executive director now with the anti-Trump Lincoln Party

Now, it’s looking up for Democrats who want to see some of their longtime priorities that have been blocked by Republicans for years move through both chambers. 

The Democrats last were in charge of the Senate in 1984 and they last controlled the House in 2010. Democrats are projected to have a 56-54 majority in the House and a 20-18 split in the Senate.

Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson was the top vote-getter in the state, defeating Republican Kristina Karamo 55.9% to 41.9%, or 14 points. Attorney General Dana Nessel won 53.2% to Republican Matt DePerno’s 44.6%, or 9 points.

 “Not all the people who voted for Democrats last night are Democrats in what they believe in policy positions, but they saw a fundamental erosion, and abandonment of right and wrong in the Republican Party,” said Timmer, who advised Nessel’s campaign.

Despite garnering the support of controversial former President Donald Trump, the top of the ticket Republican candidates did not benefit from his endorsement. 

Joe Schwarz, a GOP former state senator and U.S. House member, said he hopes these losses will send the “message that the endorsement of Donald Trump is not an advantage.”

This is Trump’s Party right now. And for that reason, in many ways, it’s why the Democrats did as well as they did — not only in Michigan, but elsewhere,” said Schwarz, a member of the group Republicans for Whitmer. 

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, Attorney General Dana Nessel, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson at the Michigan Democratic Party’s nominating convention in Lansing on Aug. 21, 2022. (Andrew Roth | Michigan Advance)

Women candidates, abortion rights prevailed

Experts say Democrats did well because voters in Michigan listed protecting abortion as a top priority this election. 

The best polls are elections, said Angela Vasquez-Giroux, vice president of communications and research at NARAL Pro-Choice America, a Washington, D.C.-based abortion rights group. Vasquez-Giroux, a Michigan native, previously worked as a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Michigan and the Senate Democratic caucus.

“We have really powerful proof that abortion as an issue is not partisan,” said Vasquez-Giroux. “It’s not political. And when people get the chance to vote their values and to protect their fundamental freedoms, they overwhelmingly choose yes.”

And during Tuesday’s election, voters also largely chose candidates who campaigned on protecting abortion in the state after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to overturn Roe v. Wade in June. Without an injunction from a circuit court judge prohibiting enforcement, the state would have fallen back to its 1931 abortion ban.

Proposal 3, the statewide ballot proposal that enshrines reproductive rights in the state Constitution, garnered more votes than Whitmer did Tuesday. The proposal won with nearly 57% of the vote and nearly 2.6 million votes cast in support. 

Abortion was clearly one of the most salient issues this year for reasons we’re all familiar with, and the Republicans sounded weirder on that issue to most voters than Democrats did,” Hemond said. 

After it became clear that Proposal 3 was popular among Michigan voters, some Republicans tried to distance themselves from their anti-abortion stances and scrubbed their sites clean of previously touted “pro-life” priorities. 

 

Dixon also tried to distance herself from the topic of abortion, saying on the campaign trail that voters were able to vote for her and Proposal 3. But Dixon has said in several interviews that she doesn’t support exceptions for rape, incest or the mother’s health. 

When asked during a July interview with Detroit podcaster Charlie LeDuff, Dixon said she would not support a 14-year-old girl who was raped by her uncle to be able to get an abortion, saying it was the “perfect example” of why she opposes abortion.

Whitmer, on the other hand, campaigned on the actions she has taken to protect abortion access in Michigan, like her lawsuit she filed in April to repeal the state’s 91-year-old abortion ban.

U.S. Rep.-elect Hillary Scholten, a Democrat from Grand Rapids who beat Republican John Gibbs in a competitive district, said Wednesday afternoon that the support for Proposal 3 and the threat to abortion rights was a big part of her win.

Scholten is also the first woman to ever represent Grand Rapids in Congress. Her opponent, while a student at Stanford University, previously said that the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote has caused the country to “suffer.”

“We were seeing just a complete attack on women’s equality and it was crystallized in our race here against my opponent, John Gibbs, who held some of the most extremist anti-woman views of any candidate this cycle,” Scholten said. 

After Tuesday’s election, women in the House and Senate are set to make up the majority in both Democratic legislative caucuses. 

Scholten said the results from Tuesday’s election show that Michiganders “are rejecting a brand of extremism that has taken hold of” the Republican Party. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the Michigan Democratic Party’s Election Day watch party in Detroit on Nov. 8, 2022. (Andrew Roth/Michigan Advance)

How new maps created ‘competitive races’

In 2018, voters approved Proposal 2, which created the Michigan Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission to redraw the state’s gerrymandered state and congressional districts. 

Election experts now are saying that played a role in Democrats’ wins, but not because the maps necessarily favored Democrats. In fact, many Democrats, especially African Americans, were critical of the new maps for not having enough seats that were representative of their communities. 

Nancy Wang, the executive director of Voters Not Politicians, the group behind the 2018 Proposal 2, said the new maps “rebalanced the scale.”

Voters Not Politicians, as part of the Promote the Vote coalition, had another constitutional amendment proposal on the ballot in 2022. Proposal 2, which voters passed on Tuesday with about 60% support, requires nine days of early in-person voting, allows military or overseas ballots to be counted if postmarked by Election Day and provides voters the right to verify identity with photo ID or a signed affidavit.

“It’s a dramatic change for our state, because we’ve never seen a fair election like this before,” Wang said of Tuesday’s election with the newly redrawn maps. 

Hemond said Democrats should give “a lot of credit” to the state’s redistricting process for the sweeping wins, “especially in the Senate.”

“We can look forward to more election cycles like this where control is going to whipsaw back and forth, either statewide or in one or the other of the legislative chambers. This is the new reality now. This is going to become a lot more common,” Hemond said. 

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Bipartisanship may not be dead

Despite the fresh Democratic faces who will be serving in the 102nd Legislature come January, Schwarz said “there are still a lot of Republicans” in the Legislature, as Democrats control the House and Senate with slim majorities. 

Although Whitmer likely won’t have the same roadblocks she has had the last four years in negotiations over the state budget and passing legislation, analysts say she is still going to have to reach across the aisle to get things done.

And in her victory speech Wednesday morning, Whitmer pledged her commitment to working in a bipartisan fashion — notably after media outlets had called both the House and Senate for Democrats. 

Whitmer has talked extensively in her campaigns about being raised by a Democratic mother, Sherry Whitmer, who worked for former Attorney General Frank Kelley, and a Republican father, Dick Whitmer, who was former GOP Gov. William Milliken’s commerce director.

Democrats did everything right here, but this is really a historic collapse from the Michigan GOP. This should have been a close race for governor, and it was not. It was a blowout. Republicans should have retained the majority in the Michigan House, and they didn't.

– Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond

Before running for governor, Gretchen Whitmer served for 14 years in the House and Senate and ended her tenure as Senate minority leader. She never served in a Democratic majority in either chamber and forged working relationships with Republicans like then-Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe).

“Whitmer is a moderate and has a very, very appropriate record of working with both sides of the aisle,” Schwarz said. “She wants to share goals and aspirations with both parties and get things done for the people in the state. The whole idea that your primary loyalty should be to a political party is wrong, and that’s not her picture of it.”

Hemond agreed, saying Democrats will likely focus on “very mainstream, middle-of-the-road stuff.”

“They’ll control the agenda; they’ll have committee chairs. They will still have the ability to do some things, but they have a fairly narrow band that they should be pursuing. Because their majorities are not big, they don’t have a huge margin for error going into elections two years from now,” Hemond said. 

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.

MORE FROM AUTHOR