Saturday, July 01, 2017

Can Democrats Win Back The Michigan State Senate-- A Guest Post By Patrick Dunstone


I met Patrick Dunstone last cycle when he was working to defeat rubber stamp Republican Mike Bishop in his Michigan district. Bishop beat some weak DCCC recruit, Suzanna Shkreli, a 29 year old Macomb County assistant prosecutor who only managed to win 39.2% of the vote, seriously underperforming Hillary, who seriously underperformed Obama. The DCCC seems determined to recruit another weak candidate, former Defense Depratment bureaucrat Elissa Slotkin, with no chance of winning-- outside of being swept along by an anti-Trump tsunami. As the Democratic Party betrayed organized labor and left it for dead on the side of the road, the Michigan Democratic Party withered and pretty much entered a moribund state. Patrick, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, was born and raised in Detroit and now lives in Franklin, Michigan.  Earlier this week, he wrote a big-buzz essay, How Michigan Democrats Could Take Back the State Senate in 2018 and Why They Probably Won’t that every political professional in Michigan is talking about and studying. His twitter handle is @patprobably.
Donald Trump’s 2016 victory in the Great Lakes State was a culmination of many factors, ranging from the demographic and cultural to the material and economic. The Clinton campaign was comically mismanaged, a large swath of residents here are softly bigoted, and perhaps the Russians, Comey, or whomever did throw a wrench in an otherwise different outcome. Voter suppression and union busting almost certainly played structural roles as well. It’s impossible to control for all of these factors, but as a lifelong resident, I would sum it up as such: life here did not get better after Obama.

Sure, Obama saved the auto industry. That stopped the state from falling off a permanent cliff edge. But by and large, the quality of life continued to decline. I recently left the state and was shocked to see new developments and the economy growing in real time. That doesn’t happen here, save the gentrification in Detroit. Democrats actually controlled the state house and governorship from 2006 to 2010, but the Tea Party backlash combined with let-down Obama voters staying home got us eight years of Rick “Austerity but Nerdy” Snyder. Michigan has been in a state of managed decline for a while. People tend to vote against a status quo that seems to be getting worse and worse. In an oversimplified sense, it’s why Barack Obama won the state by over 57% in 2008 and Donald Trump eked out a 48% win in 2016.

In large part due to Trump, Democrats have a real chance to take back both statehouse chambers in 2018. They haven’t controlled the senate chamber since the mid 80s, but there’s a slim pathway that could allow it. As of last month, Trump already has a 61% disapproval rating in the state. It’s likely this could increase as he continues to falter on key promises. Rick Snyder’s numbers are also deeply underwater. We’ve seen the horrific results of austerity at play in Flint. Regardless, the stars are aligned to allow a Dem takeover. There is a unified GOP government both at the state and federal level, and most people aren’t exactly fans. So here’s how the Democrats would actually accomplish this:

Retaking the Senate

I will use previous election results and demographic data to provide an analysis of where and how Michigan Democrats could take back the State Senate, which they have not controlled since two Macomb County Dems were recalled in 1983. After some reflection, the 2012 presidential election appears to be the best baseline for Michigan partisanship. The crossover voters from rural D’s and suburban R’s in 2016 will likely prove to be a fluke in the end, so most election analysis will be from 2012, not 2016.

The Obama 2012 Districts

Despite a mediocre re-election campaign, Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney 54–45 in the state. In doing so, he carried 17 out of 38 Senate districts. Only 11 are currently held by Democrats. The MIGOP has been gerrymandering since Engler in the 90s, but the 2011 redistricting is another beast altogether. That does not, however, excuse the Democrats for losing seats that Obama won. Most of these seats are pretty leftward thinking, but suffer from lower turnout. They shouldn’t exist, but here they are.

The 34th (Muskegon, Newaygo, Oceana)

Obama won this district decisively in 2012, by a margin of 54–46. The city of Muskegon is the main population center and heavily Democratic, and the surrounding towns are pretty similar. Median income in the district is $41.2k, so it is not wealthy by any means. A tenth of the district is black, located mostly in and near Muskegon. A Democratic campaign for this district should aim for high turnout in Muskegon and keep the margins down in Oceana and Newaygo, winning handily.

The 32nd (Saginaw, part of Genessee)

Another 54–46 Obama district, this should simply be a Democratic seat. While most of the district is in Saginaw County, a long southern tail that catches wealthier and whiter Flint suburbs is what gave this district to the Republicans. Median income is solidly below the state average at $46.3k, and the district is only 76.3% White due to large Black and Hispanic populations in Saginaw and Zilwaukee. The strategy for this district is simple enough: get a candidate inspiring enough to increase turnout in the Saginaw area so that it’s more comparable to that of the Genessee County suburbs.

The 20th (Kalamazoo)

Obama won this district 56–43 and Hillary won it 53–40. The Democratic candidate lost this seat by less than a hundred votes in 2014. Kalamazoo is a young, progressive college town and Dem strategy for this district should be as follows: turn out the city like crazy, but don’t be invisible in the rural parts. For that to happen however, the candidate might have to actually be a little inspiring.

The 29th (Grand Rapids, other parts of Kent County)

While most of West Michigan is very traditionalist and conservative, Grand Rapids is quite progressive. Naturally, the GOP separated the city from the nearby middle and working class suburbs of Kentwood and Wyoming. Despite this, Obama won the district 53–46. Hillary won it 54–39, likely by picking up “moderate” Romney voters in Ada and Cascade. Grand Rapids is a young person’s town, and this district has one of the highest concentrations of millennials of any in the state. A 2018 Democratic Senate campaign should be issue-driven to get like-minded voters in Grand Rapids to the polls.

The 17th (Monroe and Lenawee)

This district will be tougher to crack than the previous ones. Obama won it 49.5-49.4, while Trump dominated 58–36. This is a rural, middle class district and home to many Obama-Trump voters. The district is very white (90%) and median income is average (51k). An economic progressive with a moderate stance on guns could be what this area needs in order to increase turnout and capture the anti-status quo sentiment prevalent in much of this area.

The 7th (Canton, Plymouth, Northville, Livonia, Wayne)

Located in the Western suburbs of Detroit, this district was cut out to form one GOP district in Wayne County. Obama eked out a win in this district 49.7-49.6, but a median income of $74.5k makes it hard for Democrats to improve upon that. One thing that keeps this district competitive is that Canton is rapidly diversifying (which is part of why the township council went from a 6–1 GOP majority to a 5–2 Dem one last fall). A candidate that can turn out low income parts of Wayne and Livonia and take advantage of changing demos could win here.

Where Obama Came Close in 2012

It should be reiterated that winning all of these districts would still put the Democrats at a 17–21 disadvantage for control of the chamber. The gerrymander of the state has been incredibly effective. The 11 districts they currently possess are deep blue and beyond safe. So where could the additional 2–3 seats for a majority come from? Based on the 2012 baseline, and additional factors of race, income, voter turnout, there are still some available targets.

The 38th (Most of the Upper Peninsula)

By far the geographically largest district in the state, this should actually be a top pickup for Democrats. Obama lost here by just 48–50 although Hillary was wiped out 39–56. The U.P. is traditionally friendlier to downticket Democrats. The district is not very wealthy (median income of 40k) but has a strong gun culture and is relatively socially conservative. Rep. Scott Dianda already represents the western portion of this district and is running for the Senate in 2018. If he runs a good campaign, he will win.

The 24th (Eaton, Clinton, Shiawassee, part of Ingham)

This Greater Lansing seat was only lost by Obama by a margin of 49.6–49.4. It’s very white, and swung bigly towards Trump (52.4–41.3), making it similar to the 17th. Median income is 54k, just about average, and if the Democratic candidate can make a strong progressive economic case they can pick up irregular voters while winning back some of the Obama-Trump vote. This district has a lot of medium sized towns that are in decline, and connecting their concerns to a progressive message while running up the score around Lansing should produce a win.

The 33rd (Montcalm, Gratiot, Mecosta, Isabella, Clare)

This is a district to really get excited about. It consistently has the lowest turnout of any in the state, and Barack Obama only lost it 48–51. In 2012, turnout was 95,000, which is thirty thousand less than the state average! With a median income of $38.1k and a 90% white population, it is also one of the poorest and whitest. If there was ever a place for left-wing populism in the Midwest, this is it. It would likely take levels of voter registration and contact that are unprecedented for this area, but it would be absolutely worth it in this Mid Michigan district.

The 10th (Sterling Heights, Clinton, Macomb)

This district is in the middle of Macomb County, and went to Romney by a close 51–49 margin, but ultimately Trump dominated this area winning it 56–40. After all, Sterling Heights was the site of his penultimate campaign rally. Median income here is $60.8k, better off but still solidly middle class. This area used to be lily white but has diversified a bit and is now only 85% white. What makes this really contestable is that Rep. Henry Yanez will likely run for this seat. He’s a retired firefighter who’s substantially outperformed the top of the ticket on multiple occasions by appealing to working class economic concerns, and there’s a solid chance he could win this in 2018 by doing the same.

The 12th (Pontiac, Bloomfield, other parts of Oakland County)

Now we’re approaching districts that are really a stretch to be won by a Democrat. Still possible, but unlikely. Obama actually nearly won this district, only losing it 49.4–49.9, but it’ll be hard to move the needle further than that. Hillary did well here too, losing it by a slim margin of 47.4–47.9. The district is only 70% White, due largely to large Black and Hispanic populations in Pontiac. Median income is 63k. What makes this district difficult is that despite similar margins, there was a dramatic shift in voting blocs. Precincts in the south end of the district (Bloomfield, Southfield Twp) swung to Clinton by about 15 points. Precincts in Pontiac and the northern townships swung to Trump by about 15 points as well. Winning this district would require inspiring high Democratic turnout in Pontiac, Auburn Hills, etc. while not scaring off the posh anti-Trump suburbanites in Bloomfield. It would be a tough needle to thread, but not impossible.

The Romney-Clinton District

I remain wary of a strategy that prioritizes “suburban moderates,” but districts Hillary Clinton managed to win outright should be at least looked at. I remain skeptical because people who voted for Romney then Clinton generally have no material reason to vote for a Democrat, and I have my doubts that anti-Trump sentiment carries over into voting for other Democrats. For all the districts in Michigan that shifted away from Obama, only one flipped from Romney towards Clinton. That said, all options should be explored, so I’ll run down the details of this district and what it would take to win it.

The 13th (Royal Oak, Troy, Rochester Hills, other parts of Oakland)

The 13th district is located in Southeast Oakland County, along the border of Macomb. Median income is $75.7k, making it the second wealthiest district in the state. Not typically great terrain for Democrats, but this district also has the highest concentration of post-secondary degrees of any in the state, as well as the greatest percentage of people in their 20s and 30s. Clinton beat Trump here by a margin of 50.4–44.4, which is actually pretty substantial. That’s a major improvement from Obama’s 49–50 loss to Romney. As far as voter turnout goes, this district’s is far and away the highest in the state. There’s not many dropoff voters you can turn out here — the ability to win this district is entirely based upon whether a Democrat can persuade all of those who voted against Trump in disgust to channel that same feeling into a vote for state office. Again, I have my doubts. Regardless of the 2016 shift, this district should probably be contested on the basis of Obama’s performance alone.

So why won’t they do it?

Listen, I’d love to be wrong. I really would. The grassroots are activated everywhere, and that gives me immense hope. But it’s impossible to discount the Democrats’ massive incompetence that allowed us to get to this point in the first place. To actually pull this off, they’d need to do a couple things:
1- Abandon/adapt the Likely Voter model
2- Provide a genuinely inspiring alternative vision
3- Invest heavily in new voter registration
4- Activate dropoff/irregular voters earlier than GOTV
5- Work with the grassroots, don’t fly solo
Off the top of my head, these things are what they need to do to make real progress in what could shape up to be an anti-Trump midterm. Perhaps they will end up doing these things, but I worry they will set the bar too low and fail to invest early when they should be setting up for wins everywhere because waves can develop late. If the Democrats swept all 12 of these seats, they would have a 23–15 majority in the State Senate. Considering that would be more than double what they possess now, it’s highly unlikely. The GOP will have an arsenal of corporate money so large it’d make the DeVos family nervous, but it’s still a midterm with an unpopular sitting president. Prove me wrong, Democrats. Hit the ground running, and win back the state senate.

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At 8:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And what if they do? There isn't any money except for Bloomfield Hills. There aren't any jobs. The economy is destroyed. Children in Flint are going to be stupid for the next 75 years. There are no prospects for anyone who stays.

You think they'll raise taxes on bloomfield hills to fix everything? you think democraps will do that?

What they'll do is just what they've been doing. They'll cut taxes and regs on business and cut back on services for everyone in an ever-futile swirling of the bowl. But Ford will still send production to China or wherever and the water and soil will be befouled. Maybe the air will not get worse... maybe it will. The R death bill will allow... encourage the lead-addled city of Flint to die rather than spend a nickel keeping even one of them (who isn't already rich) healthy.

These things will happen no matter who is elected. It'll maybe just be a bit faster if they elect Rs.

And, except for maybe Flint, voters probably know this.

If only there were a third choice... But that violates Feynman's quantum chromodynamics.

At 12:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right now, I can hear Michigan singing that Randy Newman song about keepin' a certain demographic in a lower position. Some may well be remembering what happened in Detroit 49 years ago - at least in the towns where heavy metal isn't the primary ingredient in drinking water.They can't be happy with the UAW and the other unions who have so badly served the working class in this nation since too many of them began backing Republicans about the same time as the Detroit incident I raised.

In a nutshell, they appear to continue to support that rat-bastard Snyder and aren't likely to rock the boat. I'm not counting on a Blue Wave in Michigan - at least not until an ice bridge forms in the river and one can walk to Belle Isle.

At 6:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michigan is dead (or still dying, not sure) because of free trade, neoliberalism, capitalism, fascism, racism and corruption.

The Ds have been at least as responsible for all these evils as have the Rs.

Going blue at this stage is like rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic... at the bottom of the Atlantic... today.

If only humans had burned the coal faster and global warming had eliminated all Greenland ice sheets... maybe the Titanic would not have hit that iceberg.


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