LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer’s decisive victory was powered not just by places Democrats typically carry in a successful statewide campaign, strongholds like Detroit and suburban bellwethers such as Oakland and Macomb counties.
She also won or made gains in Republicans’ own backyard, buoying Democrats over the implications for 2020 and beyond.
Her 9-percentage point triumph this month, the largest for a non-incumbent Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 86 years, continues to be studied by both major political parties and others. Here are some initial takeaways from a high-turnout midterm in which Democrats got off the mat after years of Republican dominance:
WHITMER’S FEAT IN UNEXPECTED PLACES
For years, even losing GOP candidates for statewide office still fared well in Kent County, which includes the Democratic stronghold of Grand Rapids but is surrounded by largely Republican-friendly turf. Whitmer is the first Democratic gubernatorial nominee to take the county since James Blanchard in 1986, and he was an incumbent.
She almost defeated Republican Bill Schuette in historically Republican Grand Traverse County, home to Traverse City. And she gained in the state’s most conservative county, Ottawa, which includes Lake Michigan coastal communities. Perhaps not coincidentally, all three counties are among Michigan’s fastest-growing, where demographic shifts could prove important in future elections and impact how congressional and legislative districts are redrawn in 2021.
Western Michigan is “looking more and more like a metro suburban area than a rural exurban community that happens to have one or two population centers,” said Patrick Schuh, state director for America Votes, which provides strategic tools and coordination across dozens of partners to drive liberal causes and candidates. He said Republicans have a “brand problem” that is being exacerbated by President Donald Trump.
Conventional wisdom at the onset of the governor’s race was that Schuette, a veteran officeholder with deep political ties, would be formidable despite facing an electorate traditionally inclined to not support the party of an outgoing governor or of an incumbent president. But the state attorney general struggled more than anticipated against Whitmer, a former lawmaker whose pledge to “fix the damn roads” and protect health care coverage resonated against his tax-cutting message. While each candidate won the primary easily in August, Schuette emerged bruised after a nastier contest with Republican Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. Voters’ unfavorable view of him did not dissipate.
The liberal group Progress Michigan is taking credit after launching an anti-Schuette accountability campaign in 2017, which included using public-records requests to focus on his record as attorney general. Calley’s campaign and its allies later even borrowed the organization’s “shady Schuette” moniker, seizing on allegations that he misused his office for political business.
Once the campaign was underway, Progress Michigan’s super PAC spent more than $1 million, far more than in past cycles — an investment that executive director Lonnie Scott said helped boost the left’s spending on and innovative use of digital advertising after being outpaced by the right in 2016.
“The enthusiasm of progressives and the work of progressives resonated this year in a way that allowed us to be more impactful,” he said.
It was not just Progress Michigan. The Michigan League of Conservation Voters, which contrasted the gubernatorial nominees’ environmental records, said its independent expenditure program was larger than ever. Planned Parenthood of Michigan’s super PAC also spent big. Trump’s 2016 win in Michigan, the first for a Republican presidential nominee in 28 years, was a wake-up call for Democrats and allied groups.
More than 3 million doors were knocked across 30 progressive partner groups, more than double from 2014. Voters were contacted earlier — especially in 15 core counties, including in places where Democrats have moved to from Detroit over time and western Michigan.
Meanwhile, Whitmer in particular emphasized getting to all 83 counties, which she said gave her a chance to learn by listening to people.
“When you show up, you stay tethered to the things that matter,” she said before the election that brought out 4.3 million voters, the highest midterm turnout rate in 56 years.
‘ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT’
Republicans kept control of the Legislature in what was otherwise a dismal showing. They lost their 24-year hold on the secretary of state’s office. Their 16-year run in the attorney general’s office will end. Term-limited Gov. Rick Snyder notably did not endorse Schuette, which some think hampered his fundraising. John James did better than expected in the U.S. Senate race but came up short.
State Rep. Laura Cox, who is running to chair the state GOP and has key support within the Trump orbit, said there is “a lot of room for improvement,” noting that 50,000 Trump voters alone in Macomb County did not vote this time.
She said she wants to re-energize the party with a singular, unified message “so we can surpass the Democrats’ enthusiasm in 2020” — when Trump and first-term Democratic Sen. Gary Peters will be up for re-election, and the state House majority will be up for grabs. Cox said Republicans must unify and remind voters of all the “good things” Trump has done for them — cutting taxes, strengthening the military and securing the borders.
DON’T READ TOO MUCH INTO IT
For all the focus on Trump and what the results portend for 2020, political observers caution against reading too much into one election cycle because issues, moods and trends can change quickly. Clearly, Democrats took a major step toward rebuilding power in a state where Trump is unpopular.
But the “purple” Michigan electorate is independent-minded and volatile — having backed Barack Obama, Snyder, Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary, Trump and now Whitmer within a six-year period.
“People don’t fit inside lanes like they used to,” said Calley, who lost to Schuette in the primary. “The decisions on who people vote for is much more complicated, it’s much more personal.”
He said Whitmer appealed to voters in a county like Macomb — where Trump won big — because “they want a no-nonsense, direct and blunt appraisal of what’s happening and what’s going to happen. … When Gretchen Whitmer went on the campaign trail and just plainly laid it out — fix the damn roads — that’s the type of authenticity that captured what a lot of people were thinking.”
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