Politics

A Blue Ripple in the Mitten

In Michigan, Democrats won at practically every level.

Gretchen Whitmer holding a mic while speaking and gesticulating
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks to supporters at a rally at the Crofoot Ballroom in Pontiac, Michigan, on Sunday. Sarah Rice/Getty Images

While we’re still waiting on some results, it’s clear by now that the midterms of President Joe Biden’s first term were not the “red wave” many pundits were expecting. In fact, when you look at Michigan—one of the country’s most important swing states—you could even make the case that the elections spawned a few miniature blue waves.

There was a lot at stake in the Mitten. Some of the politicians there who’d gained national profiles as the potential future of the Democratic Party, especially Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. Elissa Slotkin, were facing tough reelection challenges going into Tuesday. There were important ballot proposals to codify voting and abortion rights in the state constitution. Donald Trump was braying about “voter fraud” in Detroit, and vigilantes appeared ready to act as poll watchers. And no matter who or what won out, the state’s Republican Party was likely to use its dominance in the state Legislature to further obstruct the Whitmer administration, whose members have all had to deal with violent threats from a radicalized citizenry.

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In other words, the entire state’s future was riding on these elections. And, perhaps shockingly, they’re looking great for the Midwest’s embattled liberals.

Let’s start with the topline results: With nearly 90 percent of the vote counted, Gretchen Whitmer comfortably won against her opponent, former right-wing TV host and horror-film actor Tudor Dixon, by 10 points. Elissa Slotkin, a moderate congresswoman who’d come to power during the 2018 Trump backlash and whose district was redrawn this year to encompass some more conservative regions, ultimately beat her GOP challenger by 5 points. The proposals to enshrine voting rights and abortion access in state law each won out by double digits. The 3rd Congressional District, where Democratic meddling in the GOP primary forced out Trump objector Peter Meijer in favor of a Trump stan, flipped in favor of Dems by 13 points—a remarkable result for a longtime GOP stronghold. Meanwhile, endangered Rep. Dan Kildee also held onto his redistricted seat in the 8th, ensuring that the bulk of the state’s delegation in the House of Representatives will be Democratic. Now, here’s the really wild result: Down the ballot, Democrats are also poised to win full control of the state Legislature for the first time since 1984. It’ll also be the first time the party has enjoyed total control of the state in four decades. Democratic wins trickled down even to elections for institutions like the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents.

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It’s much, much too soon to figure out whether this portends a long-term blue tilt for the swing state. Michigan is still ground zero for 2020 election deniers, book bans, library defunding, segregation, and school board wars. Plus, perpetual Republican hopeful John James has finally pulled it off in the 10th District. But there’s a lot of good news here for Midwestern libs and progressives, who can fairly view these victories as vindication of the issues they banked on. “Big Gretch” Whitmer has become a national star for her infrastructure policy (“fix the damn roads”) and COVID response—but most importantly, she’s really hammered on the importance of abortion in Michigan. After Roe v. Wade fell, she filed a motion to block a 1931 state abortion-ban law that had been nullified by Roe but was still on the books. Then, a successful petition paved the way for Proposal 3, a ballot measure guaranteeing the right to an abortion in the state. That helped to drive record turnout across the Mitten and Upper Peninsula, although it also probably didn’t hurt that TikTok star Big Gretch is also popular with Michigan’s young voters—and even its rappers.

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There are signs other Dems are benefiting from similar messaging savvy. State Sen. Mallory McMorrow, who went viral for an impassioned speech railing against the GOP’s homophobic rhetoric, has been firmly reelected to a bluer statehouse. Then there was Elissa Slotkin’s battle to hold on to her redder district, potentially made all the harder by her opposition to Trump from the first impeachment onward. But she didn’t back away from this—if anything, she doubled down, even earning Liz Cheney’s endorsement and getting her to join the campaign trail. (Incidentally, they met in front of Nate Silver’s old hangout, East Lansing High School.) She was the first Dem the junior Cheney had ever endorsed, giving Slotkin a bipartisan sheen while also making clear she wouldn’t tolerate extreme Trumpism. (Meanwhile, Slotkin’s opponent brought along Mike Pence.) The Donald may have won the state in 2016, but Biden’s 2020 victory and Slotkin’s continued success prove Michigan is not a Trump state. (Remember, also, that multiple Michigan Republicans—Justin Amash, Peter Meijer, Fred Upton, Ed McBroom—were among the few Trump dissenters within their party.)

Big national figures, progressive policy that’s been popularly approved to become state law, whispered plans of repealing the state’s notorious 2012 right-to-work law—for all we know, Michigan may carry the future of the Democratic Party in the palm of its, um, hand.

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