Michigan Democrats are the dogs that caught the car. Except they know exactly what they want to do with it. In just the four short months since coming into power, the state Democrats have made significant progress on passing bills and pushing the issues that, in previous years, they couldn’t even get a committee hearing on.
Expanding the state’s civil rights law to include LGBTQ protections? Signed, sealed, delivered.
An old law that criminalizes abortion with harsh penalties? Out of here.
Laws that allow workers in the state to not pay union fees and dues? Gone. But a prevailing wage law? It’s back on the books.
They’ve even managed to sign into law two of their three flagship gun control laws. Those would require universal background checks for the sale of all firearms, as well as safe storage of firearms and ammunition.
Moving fast and furious was always the plan. Democratic state Sen. Jeremy Moss told me in early March for the WDET podcast MichMash that the Democrats are “delivering on the goals that we ran on” in the 2022 midterms. Democrats swept the state House and Senate, as well as the governor’s race last year.
“Now that we have this historic Democratic trifecta … there are a lot of eyes on us, asking us, demanding of us, what are we going to get done?” he said.
It’s a momentous shift. Powerful is not a word that has been used to describe Democrats in Michigan for a long time. It’s been about 40 years since they controlled both chambers and the governor’s seat. And for a good number of those years, they didn’t hold any power in the Legislature or governor’s office. Meaning, they’ve been used to making speeches and pounding their fists in frustration, but not actually leading.
“We’re taking on some of the most consequential issues that impact people’s humanity, their lives, and their livelihoods, and we’ve done it all in just the last two months,” Moss said in March.
As a result of this flurry of Democratic activity, MSNBC columnist Michael A. Cohen wrote recently that “Michigan has quickly become a contender to be America’s wokest state.”
Not so fast.
Because while Democrats may have taken over the government, they did so with very slim majorities in the House and Senate. This means that for more controversial legislation—the kind that virtually zero Republicans will get on board with—the Democrats have to get votes from almost every single one of their members in the House and Senate. That’s a tough sell, even within the state party, and it will only get more difficult as the Democrats continue to check off items on their to-do list. The issue is complicated by the fact that, across the aisle, Michigan Republicans are only becoming more and more extreme in their approach to local governance.
The most glaring example of the creep of extremism is Kristina Karamo, a pro-Trump, election-denying, failed secretary of state candidate who was elected by Republicans to lead the Michigan GOP. In just a few short months, her reign has ranged from controversial—she contemplated replacing the current presidential primary system with a closed caucus or convention—to bigoted: She recently shared a meme comparing the Holocaust to gun reform, for example, and then doubled down on the comparison (all while continuing to refuse to concede her own secretary of state race from 2022).
There is infighting among the Republicans—in some cases literally. (Last month, two Michigan GOP officials, one a backer of Karamo, got into a possible physical fight during an official Republican gathering.) And there is real frustration. (Former Republican Rep. David Trott, responding to the far-right takeover, recently declared the state party “dead.”) But there are also extremist conservative positions gaining real traction on local levels, and spreading in a grassroots way.
Take, for instance, the spread of book banning, which has picked up steam in Michigan.
In Lapeer County, a Republican prosecutor named John Miller is currently debating whether to charge a library director with a felony over the fact that she refuses to remove the book Gender Queer: A Memoir from her shelves. The graphic novel, about coming of age and reckoning with sexual identity, has been targeted elsewhere around the country.
Miller, who took office in January 2020 and campaigned on a promise to restore “public confidence in law and order within the courtroom and within the communities throughout this county,” has said he might prosecute the library director using a state law that charges someone who “accosts, entices, or solicits a child” with a felony. His reasoning, according to nonprofit news source Bridge Michigan, is that the “graphic novel is inappropriate for children to access at a public library because it includes illustrations of sex acts.”
Elsewhere in Michigan, public schools are letting parents decide what books their kids can check out at the school library—specifically to prevent them from reading certain books the parents don’t like—and outright banning others. (One Michigan public school community had 33 titles banned pending investigation, according to PEN America’s index of book bans from summer 2021 to 2022.)
In other words, local school boards have become a place where far-right activists have been able to seize some power. And while their success so far is a “mixed bag,” according to Adrian Hemond, CEO of the Michigan consulting firm Grassroots Midwest, fights over education were a pillar of Republican midterm campaigns. Fierce campaigns against certain books are not going anywhere.
It’s not just book banning. Hemond referenced the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners, usually a solidly Republican group, that recently went full far-right, doubling down on “anti-wokeness” and wanting “to talk about a stolen election and all of that sort of nonsense,” Hemond said.
A lot could happen before 2024 elections. Republicans have failed to adequately meet popular opinion on abortion, and “they were punished for that at the ballot box in November,” Hemond said. But the far right has become the activist wing of the Republican Party in Michigan. And the success of Democrats, at the statewide level, can’t just be attributed to voters changing, but to the fact that Republicans are split into factions, the most active and engaged of which are extreme. So even though Republicans right now have little power in statewide office, or in either chamber of the Legislature, Democrats should not breathe easy. Republicans can and will regroup.
“It’s not clear what institution is going to coordinate the sort of electoral forces of conservatives at a state level,” Hemond said. While more traditional Republicans are not fans of a lot of the far-right tactics, all it takes is for enough of them to get so tired of Democrats in power that they join forces with the extreme wing of the party for the sake of winning elections again.
In short, right now, Michigan looks vivid blue, but that might be artificially inflated. If Republicans retrench around their more extreme wing, it’s possible the state will be as much of a toss-up as ever.