Could Michigan Democrats Break a 40 Year Losing Streak?

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For a state that has voted for the Democratic candidate in 7 out of the last 8 presidential elections, Michigan has been relatively hostile to Democrats at the state legislative level. Thanks to a combination of favorable maps, political climates, organizational strength, and geography, Republicans have controlled the State Senate since 1982, and Democrats once again find themselves with the arduous task of trying to flip a chamber sitting at 22R-16D heading into a midterm cycle.

There are a few reasons to think things might be different this time, however. To begin with, despite the national environment looking somewhat dicey for Democrats compared to 2020, statewide polling has arguably never looked as strong for the Michigan Democrats. Incumbent governor Gretchen Whitmer leads Republican challenger Tudor Dixon by a whopping 13 points in the polling averages, while Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel also lead their respective races by significant (albeit lesser) margins. While we believe that these margins are a bit inflated, and that the eventual race is likely to be significantly closer, it is clear that Whitmer is a heavy favorite, and we have the race rated as Likely Democratic.

Secondly, the November ballot will have a referendum on abortion. Pre-Dobbs estimates pegged Michigan as a fairly pro-choice state, and if the overwhelming rejection of the anti-abortion amendment in Kansas is any indication, states may actually be significantly more pro-choice than those estimates. Moreover, such referendums may contribute to significantly increased Democratic enthusiasm, and there is a statistic supporting this that might worry Republicans: after Kansas (14%), the state with the highest voter registration spikes among young women was Michigan (7%), as per TargetSmart. If this is any indication, Democratic turnout in November may be more likely than not to exceed usual midterm levels, which would make victory tougher for Michigan Republicans.

Lastly, the state Senate map has never looked as good for Democrats as it does now. While the map of the 2010s had a fairly Republican lean (the tipping point seat was Trump +7), the new map is significantly more balanced, with the tipping point (seat #19 of the 38-seat chamber) actually being slightly to the left of the state at Biden +3. This means that if Whitmer wins the state by margins anything resembling current polling, she is also extremely likely to win a majority of state Senate districts, which has significant ramifications for downballot elections.

This combination of factors is exactly why Michigan Democrats are optimistic about their odds of flipping the state Senate, and to a lesser degree, the state House. It is also why they have poured so much money into the state legislative elections — figures from political firm AdImpact suggest that Democrats have outspent Republicans at a rate of roughly four to one, spending 18M to the GOP’s 4.6M. While the prospect of flipping a swing state’s legislative chamber was a previously unfathomable notion in a midterm with a Democrat in the White House, the Dobbs v. Jackson decision and the state-level effects for Michigan may have changed the entire equation, according to State Senate candidate Veronica Klinefelt.

“I think [Dobbs] was a game-changer. I think everybody was expecting a red wave, and I don’t hear anybody talking about [that now]. […] There’s not going to be a red wave, and I don’t know anybody who still thinks there is. And I think that’s specifically because of the Supreme Court Decision and, in Michigan, because it’s on the ballot now”, said Klinefelt, the Democratic candidate for the Macomb-based 11th district. In a possible sign of the politics of the issue, Klinefelt noted that the Republican candidates had eagerly sought to either reframe or avoid the matter of abortion altogether.

“My opponent previously had his pro-life stance up on his website…[and] it has now been removed. Other Republican elected officials have been removing those from their websites. [And] yesterday, Tudor Dixon attempted to implore voters to not vote to not let the abortion issue be a deciding factor cut because it’s on the ballot. But I don’t think people are buying that”.

The issue of avoiding abortion has not proven to be especially effective for Republicans this cycle. In the special election for New York’s 19th District, Republican Marc Molinaro eagerly sought to put abortion on the back-burner, but failed to do so in his loss to Pat Ryan. While Tudor Dixon has tried this exact strategy of late to stem the potential Republican loss of support with independent and moderate women, it is unclear that she is making any headway, especially as recent polls only show the deficit between her and Whitmer widening.

One other complication for Michigan Republicans since the last midterm is the return of the straight-ticket voting option, thanks to a 2018 ballot proposition. While it is an open question as to how independents break, political science literature suggests that the return of this ballot option may help Democrats, especially as it often helps reduce undervotes among minority voters. In swing districts like Klinefelt’s, which have large Black populations, that could make an impact.

For all that Democrats have going for them in this election cycle, however, it is important to note that polling in Michigan has overestimated Democrats in 3 consecutive cycles now, and that downballot races are significantly closer in both public and private polling than the gubernatorial election is. Even with all of the factors helping them out, ranging from the heavy focus on abortion rights to the (current) lack of a seriously competitive Republican statewide slate, the national environment looks more likely than not to be closer to neutral. This would mean that the tipping-point districts are likely to be tightly contested until the end, and private polling Split Ticket is aware of has Democrats only narrowly up in the tipping-point seats, with plenty of undecideds that could swing the race in either direction.

Guessing who may win this chamber is a fool’s errand. One thing is for sure, though: Michigan Democrats have the best chance in decades of snapping a forty-year losing streak. Whether this materializes is anyone’s guess.

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