Candidates seek edge with new Michigan voters as registration deadline nears
Political candidates are working hard to expand support by getting new voters to register by a Monday deadline, trying to get an edge with less than a month to go before the Aug. 7 primary election.
Elected office hopefuls must draw more than voters already registered to the polls for a shot at beating established politicians, political experts said.
In the Democratic gubernatorial primary, in particular, former Detroit health director Abdul El-Sayed of Shelby Township and Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar are billing themselves as progressives compared with former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer. The two hopefuls must urge voters who don’t usually cast a ballot to get signed up, experts said.
“They need a significant change in who turns out in primary elections,” said Adrian Hemond, CEO for the bipartisan Lansing-based public advocacy firm Grassroots Midwest. “Primary electorates tend to be very old in both parties.”
El-Sayed and Shri Thanedar will have to fight to get younger people to the polls if they hope to best front-runner Whitmer, said Jeffrey Grynaviski, associate professor of political science at Wayne State University.
"They’re trying to position themselves as the true progressive candidate in Michigan," Grynaviski said. "The question is whether they have the money or the messaging in order for that to take.”
As of June 30, about 7.3 million Michiganians were registered to vote, slightly less the 7.4 million registered voters prior to the 2014 midterms, and more than the 7.2 million before the 2010 midterms.
Michigan residents who are at least 18 years old and U.S. citizens can register by mail or in person at their municipal office or any Secretary of State office.
The Aug. 7 primary will decide the Republican, Democratic and Libertarian nominees for governor, U.S. Senate, Congress, state Legislature, some local races as well as local millage and other proposals.
Primary elections usually decide the bulk of legislative and congressional races. Most state House, state Senate and congressional districts are drawn to favor either Democrats or Republicans, and a small proportion are considered contested seats.
Younger voter recruitment
Hemond contends there hasn't been a "concerted effort" from Thanedar or El-Sayed to draw younger voters to the primary polls. El-Sayed has raised less money than Whitmer and Thanedar, who has loaned his own campaign about $6 million.
“We’re a month out," said Hemond, a former staffer for two Democratic legislators. "I’m not clear that the El-Sayed campaign has the financial resources to do so, but certainly they can try.”
New voters may not be as much of a factor in the Republican gubernatorial contest, where Attorney General Bill Schuette of Midland is leading in the polls over Lt. Gov. Brian Calley of Portland.
Lesser-known GOP candidates, such as State Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton Township and Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines, will face similar challenges in mobilizing grassroots voters as Democrats El-Sayed and Thanedar, said Arnold Weinfeld, interim director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.
But Weinfeld said he is optimistic that some of the energy surrounding outsiders like El-Sayed, and Thanedar or mavericks like Colbeck could drive higher voter participation, which averages between 15 and 20 percent in Michigan's primary elections.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll see as good a turnout in this primary as we’ve seen in a while,” he said.
The Michigan Republican Party has its own challenges in the primary and general elections. Officials are attempting to reach Republicans who were unwilling to vote for Trump in 2016 and Trump supporters who voted Republican for the first time two years ago, said party spokeswoman Sarah Anderson.
The party has worked to contact and mobilize those voters over the past two years, she said.
"I don’t think we’re ever going to be content with the status quo," Anderson said. "We want people engaged across the Republican party spectrum."
While the primary election traditionally serves as an opportunity for each party to “rally its base,” party leaders could face an uphill climb in wooing a growing number of independent voters should front runners Whitmer and Schuette advance to the general election.
“Nothing’s ever a given as we’ve learned in the recent past,” Weinfeld said of the expectation of a Schuette-Whitmer face-off in November.
“I think what we’ll have to pay attention to is, all things being equal and those two emerge from the primary, will those bases stay energized?”
Michigan has been a focus on voter registration and party mobilization efforts from the parties and affiliated allies — from the NextGen America voter registration efforts of liberal billionaire Tom Steyer to the National Republican Committee.
Detroit is a traditional target because voters there overwhelmingly support Democrats. But Detroiters don't tend to show up at the midterm polls in the same numbers they do during presidential elections — a trend the party is trying to address.
On Thursday, the Democratic National Committee announced an $88,000 grant for the Michigan Democratic Party to increase outreach to African-American communities in Detroit ahead of the midterms.
“We are investing in our base communities and putting organizers on the ground across the country because we know that’s the only way we’ll win,” DNC Chairman Tom Perez said in a statement.
Outside of the governor's race, other smaller races have the potential of producing nontraditional left- or right-wing candidates for the Republican or Democratic tickets, experts said.
Kelly Collison, chair of the Michigan Democratic Party's progressive caucus, is running for a House seat in the Lansing-area 68th District against Sarah Anthony, who's largely backed by establishment Democrats, Hemond said. Tanya Cabala, a Whitehall teacher, is endorsed by the Progressive Democratic Women's Caucus as she competes against Andy O'Reilly for the Muskegon area 91st House District nomination.
In the 44th House District, Matt Maddock of Milford is running against four other Republican hopefuls and appears poised to win, Hemond said. The co-founder of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, Maddock opened an unofficial Trump campaign field office in 2016 in Walled Lake and complained in 2016 that "big money" donors were pulling the party in the wrong direction.
Outliers to the left and right could pull off upsets in the primary, Hemond said, but "how successful those candidates will be in general election is yet to be seen."
Should the primary election produce unexpected winners, parties will have to assess whether to rally around the candidates or leave them to their own devices, Hemond said.
“They’ve got to allocate their resources wisely,” he said. “If you’ve got an inferior candidate who comes through the primary, it might be time to cut bait.”
Voter registration tips
Michigan residents must be registered to vote by the end of Monday if they want to participate in the Aug. 7 primary.
• You must be a U.S. citizen, at least 18 years old, a Michigan resident and a resident of the city or town where registering.
• First-time applicants to vote in Michigan must provide a driver’s license or other personal identification.
• Get voter registration application at a local Secretary of State branch office; the local county, city or township clerk’s office; certain state agencies such as Department of Health and Human Services; military recruitment centers; voter registration drives; or online at www.Michigan.gov/sos
• Applicants must use the same address for voting registration as they do for a driver’s license.
• Re-register after moving to a city or township.
• The application can be delivered in person to a clerk’s office or mailed.
Source: Michigan Secretary of State’s Office