Why Democrats won more votes, but GOP won more legislative seats in Michigan

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
This map shows the counties where Gretchen Whitmer and Bill Schuette won majorities.

Lansing — Republicans will return majorities to the Michigan House and Senate next year despite winning fewer statewide votes than Democrats, a trend that a new law to combat “gerrymandering” may not fully reverse.

Democrats picked up five seats in each chamber and contend their unsuccessful bid for majority rule was complicated by political boundaries drawn last drawn by the GOP in 2011.

But experts say the results also point to the realities of a political realignment that has been taking shape for several years: Michigan's Upper Peninsula and other rural areas are trending red, while suburbs are increasingly joining urban areas in the blue.

“You can’t gerrymander the U.P.,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist with the bipartisan Grassroots Midwest consulting firm, who noted his party’s growing struggle to win seats north of Mount Pleasant. “They need to crack that nut if they ever want to sniff a majority in the Senate.”

Unofficial results from the Nov. 6 election show Democratic candidates for the state House received a combined 2,110,460 votes, compared with 1,923,388 votes for Republicans. Despite the 52-47 percent edge for Democrats, the GOP won more seats and will enjoy a 58-52 advantage in the House.

Democrats also won more votes in state Senate races, combining for 2,063,679 votes, compared with 1,960,922 for Republicans. While Democrats won the statewide vote 50-48 percent, Republicans will hold a 22-16 majority in the upper chamber, which they've controlled since 1984. 

"The Michigan Senate is the most gerrymandered chamber in the country, so obviously I think we sent a strong message that we even picked up five seats — the most since Watergate," said Sen. Minority Leader Jim Ananich, D-Flint. "There obviously were a lot of folks looking for change."

Democrats flipped six seats in the state House, including four in suburban Oakland and western Wayne counties. But they lost one seat in the Upper Peninsula in what was one of this year's biggest surprises.

Republican Gregory Markannen of Hancock was significantly outspent in the 110th House District but defeated Democrat Ken Summers of Baraga in a seat currently held by term-limited Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, who also lost a competitive race for state Senate.

"Gerrymandering really doesn't hold any weight in that," said Sarah Anderson, deputy chief of staff for the Michigan Republican Party. "It seems to be more of a regional divide, cities versus rural."

The GOP was "fortunate" to hold the House and Senate after putting in "a lot of work in to make sure that happened," Anderson said.

'It's new world order' 

Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer topped the ticket for Democrats and beat Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Schuette by nine percentage points statewide. She won by more than 16 points in Oakland County, doubling Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's eight-point edge over GOP President Donald Trump in 2016.

“Republicans straight up got smoked in Oakland County, and that Western Wayne area too,” said Brian Began, a GOP consultant with Grassroots Midwest. Democrats also flipped three state Senate seats in the region that traditionally had been a strong spot for the GOP.

While some of those victories could be considered upsets, "it's a new world order," Began said. “Things might be trending in one way, and all that’s needed is a little push. In some of these suburban areas that had been trending (for Democrats), Trump was the push, much like (former President Barack) Obama was the push for Republicans in 2012.”

The GOP’s ability to maintain legislative majorities despite a statewide vote disparity is partly attributable to the way voters have “concentrated” in Michigan, including changes over the past seven years, said Began, who helped draw political boundaries for House Republicans in 2011.

“Population wise, more Dem-leaning areas have certainly grown in the last decade, or since the last Census, whereas in a lot of these (rural areas), the population has declined,” Began said. “A lot of it is just basic geography.”

Democrats appear to be increasingly inclined toward large cities, which is how Whitmer dominated the statewide vote total while topping Schuette in only 17 of 83 counties. But Democratic voter concentration in Detroit, the state’s largest city, does not solely account for the disparity in legislative representation.

In state House races, Democratic candidates combined to narrowly win more total votes in districts outside Detroit, 47.3-46.8 percent. Republicans held a 46-43 percent edge in state Senate races outside Detroit.

Regions shunning Democrats

Still, it would be hard to establish truly competitive statewide districts with comparable population totals without "drawing Detroit like a sunburst," Hemond said. "I don't want to say that partisan district drawing doesn't have an impact — it does — but there's only so much you can do in terms of the lines in most areas of the state."

Whitmer narrowly defeated Schuette in Macomb County, which Trump had carried in 2016 with 53.6 percent of the vote, but legislative candidates did not fare as well there. In one of the region’s most competitive races, Republican Michael McDonald defeated Democratic state Rep. Henry Yanez by nearly five points in the 10th state Senate District.

“Other than the city of Warren, Macomb County is really driving away from Democrats,” Hemond said, pointing out that Republicans scored double-digit wins in previously competitive races in the 24th and 30th state House districts. 

In Shiawasee County, which Obama won in 2012 but Trump carried in 2016, Republicans also did “very, very well,” Began said. He also noted relatively strong GOP showings in rural areas of Saginaw and Genesee counties where “blue-collar voters, particularly males, are definitely trending more Republican.”

“I think the Trump message sells a lot better to those folks," he said. 

Gerrymandering, the practice of drawing political lines to benefit a particular party, “really affects the lower half of state” in areas like Southeast Michigan, Grand Rapids, the Lansing area and other pockets where there are heavy concentrations of Democratic voters, said Eric Lupher, president of the non-partisan Citizens Research Council.

Michigan maps approved by Republican lawmakers in 2011 have consistently favored GOP candidates, according to the efficiency gap, a measurement of “wasted votes” for losing candidates and winners in noncompetitive districts that was developed by researchers in 2015.

A Citizens Research Council analysis shows efficiency gap scores for the Michigan House fell from 13.3 in 2014 to 10.3 in 2018, and from 22.6 to 12 for the state Senate. Any rating above a 7 or 8 is generally considered evidence of a gerrymander, Lupher said.

“So there’s little doubt that there’s gerrymandering going on in the state. It’s a question of to what degree," he said.

Adjusting to redistricting panel

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon called the state House and Senate results "the final exclamation point on the need to get rid of gerrymandering" and praised passage of Proposal 2, which will create a citizen redistricting commission to draw new lines after the 2020 Census. 

The 13-member commission will include four self-identified Democrats, four Republicans and five others who are “non-affiliated” or independent. Republicans opposed the proposal, arguing it would bestow new power on a partisan secretary of state who will oversee commissioner selection. The approved constitutional amendment is expected to face legal challenges. 

"I don't think it's going to be perfect, but it's clearly a much better system than having people who will be affected by the lines drawing the lines," Dillon said, referencing lawmakers. 

Regardless, losing rural voters to Republicans is "an issue I think Democrats have got to really address," Dillon acknowledged. "We can't afford to just reap the benefits of suburban voters trending to us. We've got to be competitive everywhere. If there's a strong economic message from whoever we put up for president, I think we can do much better there in 2020."

The redistricting commission envisioned under Proposal 2 will increase transparency in the decision-making process and push participants toward a middle ground that could reduce partisan influence in the future, Lupher said.

Because of GOP strength in certain parts of the state “there will continue to be a strong Republican presence in the state and a strong showing of Republican House, Senate and congressional representatives,” Lupher said. But the commission could influence “how fair we draw the districts in those other places to better reflect the voting patterns of our residents.”

With Trump already positioning himself to run for re-election in two years, Republicans are counting on continued support in rural areas to mitigate movement toward  Democrats in areas like Oakland County, where frustration with the president appeared to drive midterm turnout, especially among female voters.  

"I think Democrats have had to trend more to the left, and so I think the folks in rural Michigan and northern Michigan feel like our message just better aligns with their values," the GOP's Anderson said. "Our party is founded on ideals of hope and prosperity and economic opportunity, I think a lot of what motivated the left this time was anger, and I don’t think that’s sustainable." 


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