Michigan Republicans win big edge despite small margin

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – Republicans topped Democrats in statewide votes for the Michigan House by the slimmest of margins – a 0.2 percentage point difference – but will enter the next two-year session with another 16-seat majority.

With more than 4.5 million votes tallied, unofficial results show Republican candidates received 4,704 more votes than Democrats on Nov. 8 while winning 63 of 110 state House seats to retain their solid majority through 2018.

Republican congressional candidates garnered 79,872 more votes than Democrats – less than a 4-percentage-point margin – but again won control of nine of Michigan’s 14 seats in the U.S. House.

Democrats say the mismatch between statewide vote totals and government representation is a byproduct of a calculated “gerrymander” by Republicans, who led the process when the state Legislature rewrote district lines following the 2010 Census.

The result is “a very significant disconnect between (where) lawmakers are and where the people are,” said state Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, suggesting past-year results are also illustrative. Democratic candidates won a narrow majority of votes in 2014 but won only 47 of 110 House seats that year.

“The Legislature is organized along partisan lines and passes laws that reflect the entire state, so when there are lines that are drawn to artificially support one party or another, it means that the minority of voters may end up passing laws that affect the entirety of the state,” Hoadley said.

Republicans dismiss the gerrymandering accusations, arguing they had strong candidates who exceeded expectations in the state’s most competitive districts.

GOP candidates won 14 of the 20 state House races that were decided by fewer than 5,000 votes. Some appear to have benefited from an unexpectedly strong showing by President-elect Donald Trump, the Republican businessman who unofficially won the state by 13,107 votes.

Republican state Rep. John Bizon, R-Battle Creek, won re-election over Democratic challenger Jim Haadsma by just 209 votes, or less than a full percentage point, according to unofficial results.

Trump likely helped Bizon by faring better than past GOP presidential candidates in the 62nd District, where he won 51.2 percent of the vote, said Republican consultant Brian Began of Grassroots Midwest.

“Conventional wisdom said the turnout should crush (Bizon), but it appears these folks in sort of your rural working-class areas really bought into the Donald Trump message and surged more than normally,” Began said.

In Macomb County, Republican Diana Farrington of Utica topped Michael Notte by 2,836 votes in a state House district Democrats hoped to flip. In a closely watched Wayne County race, Republican Jeff Noble of Plymouth topped Democrat Colleen Pobur by 3,670 votes.

But many competitive districts Democrats hoped to win still favored Republicans on paper, Hoadley said, pointing to voter “base” projections derived from past election results.

“The reality is that because of the way lines are drawn in Michigan, when we talk about competitive, we are grading on a curve,” he said. “When the other team gets to start a couple meters ahead, it’s not exactly a fair race.”

All told, Republican candidates received 2,261,723 votes in the 110 races for a full two-year state House term. Democratic candidates tallied 2,257,019 votes. Democrats also won two races to finish partial terms through the end of this year.

The results are unofficial and could change slightly before certification next week by the Board of State Canvassers.

Bob LaBrant, a longtime Lansing insider and Republican redistricting expert, attributed much of the disparity between vote totals and races won to the realities of single-member districts that encompass distinct geographic areas and “self-clustering” by Democratic voters.

“If you’re of a liberal persuasion, you’re not moving out to Clarkston, you’re probably moving to Royal Oak, and as a result you’ve got more and more districts where Democrats are winning with 80 percent of the vote,” LaBrant said.

“It’s not because of some artful gerrymander that cuts across people’s backyards and up and down railroad tracks. It’s just that if you’re going to keep a city or county boundary intact, that’s going to have certain political consequences.”

Democrat’s statewide vote totals were boosted by a series of blowout wins in non-competitive districts, including the liberal stronghold of Detroit. Of the 15 races decided by more than 20,000 votes, Democrats won 13.

Unofficial results show Rep. Latanya Garrett, D-Detroit, won 97.6 percent of the vote in her re-election bid against Republican Gina Barr, who notched 806 votes. Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, won 95.7 percent of the vote against the GOP’s Jennifer Rynicki.

Two of the GOP’s largest wins came in conservative Ottawa County districts, where Rep. Roger Victory of Hudsonville won re-election with 75 percent of the vote over Democrat Kim Nagy and Rep. Daniela Garcia of Holland won 72.87 of the vote against Democrat Mary Yedinak.

At the congressional level, Michigan’s closest race was decided by 48,207 votes. U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, won 52.9 percent of the vote to secure re-election over Democrat Anil Kumar.

Republicans won five of the six congressional races where the winner received less than 60 percent of the vote.

Democrats again dominated a series of non-competitive district races where Republicans stand little chance at success.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, won 77 percent of the vote over Republican Jeff Gorman in the 13th District. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, won 78.5 percent of the vote over Republican Howard Klausner in the 14th District.

The last redistricting go-round was governed by both state and federal rules, including a requirement for two “minority-majority” congressional districts and 12 state House districts, said Began, who helped draw the maps for when working for House Republicans.

“With the city of Detroit and some of the communities in Wayne County, it’s just where people live,” he said. “They’re not really diverse communities in thought.”

Following a series of contentious court cases, the state Legislature in 1999 codified the “Apol standards” requiring districts of roughly equal population, with contiguous and compact boundaries that maintain respect for municipal and county lines, when possible, and assure representation for minority groups.

The standards function as a “self-imposed restraint on adopting a real partisan gerrymander,” LaBrant said.

But Hoadley argues that Michigan’s redistricting process, which is governed by legislators, is ripe for reform. He’s proposed a constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission.

Hoadley’s proposal has gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Legislature, but he’s optimistic that interested groups will band together for a petition drive to put redistricting reform on the ballot in 2018. President Barack Obama is expected to focus on Democratic redistricting efforts after he leaves office.

“Non-partisan redistricting is a key aspect to making politicians truly accountable to voters and making sure voters have the best chance of picking politicians who represent their views and values,” Hoadley said, “as opposed to politicians looking at a map and trying to pick which voters they think will most likely vote for them.”

LaBrant said Michigan’s redistricting process is “a lot more fair” than it was several decades ago but acknowledged there could be ways to improve the process.

While LaBrant does not believe the kind of commission Hoadley is proposing would take politics out of the equation, he noted that Iowa has attempted to do so by using its non-partisan Legislative Services Agency to draw maps.

“I don’t want to give some unelected people named to a commission license to draw state legislative boundaries based on some nefarious standard called ‘communities of interest,’” LaBrant said. “I’d rather have either either the Legislature itself or like in Iowa, a Legislative Services Bureau, draw legislative boundary lines based on very objective criteria.”