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Michigan GOP leaders pensive as they plot path in changing election landscape

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Mackinac Island — Michigan Republicans left their biennial convention espousing confidence, but with a pensive eye cast toward changes in the state's election landscape that will dramatically increase the guesswork in campaigns.

Changing demographics in districts once thought secure, the near certainty of more changes coming from a voter-approved redistricting commission in 2022  and a likely surge in absentee voters threaten to shake up Michigan elections over the next three years.

GOP leaders are split, too, on whether President Donald Trump's name at the top of the ticket will be a burden or a boon in 2020.

And Republicans left Mackinac Island still unsure of who would challenge Democrats in three pivotal and traditionally Republican Michigan Congressional districts — the 8th, 10th and 11th. Democrats flipped two of those seats in 2018. 

“The next two election cycles will not be for the faint of heart,” Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference. “I think it’s going to be a dog fight in 2020 and a dog fight in 2022.”

The party is about eight months ahead of where it usually is at this stage of a presidential campaign cycle, as it works to set up political infrastructure throughout the state to prepare for 2020, said Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox on Sunday. 

“The RNC is working shoulder-to-shoulder with us to make sure that we get our ground game set,” Cox said, noting the party has trained more than 1,500 volunteers.

The next two elections will have elements of unpredictability but for reasons that will differ in 2020 and 2022, said Republican pollster Steve Mitchell.

In 2020, candidates will contend with an expected increase in absentee voters as well as an anticipated record-breaking voter turnout due to the presence of Trump on the ballot.

“These elections are about Donald Trump,” Mitchell said. “Donald Trump is the reason Republicans come out to vote yes or Democrats come out to vote no.”

House Speaker Lee Chatfield said he expects Trump’s name at the top of the ticket to have a positive impact for House Republicans, but Shirkey wasn’t as optimistic.

“I think it’s a very high, high likelihood that we will have a very big turnout in Michigan, and a big turnout in Michigan doesn’t necessarily accrue to my interests,” said Shirkey, R-Clarklake. Both leaders are fundraising in anticipation of an uphill climb in 2020, but they expressed confidence that they’ll hold their majorities in each chamber of Michigan's legislature. 

“What was made very clear in 2016 to 2018 is that there were many voters who didn’t turn out that were Republican because Donald Trump wasn’t on the ballot,” said Chatfield, R-Levering. “But that will change in 2020 and that’s why I’m very optimistic House Republicans are going to return with the majority.”

The Michigan Republican Party still is working to recruit candidates to run in the 8th, 10th and 11th congressional districts and Cox said she was confident the party would have competent candidates lined up soon. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who was among the conference’s keynote speakers Saturday, met with potential candidates on the island, Cox said. 

“Obviously, you know, the opponents are in that seat already and they're banking money and I’m not a fool, we have to be cognizant of that,” Cox said. “I’m not naive to the situation.”

Trump’s base won’t be enough to counter the tidal wave of anti-Trump voters who will head to the polls in 2020, predicted Mark Grebner of East Lansing-based Practical Political Consultants. Grebner, a Democrat, expects roughly 6 million votes to be cast in the next election and he expects new left-leaning voters will tip the scales.

“The thing is that the marginal voters that are out there, the people who might vote or not, they are more Democratic,” said Grebner, a Democratic Ingham County commissioner.

Mitchell is less certain whether the increased voter turn out will sink or buoy Republicans in 2020.

Lasting concerns raised by the Democratic sweep in 2018 are unfounded, he said. The blue wave was due more to the expected midterm swing than an actual change in demographics or voter preferences, he said. 

“With two exceptions since 1944, the party that’s in power generally gets reelected,” Mitchell said. “Trump is an incumbent president, a controversial one, but still an incumbent.”

Changes in absentee voting

Early returns from municipal elections held after the state’s approval of a ballot initiative that legalized no-reason absentee voting show the new option may be more popular than anticipated. More than 53% of voters in August’s local primaries cast an absentee ballot, up nearly 12 percentage points over 2017.

The Michigan Republican Party has created a new committee headed by former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land to train party volunteers to monitor the implementation of the new voting laws on Election Day, Cox said. Besides that, candidates are encouraged to track absentee ballot requests in order to properly time targeted mailings to absentee voters.

“Instead of making your mail plan four weeks out now … your timeline has just changed,” Cox said.

Because it was a largely Democratic initiative, no-reason absentee voting may initially appear to favor Democrats, but Mitchell suggests it's no certainty that the manner of voting will lead to a different set of voters.

“All they did was exchange people who were going to vote at the polls with no-reason absentee voting,” Mitchell said.

Grebner agreed that its not yet clear whether those moving to no-reason absentee are new voters or voters who would have gone to the polls anyway. Nonetheless, the percentage of people voting absentee will no doubt increase, which may widen the time period over which campaigns monitor progress and plan strategies.

“You now find yourself thinking of the voters over a range of time starting 50 days before the election,” Grebner said.


While Republicans say they remain optimistic about 2020, they have clear concerns about the impact redistricting may have in 2022.

At the weekend conference, the conservative Michigan Freedom Fund booth featured buttons, stickers and posters featuring the message “Prop 2 gerrymandered me out of serving on the redistricting commission.”

The paraphernalia was a snapshot of the furor with which Michigan Republicans are fighting against the commission’s implementation and eventual redrawing of districts in Michigan.

The 13-member commission will include four Republicans, four Democrats and five residents who do not affiliate with either of the two major political parties. The process requires commission applicants to attest under oath if they affiliate with the Republican or Democratic party, but it does not require the state to verify that status, and Michigan does not require or allow voters to register by party.

Instead, the amendment to the Michigan Constitution allows partisan majority and minority leaders in the state House and Senate to strike up to five applicants each — 20 total — from randomly selected pools of 60 Republicans, 60 Democrats and 80 non-affiliated applicants. From the remaining pools, Benson must then randomly draw the names of four Republicans, four Democrats and five applicants not affiliated with either major party to serve on the commission.

Republicans are seeking to overturn the entire commission because of rules that the party says restrict people with remote ties to politics from serving on the commission. Cox declined to comment because of the party's pending litigation.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Attorney General Dana Nessel pushed back against the claim in an August court filing, arguing that people aren't precluded from the commission because of the political relationships. Instead, they are banned because of apparent conflicts of interest.

“Voters spoke loud and clear last November that they want an independent, citizen-led commission — not partisan politicians — responsible for drawing district lines," Benson said in a July statement. "My office will stay focused on engaging the public and encouraging full participation in a transparent application and random selection process for this commission, which has the opportunity to map Michigan’s future.”

The Michigan Legislature on Thursday advanced a conference committee report that would require the commission to report to the Legislature instead of the Department of State, and docked the commission's budget to $3.4 million, $1.2 million less than Gov. Gretchn Whitmer's recommendation.  

The ballot initiative language required legislative oversight of the program, which is needed for a fair and independent commission, Chatfield and Shirkey said.

“It should be a concern of every Michigan citizen,” Shirkey said. “I think what Voters not Politicians did, what they accomplished, was impressive, but the product was horrible and we’re going to deal with it and figure it out.”

In the meantime, the potential threat of redrawn districts that are less than friendly to Republicans has some potential candidates worried.

The initiative “leaves a lot to the unknown,” said Tori Sachs, former campaign manager for Senate candidate John James. She suggested that fears about the administration of the commission could encourage some candidates to rise to the challenge. “I think that’s encouraging more people to get involved who might not otherwise get involved.”

For Mitchell, the prospect of the redistricting commission is every bit as dire as Shirkey warned, in large part because Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson is at the head. Under the new measure, the Secretary of State oversees the redistricting effort.

“You’ll have a very partisan Secretary of State putting together a commission designed to elect Democrats,” Mitchell said. “They will be susceptible to any leadership the Secretary of State provides.”

The commission would convene no later than Oct. 15, 2020, the year of the next federal census, and adopt a redistricting plan no later than Nov. 1, 2021, after a process that includes at least 15 public hearings.

The proposal would require districts to be of equal population, compact, geographically contiguous, reflect the state’s “diverse population” and municipal boundaries and not provide an advantage to any one political party. The final decision would require a majority vote or, failing that, commissioners would resort to ranked voting.

Republicans are right to be afraid of losing control of redistricting, but the specter of a Democratic-leaning commission is far-fetched, Grebner said.

“The real reason that Republicans are concerned about it is because it’s not under the purview of the Republican Party and subject to their gerrymander,” said Grebner, but that doesn’t mean the authority is transferred to the Democrats via Benson.

“We’re so pathetic as a party that all we could ever hope for is a fair system,” he said. “We’re way too incompetent as a party to ever get control of it again.”