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Michigan's make-up in Congress hangs in balance as vote counts drag on

Peter Meijer, the grandson of the founder of the Meijer supermarket chain, scored avictory in a West Michigan Republican congressional race, while other U.S. House primaries early Wednesday hung in the balance.

The eventual winners in key Democratic and GOP primaries may shape the make-up of Michigan’s congressional delegation. Among the House contests in which voters waited to learn the results were a primary challenge to Democratic U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Detroit and fights for GOP nominations in two open seats.

Returns were delayed in part by the time-consuming hand tabulation of a record number of absentee ballots in several counties, though observers reported few major issues overall at the state's polls despite changes made due to the coronavirus pandemic.

As polls close, Peter Meijer, Republican candidate for Michigan's 3rd congressional district, takes early congratulatory calls on primary election night, Tuesday, August 4, 2020 in Grand Rapids.

The Michigan Republican Party congratulated Meijer, a 32-year-old military veteran, on winning the GOP primary race in the 3rd District. Meijer was vying for one of two open House races to replace retiring U.S. Reps. Justin Amash of Cascade Township and Paul Mitchell of Dryden.

ELECTION RESULTS: Follow along as results come in

In the 10th District, where Mitchell decided against running for re-election, businesswoman Lisa McClain of Bruce Township had a 3 percentage point lead over state Rep. Shane Hernandez of Port Huron with 80% of precincts reporting.

On the Democratic side, all eyes turned to the contentious fight in the 13th District where progressive superstar Tlaib had a early leadover Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones in a bitter rematch of their 2018 contest. 

And in the suburbs of Detroit, GOP contenders were locked in races that were too close to call, hoping to take on freshmen U.S. Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Holly and Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills — both of whom thrilled Democrats when they flipped the 8th and 11th districts, respectively, in 2018, helping to return the House to Democratic control.

The races took place in polling locations armed with hand sanitizer, gloves and masks and decided by a record number of nearly 1.6 million absentee ballots. The prior record was set in the 2016 presidential election, when 1.27 million voted by mail.

Some jurisdictions, such as Oakland County, had largely finished their absentee tallies before the close of polls but others estimated they would be working to count their absentee ballots until midnight.

The coronavirus pandemic did spur delays in some jurisdictions, in particular Detroit, where last-minute cancellations by election workers kept at least three polling locations closed until between 8 and 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, said Jake Rollow, a spokesman for Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. The polls were supposed to open at 7 a.m.

Detroit polling locations at Northwest Unity Baptist Church, Cooke School and Dixon Academy opened later Tuesday only after the state deployed roughly 50 election workers to the city to replace last-minute cancellations. The state also sent last-minute workers to Flint, Lake County, Benzie County and Jackson County to help with polling operations there.

Clerks had been struggling to recruit new election workers after many of their longtime volunteers canceled out of concern for the impact of the coronavirus. Many elections workers in Michigan are of an age considered high risk for the virus.

The state also stepped in this week in Detroit when city voters alerted them to last-minute notifications of changes in polling locations.

The changes in polling locations had been made roughly a month ago, when several building owners pulled their facilities from consideration as polling locations out of fear of virus spread during voting, Rollow said.

But some Detroit voters told the state they weren’t notified of the changes at all or were only notified Monday of the new location. As a result, Benson’s office on Monday directed Detroit to post signs at the old locations that directed voters to the new ones. 

Chaundra Haynes, trainer, City of Detroit Dept.of Election, train about 60 Pistons' volunteers for the Aug 4 election.

While absentee voting was at a record high Tuesday, there were still many Michiganians who headed to the polls to make their voices heard. Eric Gibbs, 30, said civic duty brought him to the Portland city building to cast his ballot in the GOP primary, where he weighed in on the race to replace Amash.

"Just showing that we're showing up and voting, especially in person rather than mail-in ballot," Gibbs said.

Kimberly Nguyen cast her ballot for Democratic candidates Tuesday but she said it’s difficult to judge any politician and the tough decisions they’ve been faced during the pandemic.

The 25-year-old Lansing woman had no hesitations about whether she’d support Slotkin in November.

“I definitely wanted to keep her in,” Nguyen said. “I know she works well with Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters so I thought that would help with the Congressional district.”

In Wayne County's 13th District, the rematch between Tlaib, a freshman lawmaker, and Jones drew national headlines this summer as they compete for the seat formerly held by the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. 

The pair ran against one another in the 2018 primary in the district, which covers parts of Detroit and Wayne County suburbs including Highland Park, Inkster, River Rouge, Ecorse, Westland and part of Romulus. 

Jones has said Tlaib has sought celebrity and hasn’t been responsive to residents’ needs and concerns — a claim that Tlaib’s supporters roundly denounced.

Tlaib has touted her creation of four community service centers that returned over $925,000 to residents and her advocacy on issues such as auto insurance rates and environmental justice.

Tlaib criticized Jones for not living in the district and pointed to lawsuits filed against Detroit during Jones' tenure over water shut-offs, the overtaxing of city residents and controversial facial recognition software used by the police.

The race in the Grand Rapids area's 3rd District was clearer. Meijer had a more than 20-percentage-point advantage and will advance to take on the well-funded Democratic nominee Hillary Scholten, an attorney from Grand Rapids who was unopposed in her primary.

The eventual winner will replace the Libertarian Amash, who has publicly feuded with Trump and who decided against a presidential bid this summer after a year-long flirtation with the idea.

But two Metro Detroit districts had tight races. In the 8th District, four Republicans competed to take on Slotkin, a former top Pentagon official, in the fall.

The 8th District is considered a GOP-leaning district with a part of Democratic Ingham County, Republican Livingston County and a part of northern Oakland County that has become more favorable to Democrats, despite a history of GOP support. 

Over in the 11th District — which covers northwestern Wayne County and southwestern Oakland County — five GOP hopefuls are hoping to take on Stevens, the former chief of staff to the auto rescue task force under President Barack Obama.

But there was a clear winner in the 12th District, covering parts of Wayne County and Washtenaw County: U.S. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, fended off a primary challenge from Ypsilanti-area medical student, Solomon Rajput. 

With 69% of precincts reporting, Dingell led the primary race Tuesday with 80% of the vote to Rajput's 20%. 

Rajput, a Pakistani American, campaigned on claims that he's more progressive than Dingell, more representative of the Muslim community in the 12th District and more in tune with “regular” people who aren't part of a political “dynasty,” as he described Dingell.

A member of the Dingell family has represented Michigan in Congress since 1933.

Dingell, 66, defended her record on the environment and health care during the election, and stressed her efforts on bipartisanship and her own work in politics independent of her late husband, John, whom she succeeded in Congress in 2015. 

mburke@detroitnews.com