Trump’s strength propels ‘Republican wave’ in Michigan

Jonathan Oosting, and Melissa Nann Burke

Detroit — President-elect Donald Trump’s stunning win in Tuesday’s election benefited Republicans across Michigan who were bracing for potential Democratic gains as recently as last month and resulted in a Democratic state leader stepping aside.

Unofficial results show the GOP is poised to retain 63 seats in the 110-member state House and continue to control nine of Michigan’s 14 seats in Congress. Republicans also picked up a series of long-sought education posts and scored surprise wins in some notable local races.

“This was definitely a Republican wave year in the end,” said Democratic consultant TJ Bucholz. “To not see any gains in the state House is a stinging blow for Democrats.”

Democrats needed to flip nine seats in the state House to regain control of the lower chamber for the first time since 2010, but many were predicting a more feasible pickup of between three and five seats. Instead, they dueled Republicans to a draw in unofficial results, picking up one seat but losing another in the 17th District, where GOP challenger Joseph Bellino Jr. defeated incumbent Rep. Bill Lavoy of Monroe.

The disappointing night was followed by a surprise Wednesday announcement by House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, the Auburn Hills Democrat who said he would not seek re-election to the leadership post.

“To not see any net gain is certainly a punch in the gut,” Bucholz said. “This election, I think, is making Democrats across the state do a lot of soul searching.”

Republicans Tom McMillin and Nikki Snyder appear to have won two seats on the State Board of Education, according to uncertified numbers from the Michigan Secretary of State, ousting Board President John Austin and defeating fellow Democrat Ish Ahmed.

The GOP also picked up several university seats, splitting the top races with Democrats. Prominent party financier Ron Weiser won his repeat bid for the Michigan Board of Regents, toppling incumbent Democrat Laurence Deitch. Republican Dan Kelly ousted Michigan State University Trustee Diann Woodard, and the GOP’s Michael Busuito was elected to the Wayne State Board of Governors.

Education seats are traditionally decided based on party alignment or voter identification, said Republican consultant John Truscott, who called the GOP wins a sign of Trump’s down-ticket effect.

“Nobody knows the education folks, and most people don’t even know what they do or what those jobs are, so it’s kind of guess work when voters get down there,” Truscott said. “Those victories tend to go with those who are voting straight-ticket.”

Democrats managed to win some university seats, preventing Republicans from a total wave, but it was “pretty darned close,” said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics.

“Some people ran away from (Trump), but they made bad strategic moves,” said Republican consultant Stu Sandler, who helped run several winning campaigns, including re-election bids for U.S. Reps. Mike Bishop of Rochester and David Trott of Birmingham.

Democrats ran ads blasting the Republican incumbents for continuing to endorse Trump even as they criticized some of his more controversial comments. Both won re-election by healthy margins.

The strategy “definitely backfired,” Truscott said. “That money, I think in retrospect, probably helped Republicans more than anybody knows.”

Dem enthusiasm gap

David Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University, doesn’t think it was Trump’s coattails carrying down-ballot Republicans to victory in Michigan.

The results and the turnout in Michigan say more about Democrats’ lack of enthusiasm for presidential nominee Hillary Clinton than it does for Trump, Dulio surmised.

“Not enough Democrats showed up. It’s that simple,” he said. “The turnout differences from 2012 – the last presidential election – to 2016 are stark. ... Less so in Oakland County, but Democrats underperformed in terms of turnout across the state.”

Democrats were hoping to oust Republican incumbents in the 1st, 7th and 8th congressional districts, but those districts lean Republican. “If Democrats don’t get the turnout that they need, they can’t win,” Dulio said.

Chris Savage, chair of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party, attributed Democrat Gretchen Driskell’s loss to incumbent Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, to Trump’s coattails.

“And (Trump) literally had no ground game here. He won based on his appeal as an ideologue and demagogue,” Savage said.

Trump performed especially well in Macomb County, which Democratic President Barack Obama carried in 2008 and 2012. Trump won nearly 54 percent of the vote there – the best performance by a GOP nominee over the past four cycles.

Trump’s unexpectedly long coattails appeared to ensnare Macomb County Treasurer Derek Miller, a Democrat who had resigned from the state House earlier this year to fill the post.

Republican challenger Larry Rocca squeaked out a narrow victory over Miller, according to unofficial results out of Macomb County. Democratic Commissioner Fred Miller also appeared to lose his bid for County Clerk to Republican Karen Spranger by 638 votes.

GOP House races helped

Rep. Aric Nesbitt, who chaired the House GOP campaign committee, said Trump’s popularity in Macomb County “ was especially helpful” for County Commissioner Steve Marino, who won an open state House seat over Democrat Dana Camphous-Peterson.

Republicans were concerned about some state House incumbents, including west Michigan Reps. Brandt Iden of Oshtemo and Holly Hughes of Montague. But their prospects improved significantly as the Trump campaign aggressively targeted the state and region.

“For Holly Hughes, I’m sure this made a difference,” Truscott said. “There was a lot of money thrown in with ads. If it wasn’t coattails, it at least propped them up across the finish lines.”

With Greimel’s impending resignation as House minority leader, Bucholz predicted other changes in the Democratic caucus. Democrats had been expected to vote on leadership positions Thursday but may hold off on any immediate decisions.

“To have that kind of defeat is certainly crushing for senior staff who put together the strategy to try to win,” he said.

Republican’s strong performance on Tuesday came after months of political infighting over Trump, who scared off some party stalwarts and officials, including former grassroots vice chair Wendy Day, who was ousted from her post for refusing to support the GOP nominee.

Republican Gov. Rick Snyder notably sat out of the presidential race but campaigned for some state House and congressional candidates. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley withdrew his Trump endorsement in October after footage and audio surfaced of the businessman making lewd comments about women.

“One person who recognized Trump’s strength and took advantage of it is Ronna Romney McDaniel,” said Sandler, referencing the Michigan Republican Party chairwoman and niece of 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who refused to endorse Trump.

“She deserves a lot of credit and did an unbelievable job,” Sandler said. “She fought her family. She fought Republican consultants. She fought a lot of different people.”

joosting@detroitnews.com