Finley: With Brooks gone, GOP may be done in Oakland
The passing of L. Brooks Patterson may also mark the last gasp of Oakland County as a Republican Party stronghold.
The GOP’s grip on Oakland has been slipping for several years, thanks to changing demographics and a shift of the party away from its former base of moderate, business-oriented voters.
Republicans traditionally held every countywide office in Oakland. With Brooks' death Saturday of pancreatic cancer, only Sheriff Mike Bouchard survives. Democrats in 2018 took control of the county commission for the first time in decades, claimed two previously safe congressional seats, ousted a popular GOP senator and won an overwhelming majority of the votes cast for governor and other statewide offices.
It was a rout that suddenly accelerated what had been a steady erosion of Republican influence.
“To say Oakland County changed is the understatement of the year,” says former Congressman Mike Bishop, who was defeated in last year’s balloting. “I would say it’s been since 2010 that it has been reliably red.
“It’s been a slow Democratic creep from the south. The line had been at 10 Mile Road. In 2018, it shot northward. We lost everything south of 16 Mile across the county. It was astonishing to see how fast Troy dropped off. That area has gone by the wayside. Even my hometown of Rochester really went dark blue.”
African Americans moving into Southfield and Farmington brought their politics with them and turned southern Oakland communities Democratic a long time ago. President George H.W. Bush won Southfield by 5,000 votes in 1988. His son, George W. Bush, lost the community by more than 50,000 votes 12 years later.
Still, Republicans held control of the county.
But they couldn’t fend off a larger threat — the rejection of President Donald Trump by white, educated suburban women who make up a big chunk of the GOP base in Oakland County.
“I hear the way the party talks about women and children and how they should be treated, and it distresses me,” says Melissa Fazio of Commerce Township, who has worked on a number of GOP campaigns in Oakland County. "That’s not why I got involved. I wanted to make my community a better place. Republicans now take a very narrow view of opinions that stray from the accepted ideology.”
The Trump factor plays big in Oakland County.
“In 2016 and 2018, the vote in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, where there are lot of moderate, well-educated voters, shifted to the Democratic Party,” says pollster Steve Mitchell. “They could shift back when Donald Trump is gone.”
By that time, though, most county offices will be filled with Democrats who will enjoy the advantages of incumbency.
Without Patterson on the ballot, the county executive’s post, which has been in Republican hands since the office was formed 45 years ago, risks falling to Democrats.
The now Democratic-controlled county commission will appoint Patterson’s successor. Treasurer Andy Meisner and Commission Chair David Woodward want the job. If either one gets it, he’ll be running as a Democratic incumbent in 2020 against a Republican challenger.
Who will that be? The names mentioned include former Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, Rochester Mayor Brian Barnett and an assortment of former GOP lawmakers.
Bishop says it won’t be him, and like many Republican leaders, he believes the best hope is Bouchard, who would have to gamble his sheriff’s post to make a run. Bouchard is popular — he outpolled Patterson in the last two elections. But he may not be willing to roll the dice.
The next Republican candidate for county executive will be facing an electorate distinctly changed from the one that backed Patterson in his seven successful runs.
Oakland County is now nearly 15% African American, and 7% Asian, both groups that are solidly Democratic.
The suburban women who deserted the GOP in 2018 are now invested in the local candidates they elected and won’t be easy to bring home.
And Brooks Patterson won’t be there to help raise money, organize campaigns and rally the vote.
“Losing him is certainly a blow,” says GOP consultant Stu Sandler of Grand River Strategies. “I don’t think Republicans are finished. They can compete for the countywide and the congressional seats with strong candidates. But it’s hard to recover from a loss of someone like him.”