Jacques: Michigan GOP battles the midterm blues

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
Michigan’s 2018 Republican ticket takes the stage at the Lansing Center at the conclusion of the GOP convention.

Michigan’s Republicans worked hard to muster enthusiasm at their nominating convention in Lansing over the weekend, but the unease within the party was palpable. Some just seemed annoyed they had to be there at all. 

What gives?

I spoke with party insiders who are concerned that the blue wave is coming, and candidates — especially down-ballot contenders — think they are heading into the toughest political fight of their careers. And that may well be the case.

“Look at the headwinds facing candidates in November, and it’s a daunting task,” says Michigan-based GOP strategist Dennis Darnoi.

He says when you pair lackluster enthusiasm among Republicans with increased enthusiasm among Democrats, it’s a “one-two punch.”

Ever since President Trump took office, Democrats have plotted their revenge. And that’s taken a variety of forms, including the Women’s March and similar events that have spurred liberal women to action — to both vote and run for office in record numbers. Their abhorrence of Trump is a huge motivational factor, and Michigan’s Democrats are capitalizing on this momentum.

At the top of the statewide Democratic ticket is Gretchen Whitmer for governor; Dana Nessel for attorney general; and Jocelyn Benson for secretary of state.

“Republicans have every right to worry,” says Michigan pollster Steve Mitchell. “Democrats are angrier than I’ve ever seen them. They’ll walk through fire and over glass to vote. They will be there. What we don’t know is whether Republicans will be there with equal enthusiasm.”

Over the weekend, Republicans decided who would fill out the top of their slate. Delegates signed off on Lisa Lyons to be GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette’s running mate. Given the woman stronghold on the Democratic side, she’s a great choice and is already countering claims of sexism from Whitmer against Schuette.

Republicans also chose Mary Treder Lang, an accountant from Grosse Pointe Farms, for secretary of state, which will offer the slate some additional gender diversity. But she’s fairly unknown outside of the party faithful, and she’s brought in a fraction of Benson's fundraising.

The attorney general’s race was one of the more contested, and several delegates had told me ahead of the vote they thought state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker was the better choice to face the far-left Nessel. She might have given give moderates and independents more reason to split their tickets. But House Speaker Tom Leonard prevailed.

Republicans also fear the host of proposals that will appear on the November ballot, many of which will likely boost voter turnout among Democrats. For instance, the proposal to legalize recreational marijuana will motivate younger voters and baby boomers. Other initiatives such as raising the minimum wage and paid sick leave are also consistent drivers of liberal voters.

“Democrats have done a brilliant job,” Mitchell says of the proposals.

But it’s the redistricting proposal to reform gerrymandering that GOP leaders are treating like kryptonite. The fight over getting that on the ballot has been intense. Michigan Supreme Court Justice Beth Clement got booed pretty fiercely when her name came up for nomination because she voted to approve the proposal appearing on the ballot.

One Republican who is on the ballot this fall told me that if this proposal passes, the GOP is dead in Michigan. Assuming that Benson becomes secretary of state, she would get to appoint every member of the new redistricting board. 

Combine all this with Michigan’s political history, and things really do look grim for the Grand Old Party.

“The party out of power wins the governor’s mansion,” Mitchell says. "History is against the Republicans.”