Democrats won, but the 2018 election in Michigan wasn’t a referendum on President Donald Trump.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that the chattering class is saying Tuesday’s vote was a referendum in which voters, including in states won by Trump in 2016, rejected him. Yet, the win by Democrats was as much a reflection of the natural dynamics in Michigan’s mature, two-party electoral system as anything else.
Republicans had no, as the French say, raison d'etre after holding unified control of state government — the governorship and the other great offices of state, both houses of the Legislature and the high court — since coming to power after the 2010 election. Since then the party achieved almost everything it wanted to accomplish from a policy standpoint, leaving the candidates this go around devoid of any new ideas.
Just look at the general election messaging of GOP nominee Bill Schuette after he ran away from outgoing Gov. Rick Snyder in the primary election campaign for the party’s nomination against Lt. Gov. Brian Calley. Schuette pivoted almost overnight, embracing the Republican record under Snyder-Calley and claiming only he could be trusted to manage the results.
His biggest idea was repealing the 2007 tax increase enacted by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm. There was just one problem. For years the GOP campaigned on repealing Granholm’s tax increase, but Tom Leonard, the party’s nominee for attorney general, never seriously tried repeal as speaker of the House of Representatives.
Democratic nominee and governor-elect Gretchen Whitmer didn’t win because she had better ideas. Heck, she didn’t even run against Trump as hard as she could have.
Rather, she won because voters wanted something else after two terms and eight years of Republicans in charge. Plus, Republicans made it easy for Democrats to run up the score.
If you want to point fingers blame Snyder, whose failure to endorse the party’s ticket cost Schuette votes in the suburbs dominated by milquetoast moderates, and Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser.
Weiser was largely absent as chairman, including in the home stretch. At the very minimum, he could have helped the party avoid the nasty primary campaigns for governor and senator while also marshaling resources against Proposal 2 when party-aligned special interest groups didn’t fund a vote no campaign.
I know plenty of voters who sat on their absentee ballots for a month but were never contacted by the GOP, let alone Schuette or U.S. Senate nominee John James. These voters, myself included, check all the boxes when it comes time to putting lists together of which voters to contact. Anecdotally, it seems the party’s get-out-the-vote operation — chasing key voters to return their absentee ballots is an essential part of winning campaigns — was seemingly limited to the districts with the most competitive congressional and state legislative races.
Republicans, particularly those further down the ballot in Michigan, also failed to nationalize the election against local Democrats, who in several key races got away with running as centrists more concerned with good schools, better roads and clean water than ideological politics.
Judging from our political history over the last decade it’s probable that what happened Tuesday won’t carry over into Trump’s re-election in 2020. Remember, Democrats won big in 2008 thanks to Barack Obama’s coattails but just two years later were slaughtered by Republicans during the tea party wave. Then they mounted a comeback and re-elected Obama in 2012.
Dennis Lennox is a public affairs consultant and political commentator.