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If Michigan Democrats thought next year would be easy, they may need to think a little harder

Oct 31, 2017

A year ago, I was talking to Matt Grossman, the pollster and political scientist at Michigan State University. Like most of us, he didn’t expect Donald Trump would win. But he told me that if he did, 2018 would be a horrible year for Michigan Republicans.

Traditionally, the party holding the White House does badly in midterm elections – look at what happened to Democrats in 2010 or Republicans in 2006. On top of that, Michigan Republicans have their own special problems, Flint being only the biggest.

Republicans have controlled every branch of state government for the last seven years, and can’t reasonably blame the powerless Democrats for anything.

So on paper, you might expect Democrats to score a clean sweep of statewide offices next year.

The election is still a year away, and if we’ve learned anything, it is that anything can happen in a year. But right now, the Democrats don’t look as strong as you might think, partly because they believe they have to lock themselves into an “ethnically balanced” ticket, which has often meant throwing their chances away.

There are two items of good news for them.

First, term limits mean all the Republican incumbents have to retire. Second, the GOP doesn’t seem likely to be very competitive for Secretary of State. The likely Democratic nominee, former Wayne State University law dean Jocelyn Benson, is formidably qualified and well-funded.

So far, the only Republican candidates are minor-leaguers. But the attorney general’s race is one where the old Democratic dilemma threatens to again derail them. Of the three main possibilities, Dana Nessel stands out as incredibly strong.

She was a tough Wayne County prosecutor who put away auto thieves and child molesters, and then was the successful lead attorney in the 2014 April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse adoption case that helped lead to the U.S. Supreme Court deciding that same-sex couples have the right to marry.

State Senator Steve Bieda, D-Warren, has also been very effective despite being in the minority, successfully getting a bill passed to compensate those wrongfully convicted and imprisoned.

Nevertheless, many feel the nominee is bound to be Patrick Miles, the former federal district attorney for western Michigan. Miles has not been an impressive campaigner, and is virtually unknown in metropolitan Detroit. But party orthodoxy says one of their statewide nominees has to be black, and he fits that bill.

When it comes to the governor’s race, it seems likely that former State Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer will be the nominee, despite a flurry of national interest in Abdul El-Sayed, who people outside Michigan think could be the nation’s first Muslim governor, and the eccentric businessman Shri Thanedar, who has dumped more than $5 million of his own money into a quixotic campaign.

Whitmer might easily beat Governor Rick Snyder. But he’s not running. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette is the likely Republican nominee, and he’s been running against Snyder as much as against the Democrats.

Schuette’s been in politics since Whitmer was in grade school, and it’s clear he will attempt to define her as the second coming of Jennifer Granholm: charismatic but ineffective.

So far, she hasn’t established herself as a major force outside Lansing. This may well change. But if Democrats thought next year would be easy, they may need to think a little harder.

*Correction - an earlier version of this commentary named "Jayne DeBoer and April Rowse." Their names are April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse. It's been corrected above. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.