MLive: Michigan Democrats want to flip the state House. Can they?
By: Lauren Gibbons
For Christine Morse and a handful of other Democrats vying for a seat in the state House this cycle, running in a competitive district carries even more weight than usual.
Democrats across the state and country are banking on Morse — a Kalamazoo County commissioner who’s running against small business owner Bronwyn Haltom in the open 61st House District — to be one of four candidates to flip a seat currently held by Republicans and deliver a Democratic majority in the House for the first time since 2010.
National progressive groups have pinpointed Michigan as a target state for flipping legislative control, investing money and time into districts with the most potential. Meanwhile, Republicans are hoping Trump’s presence at the top of the ticket and a strong ground game will help them hold onto their majority.
If they can pull it off, Democrats would get the advantage in controlling Michigan’s divided government, giving Gov. Gretchen Whitmer an ally in the legislature and putting the party in the driver’s seat when setting the House agenda and policy priorities.
In her district, Morse said she’s feeling cautiously optimistic, noting that she’s feeling more energy on the campaign trail than when she campaigned for commissioner in 2018 and “an appetite for change” among prospective voters. But she’s not letting up.
“You can never get comfortable when you’re fighting for a race like this,” she said. “It’s critical this year to bring change to the state House so that we can move forward on issues that really impact people’s lives.”
Republicans feel the math points to them maintaining their legislative majority past 2020. Unlike in 2018, the presence of President Donald Trump on the ballot presents an opportunity for the base to vote down-ticket in a way that could increase turnout, said Robbie Rankey, director of caucus services for the Michigan House Republicans.
This could yield results in the “I-75 corridor,” he said, which includes optimism for Pohutsky’s seat, as well as Elder’s seat in Bay City. Even seats such as Rep. Sheryl Kennedy’s and Rep. Darrin Camilleri in the Downriver and Macomb County regions could be in play, he said.
“I think that protecting Ryan Berman in the 39th, Annette Glenn in the 98th and then our best flip opportunity is in the 19th district with (Laurie) Pohutsky out of Livonia,” he said. “We do those three things with our three-seat majority currently… I just don’t see how (Democrats') math grows to get to a majority.”
But Democrats say the momentum has been building for years, pointing to the 2018 election when Democratic candidates made inroads on the House Republican majority. They’re hoping a combination of strong candidates, voter enthusiasm and help from national groups can put them over the edge.
“Four seats to go, and we’ve got a lot more than that in play,” said House Democratic Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills. “We’re really positive and excited and the level of support we’re getting… everyone’s really keeping their eye on Michigan for the state legislature, too.”
For both parties, much of the focus has been on open seats where demographics have shifted over time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has somewhat stymied traditional campaign strategies like in-person fundraisers and large rallies. Small, socially distanced campaign events and door-knocking have become the go-to, and in the most competitive districts, mailers and television ads are flooding voters' mailboxes and airwaves.
In addition to the 61st, open Oakland County seats such as the 38th District, a race between Republican Chase Turner and Democrat Kelly Breen, and the 45th District, where Republican Mark Tisdel and Democrat Barb Anness are facing off, are getting a lot of attention from political observers.
The 104th District in Grand Traverse County, where Republican John Roth and Democrat Dan O’Neil are running to replace embattled, term-limited Republican Rep. Larry Inman, is also viewed as in play.
A few seats held by incumbents running for reelection are also likely to factor into the majority math after polls close on Nov. 3. Democrats are eyeing Republican Rep. Ryan Berman’s seat in the 39th District as a potential pickup, and Republicans are bullish on their chances in the 19th District, where Rep. Laurie Pohutsky eked out a win in 2018, and in the 96th, where Rep. Brian Elder is seeking to win reelection in a district where many voters historically aligned with Democrats supported President Donald Trump in 2016.
Michigan Democrats' efforts are being noticed and financially supported this cycle by a number of national groups keen on flipping state legislative chambers blue.
EMILYs List, a national group that backs Democratic women candidates who support abortion rights, announced Wednesday morning it had spent $420,000 on Michigan state House races this month, bringing the group’s total investment in Michigan races to $604,000.
In a recent press call, EMILYs List President Stephanie Schriock said state legislative races have become more critical as the U.S. Supreme Court trends more conservative and as handling of the COVID-19 response continues to vary state by state. She noted that nearly all the Democratic candidates in Michigan’s most competitive races are women, predicting candidates like Morse, Breen, Anness and Julia Pulver in the 39th are “going to make the difference” in delivering a Democratic House majority.
“Now more than ever, we need to elect strong, smart and compassionate leaders at the state legislative level so we can whip these chambers, pass good laws that protect health care and reproductive freedom,” she said.
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee is predicting suburban voters will make the difference, citing a September survey in Michigan’s 38th and 61st districts from Public Policy Polling that showed 48% of voters would support a state legislative Democratic candidate over a Republican in both districts, compared to 45% in the 38th and 43% in the 61st who would support a Republican candidate over a Democrat.
“Republicans think they can run on saving the suburbs, but suburban voters have responded loud and clear: no thanks,” Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee President Jessica Post said in a statement.
But suburban Republicans are confident their candidates are hard to smear in the eyes of voters. Meshawn Maddock, 11th District Chair for the Michigan GOP, highlighted the resume of former schoolteacher Martha Ptashnik, Pohutsky’s Republican challenger. In 2018, Pohutsky won the district by 224 votes.
“She’s someone who the typical left-wing playbook won’t work,” Maddock said. “The tactics they use won’t work. She’s a former teacher. She knows many of the parents and teachers all over Livonia, many of whom are not comfortable with a radical left-wing agenda, which is what they have right now.”
She also praised Turner, who is making his second bid for the 38th District against Breen, as a “fit and tan” hard worker who’s been pounding the pavement in his district in his bid to win over voters.
“If you have a candidate that pounds on doors and they’re chunky and pasty, the chances are they haven’t been doing what they’re saying,” she said. “Chase is a very hard worker, and he’s poured himself into that district for the last four years.”
Vic Fitz, 6th District chair for the Michigan Republican Party, said Haltom’s bid for the 61st is strong because her experience running a small business speaks to pocketbook issues that Republicans and Independents care about most.
“She fits the district,” he said. “She’s a Portage native, came from the middle class, has fought for jobs and education and we think she’s going to win.”
Gaby Goldstein is the national political director for the group Sister District, a group dedicated to electing Democrats to state legislatures. In Michigan, the group is focused specifically on flipping the 61st for Morse and holding the seats currently held by Pohutsky and Rep. Padma Kuppa, who represents the 41st District.
Goldstein said voters around the country are becoming more aware of how critical state legislatures are, especially now that lawmakers are playing a key role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said Democratic candidates' messaging on a science-based approach to dealing with the pandemic and rebuilding the economy is resonating with voters.
“The level of recalcitrance among the Republicans in the Michigan legislature has… created a situation where it’s really difficult for the governor to govern effectively and for the legislature to get anything done,” she said. “Every single day of this pandemic has been an object lesson in the importance of state policy.”
Rankey said that generally, the hope is that voters will see that Republican legislators advocated for them during the COVID-19 pandemic. He pointed to representatives such as COVID-19 Oversight Chair Rep. Matt Hall, R-Marshall, taking the Unemployment Insurance Agency to task for their backlog of claims during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown this summer.
“We’ve talked to candidates about emphasizing pocketbook issues,” Rankey said. “How are our representatives helping these people day to day? There’s a lot of great things to highlight and we’ve done well to do that.”
Whitmer has taken a direct role in campaigning for state House candidates in recent weeks, formally endorsing candidates and attending socially distanced campaign events in competitive districts.
At an Oct. 7 outdoor campaign event for Morse in Texas Township, Whitmer said she’s hopeful her administration will have more allies in both the legislature and the White House come November. But she urged the small crowd to keep their feet on the gas heading into November.
“We can do this. All of the ingredients are here, but we can make no assumption that it’s a forgone conclusion,” she said.