GOP’s advantage wanes in last year of Michigan ‘historical’ gerrymander

Michigan’s political districts are some of the nation’s most notorious gerrymanders. But the maps drawn to give the GOP an advantage are facing their final election, complicating the party’s effort to reclaim a majority in Congress and maintain its edge in the state Legislature. (Shutterstock)

LANSING — Nine years after helping draw congressional maps he predicted would give Michigan Republicans “a solid 9-5 delegation in 2012 and beyond,” redistricting architect Bob LaBrant isn’t sure the GOP can do better than a 7-7 split this fall. 

Freshmen Democratic Reps. Elissa Slotkin of Holly and Haley Stevens of Rochester Hills emerged from Tuesday’s primary election as favorites to repeat in once-Republican districts they flipped in 2018. And Democrats are signaling they plan to play offense in at least two other districts the GOP has long dominated. 

“See what a prophet I was?” LaBrant joked Wednesday morning.

Nearly a decade after what one federal judge later called a gerrymander of “historical proportions,” the power of GOP-drawn maps is waning in Michigan. 

Democrats now have a one-seat advantage in Michigan’s congressional delegation and experts say increasingly competitive districts give the party a fighting chance to overcome a six-seat deficit to flip the state House. 

“These maps are always strongest when they’re first drawn because people move, people die, things happen,” said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strateist with Grassroots Midwest, a bipartisan consulting firm based in Lansing. “This is the map at its weakest right now.”

Now, in the final cycle before Michigan’s maps are redrawn by a new bipartisan commission before the 2022 election, experts expect close races in some congressional and state House districts that were designed to avoid them. And if the presidential race produces a down-ticket wave, others could be in play. 

“Donald Trump is president, and that had a major impact on the outcome in 2018,” LaBrant said, recalling how that election was overshadowed by Trump even though he wasn’t on the ballot. “It was a bad year for Republicans. Congressional-wise, the guaranteed 9-5 plan that I was talking about? Democrats picked up two seats.”

Democrats also picked up five seats in the state House last cycle, flipping a series of Oakland County districts that are trending away from the GOP. The region will again be a focal point in what could be a tough fall fight for control of the lower chamber.

“We already saw the first layer of Republican seats peeled off in the suburbs, and now it’s starting to reach further out,” said GOP consultant John Sellek of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs. “We’re getting to the outer edges of Oakland County now, which used to be completely safe. Those are now the battlegrounds.”

LaBrant was part of a map-making team whose craftwork had, until 2018, helped the GOP maintain healthy majorities in Congress and the Legislature even though Democrats often combined to win more statewide votes. 

While LaBrant contends the maps were shaped by a federal requirement for racial diversity, a federal lawsuit revealed blunt deliberations over partisan composition, and experts testified that Michigan districts were some of the most rigged in the country. 

Federal judges last year ruled the GOP intentionally and illegally diluted the power of Democratic voters by packing them into some districts and spreading them thin in others. The U.S. Supreme Court killed the case, ruling redistricting is a power reserved for the states.

Michigan Republicans lost a congressional seat last year when U.S. Rep. Justin Amash left the party after calling for Trump’s impeachment. Amash is not running for re-election, and his 3rd Congressional District seat is now the GOP’s best chance to restore an even 7-7 split with Democrats.

Grocery store scion Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids Township won a competitive primary there Tuesday night, giving the GOP a well-funded and formidable candidate in a district that still leans Repubilcan despite increasingly liberal pockets. He’ll face Democratic immigration attorney Hillary Scholten in the general election.

“There is a power in having Democratic women on the ballot right now,” said Richard Czuba, a longtime Michigan pollster with Glengariff Group Inc. “So I think that the 3rd Congressional District is going to be very competitive. It’s one of those classic suburban areas where voters are more highly educated, and they’re turning away from the Republican Party.”

Few would have predicted how much the west Michigan district has shifted over the past 10 years, but Republicans “could not have picked a better candidate than Meijer to keep that seat,” Sellek said. 

“He’s a different personality than what a lot of the Republican messaging is right now, and I think he fits the direction the district appears to be headed.”

Michigan’s congressional maps still strongly favor one major party over the other in several districts, including the 13th, where Democratic U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s win over Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones all but guarantees her a second term in Congress. 

Likewise, businesswoman Lisa McClain of Bruce Township is a clear favorite to replace retiring GOP U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell in the 10th Congressional District after narrowly defeating state Rep. Shane Hernandez in the Republican primary.

The Thumb-area district in eastern Michigan is arguably the most Republican in the state. 

When it was reconfigured in 2011, a GOP operative celebrated a boundary shift that drew some large businesses into the district and looked like it was “giving the finger” to then-U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, a Royal Oak Democrat. 

McClain is a staunch conservative who has aligned herself with Trump, and Tlaib is a progressive firebrand who famously said Democrats would “impeach the mother*****r.” 

Yet for all their differences, their campaigns illustrate one of the key complaints about politically-charged redistricting processes: Partisan maps tend to encourage polarization.

“You’re dealing with the hardest of the hardcore [voters], so you’re going to run hard right or hard left in those safe seat primaries,” Hemond said.

And if you don’t face a competitive general election afterward, “you never have to worry about getting back to the middle,” he said. “So you can go as far to one of the extremes as you want, within the boundaries of what the electorate will tolerate, and you never have to pivot.”

More competitive districts tend to produce more moderate politicians, and that’s particularly true in areas like the 6th Congressional District in southwest Michigan, where Republican Rep. Fred Upton has repeatedly retained his seat despite liberal trend lines. 

The district “sits on the fringes of a wave election,” Czuba said. But Democratic nominee Jon Hoadley, who narrowly won his Tuesday night primary, may not be helped by his reputation as a progressive state legislator. 

“Fred Upton is extremely hard to beat, and I’m not sure Jon Hoadley is the candidate to do it,” Czuba said. Upton “knows his district extraordinarily well, has worked it hard and has played very well to the center.”

Migration patterns, economic factors and Trump have helped reshape Michigan’s political landscape since the state’s Republican-led Legislature approved the current maps in 2011. 

The 1st Congressional District, which includes a wide swath of northern Michigan and the entire Upper Peninsula, was one of the most competitive in the state when the maps took effect in 2012, and Democrats pumped significant money into failed attempts to reclaim that seat. 

Eight years later, Democrats barely bother to put up a fight in what has become one of the most reliably Republican districts in the state. Incumbent GOP Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Wastersmeet, won re-election in the 1st District by more than 12 percentage points in 2018. And the northern Michigan region has increasingly favored Republican legislative candidates as well. 

But several metro Detroit suburbs, particularly in Oakland County, appear to be breaking strongly toward Democrats, a trend pollsters have attributed to voter frustration with Trump, particularly among women. 

Those shifting dynamics helped Slotkin take down incumbent Republican Mike Bishop two years ago in the 8th Congressional District, which stretches from northern Oakland to Ingham County. And they helped Stevens flip what had been a GOP seat in the 11th District, which includes northwestern Wayne and southwestern Oakland counties.

Republicans struggled to recruit high-profile candidates to take on Slotkin or Stevens this year. Former Trump administration official Paul Junge emerged from a crowded GOP primary in the 8th District on Tuesday, and Birmingham lawyer Eric Esshaki was leading the field in the 11th District. 

“Neither one has strong name ID, and neither one has a strong brand,”  Czuba said. “But of course neither did Elissa Slotkin or Haley Stevens [two years ago]. The question is what kind of resources do they bring to the table. What kind of fundraising can they do?”

Recruitment is often a challenge in the final election before redistricting because would-be-candidates don’t know how the maps will be redrawn or what kind of re-election dynamics they might face in two years, according to Hemond.

And that may have been especially true this cycle because a new commission will redraw districts next year instead of the Legislature, which means “there’s no deal-making to be done to try and preserve your seat,” he said. 

“It’s tough to envision how you’re going to get a high-quality recruit who could clearly be leading a more enjoyable life — not calling strangers asking them for money six hours a day — for the chance to serve two years in Congress, and maybe you have a seat after that,” Hemond said. 

“That's a big investment of time and effort and just that God-awful work of fundraising.”

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Life After MF Trump
Wed, 08/05/2020 - 8:07pm

McClain is a staunch conservative who has aligned herself with Trump, and Tlaib is a progressive firebrand who famously said Democrats would “impeach the mother*****r.”

While of course I agree with Tlaib, I wonder what McClain be like when Trump loses. I mean, when Trump is gone, so is Trumpism. It's a cult of personality, reality TV. No one wants that anymore. Besides no one knows what Trump stands for. He never makes a commitment, never tells the truth, and does what he says he will do. The only constant with Trump is his profound overt love for our enemies whom can do no wrong in his eyes. They literally exchange love letters and have private meetings, like Romeo with many different Juliettes.

Mon, 08/10/2020 - 11:48am

Demented attitudes and ideas like yours are what is ruining our party. Where did all the real democrats go? We're not voting for trump, ever, but we don't hate him. We actually like a lot of things he has done, and so far he appears on part to be better than obama, and most certainly better than any bush. You literally sound like an insane person, and you're not alone - So many of our friends seem to have gone off the deep end. Where are all the sane democrats? Help!!! We need friends!!!

Mon, 08/10/2020 - 4:02pm

This is some primo GOP Fan Fiction.

What are some things Trump has done that these so called "real Democrats" like? In what ways is Trump better than Obama?

Wed, 08/12/2020 - 11:08am

If you worked for a living, you would know what he is talking about. Independent here but loving what Trump has done so far. 4 years with Trump have been far better than Obama's best year. Numbers don't lie.

Voting Rights
Wed, 08/05/2020 - 8:16pm

Benson’s Republican predecessor, Johnson, is now a state senator. She told Bridge the primary was “a mixed bag … but overall it went well.” However, she still sees a need for legislation she introduced earlier this year that would allow for election workers to pre-process absentee ballots by removing them from their exterior mailing envelope (not the secrecy envelope) the day before the election.

“It seems like such a small step, but it does make a difference,” Brown of Oakland County said. “The Legislature needs to continue to trust clerks … these are people committed to the democratic process and other states do it.”

At least 35 other states allow some kind of pre-processing of ballots ahead of Election Day.

--- I agree with Republican Johnson, GOP legislature, GET IT DONE! What the hell else are you working on?????

Wed, 08/05/2020 - 8:20pm

It's very common in European countries to vote over two days, sometimes three. We should just expect delayed results, especially given the pandemic. Of course things went fairly well with the primary. Fewer people tend to vote in primaries.

Mon, 08/10/2020 - 4:13pm

It's so strange to me that given all of the advancements in technology and computing that we still rely on postal mail, hand-counted paper ballots, and manual signature comparisons for voting.

Dem Control
Thu, 08/06/2020 - 9:27am

It's cute that people actually think that the democratic Secretary of State (who now controls the ENTIRE redistricting process) isn't going to "gerrymander" everything in favor of the democrats.

The "commission" will be loaded with people of her choosing and she ultimately has the say on what the districts will look like. The district drawing process will be farmed out to a third party company (with democratic ties) and then the "commission" will collect their $50,000 paychecks to rubber-stamp whatever they're told to adopt.

middle of the mit
Sat, 08/08/2020 - 8:58pm

I would like to see some proof of what you claim is true. Otherwise it is hyperbole.

The Earth is flat! Prove me wrong!

Every ones opinion has merit!

Mon, 08/10/2020 - 4:24pm

It's cute that you are claiming to know about something which you have no clue.

The selection process is random and not only that but is comprised of 4 democrats, 4 republicans, and 5 independents. When it comes to selecting the new maps, there must be a majority consensus, including at least 2 commissioners who affiliate with each major party, and at least 2 commissioners who do not affiliate with either major party. All of the selection process will be made public, including at least 15 public forums and the entire process will be analyzed by an independent, third party auditor.,4670,7-127-1633_91141-488602--,00.html

But please, tell me more about how this commission is somehow worse than the party in power drawing maps that favor their reelection bids.

Ben Martin
Thu, 08/06/2020 - 9:42am

Maybe if Republicans actually put out a governing strategy other than "own the libs" they'd be able to win. The fact they can't win even after completely, historically, egregiously tilting the playing field to their advantage ought to give them pause about their political positions.

Thu, 08/06/2020 - 10:09am

The sooner the Republican Party goes the way of the dinosaur, the sooner we get closer to a democratic society.

Matthew Abel
Thu, 08/06/2020 - 10:38am

I am so looking forward to reapportionment. The next major election reform which would help would be ranked choice voting, which removes the spoiler effect.

Thu, 08/06/2020 - 12:45pm

With the Dems moving so far to the left, why would any sane person vote for them no matter how the district is configured?

Sat, 08/08/2020 - 7:42am

Why vote for the Dems? Because the other party is led by a child raping murderer who's lining his pockets everyday with taxpayer money!

middle of the mit
Sat, 08/08/2020 - 9:40pm

Yes Arjay.............the left has moved so far to the left that you don't know what Dwight D. Eisenhower ran you?

In 1952, Eisenhower entered the presidential race as a Republican to block the isolationist foreign policies of Senator Robert A. Taft; Taft opposed NATO and wanted no foreign entanglements

On the domestic front, Eisenhower was a moderate conservative who continued New Deal agencies and expanded Social Security. He covertly opposed Joseph McCarthy and contributed to the end of McCarthyism by openly invoking executive privilege. He signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and sent Army troops to enforce federal court orders which integrated schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. His largest program was the Interstate Highway System. He promoted the establishment of strong science education via the National Defense Education Act. His two terms saw widespread economic prosperity except for a minor recession in 1958. In his farewell address to the nation, he expressed his concerns about the dangers of massive military spending, particularly deficit spending and government contracts to private military manufacturers, which he dubbed "the military–industrial complex". Historical evaluations of his presidency place him among the upper tier of American presidents

The second issue centered on Eisenhower's relented decision to confront the controversial methods of Joseph McCarthy on his home turf in a Wisconsin appearance

Throughout his presidency, Eisenhower adhered to a political philosophy of dynamic conservatism.[129] He described himself as a "progressive conservative"[130] and used terms such as "progressive moderate" and "dynamic conservatism" to describe his approach.[131] He continued all the major New Deal programs still in operation, especially Social Security. He expanded its programs and rolled them into the new Cabinet-level agency of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, while extending benefits to an additional ten million workers. He implemented racial integration in the Armed Services in two years, which had not been completed under Truman.[132]

In a private letter, Eisenhower wrote:

Should any party attempt to abolish social security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group of course, that believes you can do these things [...] Their number is negligible and they are stupid.[133]

You also might want to check out the top marginal tax rates during his term. And although the article doesn't go into it, you might want to check out who he allowed and backed to run Cuba. It had a major impact on American history.

That is the one of a few places that I would have a problem with that Republican.

You moved so far to the right that the left........that kept moving with you but at a slower pace.............only seems far left.

When the right takes 3 steps to the right, the left takes 2 steps to the right and a half step back. Do that for 40 years and what do end up with?

Elected people from the party of Lincoln in Northern MI talking like they grew up in Arkansas?


Thu, 08/06/2020 - 2:10pm

The State of Michigan Senate has been continuously controlled by Republicans since 1984. Because of this unbroken control by Republicans, not one bill has been enacted that didn't have Republican approval in over 36 years.
We've been called a purple state. We aren't. Democrats have zero chance of gaining control of the State of Michigan Senate and we will remain a Republican state regardless if, by some miracle, Democrats win enough gerrymandered seats in November to gain control of the House in 2021.
Will the new Citizens Redistricting Committee be able to make State of Michigan Senate elections competitive again? One can hope!

Charlotte Morton
Mon, 08/10/2020 - 6:21pm

Much of the control from the Republicans comes from Gerrymandering, which has been atrocious in MI. When that goes bye, bye we will see citizen's votes will not be manipulated by one party.

Charlotte Morton
Mon, 08/10/2020 - 6:15pm

This has taken way too long due to the Republican interference. The Republicans don't think they can win without Gerrymandering, so that is why they don't want to lose it. Time for fairness in MI.

Wed, 08/12/2020 - 9:50am

The few rule the many how is that possible!

middle of the mit
Wed, 08/12/2020 - 8:54pm

Haven't you heard of tyranny of the majority? It is truly horrible!

That is why we should be ruled by the minority.

I just wonder if those that push being ruled by the minority would be good with racial minorities ruling the majority? Nahh!

They just want those with the wealth to rule over us Plebes.