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

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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