Michigan GOP legislative races test incumbents, and Trump’s influence
- 32 of 44 legislative Republican incumbents seeking reelection face primary challenges
- Experts say Trump endorsement is big factor in down-ballot races, but not only factor
- Many of the most competitive primaries are in safe Republican districts
Republican voters in a slew of Michigan legislative districts will be seeing more names on the ballot than usual this summer.
Of 31 House Republican incumbents running for reelection, 19 are facing primary challenges. Eight of the 13 Republican lawmakers hoping to retain a seat in the state Senate are facing at least one primary challenger.
And in several open state legislative districts, Republican primary voters will choose between traditional business-backed conservatives and those who’ve captured the support of former President Donald Trump or espouse similar views.
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The Trump message — particularly when his endorsement is attached — is a powerful tool for GOP primary candidates, especially if candidates are able to present themselves as more conservative than their opponents, experts say. But fundraising, name recognition and clear messaging still have sway with voters, too.
“If you're the incumbent, you still have the advantage because you have name recognition…I don’t think Trump’s endorsement is a silver bullet that somehow, automatically, is going to drive elections,” said Daniel Butler, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis who has researched state legislative primaries around the country.
“But it’s also the case that it’s a tough time to be a moderate.”
The Trump factor
The former president hasn’t yet weighed in on his preferred pick in the Michigan governor’s race, but his endorsements in a handful of down-ballot races will test Trump’s staying power among party faithful.
He’s endorsed eight state House and two state Senate candidates, nine of whom are in a contested Republican primary this summer.
On the Senate side, Trump-endorsed Mike Detmer of Howell — who previously ran and lost to Paul Junge in 2020’s 8th Congressional District Republican primary — is running a spirited challenge to incumbent Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton.
Another Trump endorsee, Jonathan Lindsey of Bronson, faces incumbent Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Niles, who moved to the 17th district to run after being drawn by the state’s redistricting commission into the same district as Sen. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton.
In the House, Rep. Greg VanWoerkom, R-Norton Shores, is facing a challenge from Spring Lake resident Mick Bricker, who Trump endorsed last November.
The endorsements haven’t necessarily translated into fundraising boosts — campaign finance records filed Friday indicate incumbents and newcomers alike posted higher fundraising numbers than their Trump-backed opponents, buoyed by support from groups affiliated with the DeVos family and others.
But for many Republican voters, the Trump endorsement is “like a bat signal” in helping them decide who to vote for, said pollster Richard Czuba of Glengariff Group. Even incumbency might not matter so much in regions where candidates had to move or represent wide swaths of new territory due to redistricting, he said.
“In a lot of these races…voters don’t know any of these candidates, and so they’re sitting around looking for direction,” he said. “Donald Trump is the name they recognize.”
2020 election still looms large
For many Trump-endorsed candidates and those with similar platforms, claims about the accuracy of the 2020 presidential election results continue to permeate messaging.
Jacky Eubanks, running for the 63rd state House district in an open primary against St. Clair County Clerk Jay DeBoyer and Algonac City Councilmember Jacob Skarbek, has continued to push claims of fraud in the 2020 election and has made supporting a “forensic audit” of the results a key part of her campaign.
Michigan State Police investigated Eubanks’ findings but determined her claims were “unfounded,” according to recent reporting by The Detroit News.
Eubanks also gained national notoriety for comments in an interview with “Church Militant” that she would support making birth control illegal, saying that contraceptives give people “the false sense of security that they can have consequence-free sex, and that’s not true and that’s not correct.”
Steve Meckley, a candidate challenging sitting Rep. Andrew Fink in the 35th state House district covering Hillsdale and Branch counties, states similar views on his website, calling for a forensic audit of the 2020 presidential election and reforms such as stricter voter ID requirements and public access to signature verification. Meckley has not received an endorsement from Trump directly, but has the support of like-minded Republicans such as state Attorney General candidate Matt DePerno.
Fink said he understands why election security remains an important subject, pointing to the Legislature’s work on election reform initiatives now contained in the Secure MI Vote initiative. He said he’s confident in his campaign, noting he currently represents the entirety of the district and believes his constituents will trust him to continue.
“I don't think that there is a way to be a stronger defender of a conservative approach to government than I am,” he said. “My people see that I'm a strong leader on issues that matter and the values that my district has.”
In several races where there’s a competitive Republican primary, incumbents have done little to question their conservative bonafides, but are still spending a lot of money to defend their records, said John Sellek, founder of Harbor Strategic Public Affairs and a former staffer for Republican Bill Schuette.
“At the legislative level, it really is coming down to people challenging incumbents who, on the surface, don’t appear to have really done anything to compromise their very conservative credentials,” he said. “But they're getting challenged anyway under the mantle of Trump.”
Though many of the competitive primaries are in relatively safe Republican districts where the primary election will likely determine who holds the seat, the new political lines created during the state’s redistricting process mean a few Republicans who survive a tough primary could be in for another challenge against Democratic candidates.
Sellek said candidates who veer too far to the right could be poorly received in the general election, pointing to Democrat Carol Glanville’s upset victory in a May 2022 special election over Robert Regan in a staunchly conservative West Michigan district.
Regan gained national notoriety for remarks about rape, as well as conspiracy theories related to QAnon and Jewish people. He’s currently in a four-way Republican primary whose winner will face off against Glanville in November.
“This is a problem for both parties on their extremes…if you plop an extreme person on either side in one of these seats, it's going to make an impact,” Sellek said. “It depends on the candidate themselves, not just the Trump endorsement, how they carry themselves, not just what issues they talked about, but how they talk about them.”
Who ultimately wins these primaries — and, in turn, general elections — could help determine the direction of state Republican legislative leadership moving forward.
Rep. Matt Hall, R-Comstock Township, is the heavy favorite to become House Speaker next session if Republicans maintain the majority. He faces a challenge from Rep. Matt Maddock, who enjoys ongoing support from Trump but was ousted from the Republican caucus earlier this year.
Maddock and his wife, Michigan Republican Party co-chair Meshawn Maddock, have assisted several state House candidates in securing endorsements from Trump and also assisted Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss. Through his leadership PAC, he’s supported many new candidates who could vote for him to become the next House Speaker, including challengers to his incumbent colleagues.
“The Trump train is coming,” Maddock told Bridge. “Get on board or get out of the way.”
Hall said in an interview that he’s not worried about competition, noting he doesn’t see a path to Maddock earning enough votes in the caucus to overcome the commitments that Hall has received.
Hall said he believes incumbents facing primary challengers in his caucus are “performing well across the board,” and expressed confidence the work House Republicans have done will resonate with voters.
“My number one goal is to make sure we return a lot of these incumbents who have been fighting for their communities,” he said.
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