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Michigan women score big, poised for key leadership in Legislature

Attorney General Dana Nessel, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson
Attorney General Dana Nessel, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, all Democrats, cruised to re-election on Tuesday, capping significant gains by women in Michigan politics. (Courtesy photo)
  • More women gain, retain leadership positions in Michigan after Tuesday election
  • Michigan is one of 10 states that elected a female governor this year
  • Abortion issue likely drove women turnout, lawmakers say

LANSING — In 2018, Michigan made history by electing three women to statewide offices. On Tuesday, they were not only re-elected, but women are poised to assume key leadership roles in the Legislature.

A handful of state legislative races are still too close to call, which could impact the final count, but a Bridge Michigan analysis of unofficial voting results show women lawmakers are positioned to make up 43 percent of the Michigan state House and 42 percent of the state Senate. 

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As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, 33 Democratic and 14 Republican women candidates were poised to win their state House races, and 12 Democratic and four Republican women were leading in state Senate races. 

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Democrats wrested control of the state Legislature from Republicans for the first time in years on Tuesday, and women are set to make up a majority of both Democratic legislative caucuses. 

If current trends hold in other state legislatures, the increase puts Michigan toward the top of the pack in terms of women representation in state government. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, the only state so far to attain gender parity or a female-majority in the state legislature is Nevada. 

Of Michigan’s 13-member congressional delegation, five women incumbents were re-elected to their seats, and Grand Rapids Democrat Hillary Scholten won election in Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District.

State Sen. Winnie Brinks, D-Grand Rapids, is vying for the caucus’ top leadership position next year. She said the shift was refreshing.

“It's been hundreds of years where it's been out of balance the other way, so this is just really gratifying to see women actually take their place in the halls of power,” Brinks said. 

“Certainly, having more women at the table has been a trend in recent years in Michigan, and I think you see confirmation from the voters that they like what they see.” 

Voters re-elected Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney Genera Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, all Democrats. All were first elected in 2018, a wave year for Democratic women following frustration over the 2016 election of President Donald Trump.

This year, Michigan was one of 10 states to elect a woman governor this year, part of a national trend of more women seeking statewide offices. Six states — including Michigan — saw two women competing for governor.

“It's definitely a sign that there has been a sea change in terms of voter perception around women in executive office,” said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation, a nonpartisan organization that researches women in U.S. politics. 

“By seeing a number of statewide constitutional offices held by strong women, it helped to open voters’ minds to the possibility that women are well suited for executive office and paved the way for women to get re-elected.”

Abortion is a key issue 

Several Democratic lawmakers said abortion was a key issue that drove turnout and candidacy among women. 

“When you start messing with people's fundamental rights, like reproductive freedom, that really got people's attention,” Brinks said. 

Brinks said the Legislature needs to repeal a 1931 abortion ban that was set to take effect when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer  “to keep it consistent with what the people have said they want to see in our Constitution.”

Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Okemos, focused on this year as she recruited women candidates to run for state office. Brixie serves as the recruitment and training chair of the House Democrats campaign.

“When Roe fell and when we put reproductive rights on the ballot … I knew it was going to be really important for the outcomes and that the women were going to do really well,” she said. 

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“We focused our efforts heavily on the choice issue, knowing from all our work on the ground that everyone was concerned about that, Republican and Democrats, men and women.”

The abortion rights proposal boosted Democrats’ fundraising, Brixie said. Democrats spent heavily in competitive state legislative districts, leaving their Republican opponents struggling to keep up. By late August, Democratic candidates in 19 of the 38 state Senate districts up for grabs outspent their Republican rivals, and 24 Democrats entered the final stretch of the election cycle with more cash on hand compared to their opponents.

The abortion issue also had an “enormous” impact on voter turnout, Brixie said, confident complete voting results would show “record participation by young women” voters in Tuesday’s election.

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