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Michigan's biggest primary winners weren’t red or blue. They were women

Related: Get to know Garlin Gilchrist II, Gretchen Whitmer's pick for Lt. Governor

It’s been 100 years since women got the right to vote in Michigan. If Tuesday’s primary is any indication, it may be a centennial to remember.

2018 has been a record-breaking year for the number of women running for office across the country, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. In Michigan, more women ran for U.S. Congressional and state legislative seats than in recent elections.

Many cleared the first big hurdle on Tuesday, when women won several primary battles up and down the ballot and on both sides of the political aisle. The victories of female candidates is in part them reaping the rewards of a women’s activist movement started in the wake of the 2016 presidential election with actions like the Women’s March, experts say.  

“Women grabbed the mantle of activism right after (President Donald) Trump won and went with it with this big, dynamic movement,” said Janine Lanza, director of the Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies Program at Wayne State University.

“The greater number of female candidates is the practical fruit of that movement; the realization that marching in the streets is great, but the way to make that into reality is to have women at the table in the legislature.”

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer triumphed over opponents Shri Thanedar and Abdul El-Sayed, which helped set a nationwide record of female nominees for governor.

In U.S. House District 11, which represents several suburbs of Detroit, two women making their first bids for office — Democrat Haley Stevens and Republican Lena Epstein — won competitive primaries against several men, including men who had served or are currently serving in the state legislature. Democrat Rashida Tlaib beat three men and two other women for the U.S. House District 13 seat to replace former Rep. John Conyers, who resigned amid allegations of sexual harassment. Now, Tlaib is poised to become the first female Muslim member of Congress.

In Grand Rapids, Lynn Afendoulis trounced three men to be the Republican nominee for the 73rd House district. A Democratic dark-horse candidate who spent no money, Betty Jean Alexander, stunned Michigan politics by unseating state Sen. David Knezek in the 5th Senate district near Detroit.

The list goes on.

Overall, there were 77 contested Democratic primaries in Michigan including races for the state legislature, U.S. Congress and governorship. Women won 43 of them. The Republican showing was more modest but still significant: of 63 contested primaries, women won 15.

The legacy of 2016

There has been cultural pushback among women to the Trump presidency (only 30 percent of women nationwide approve of the president), which provides a natural explanation for the uptick in Democratic women’s involvement in particular. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Public policy affecting women has been more central to the national conversation than in the past, so it’s no surprise that women from across the political spectrum are adding their voices, said Arnold Weinfeld, interim director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University.

Both Weinfeld and Lanza said those issues vary from sexual harassment and assault exposed with the “Me Too” movement to public policy on healthcare, childcare and paid family leave. (A cause taken up by the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, in Washington.)

Linda Lee Tarver, president of the Republican Women's Federation of Michigan and a longtime Republican activist, said the 2016 election was a big kickstarter for conservative women interested in running for office as well.

“It was a highly toxic election,” Tarver said, citing the split between Sen. Bernie Sanders supporters and Hillary Clinton supporters and distaste among many voters for Trump’s brash demeanor. “That was a complete turnoff for folks to run, and especially for women. But shortly after that you had women saying, ‘If we don’t like the selection, we need to step up for ourselves.’”

Tarver and Weinfeld said both Republicans and Democrats in Michigan have invested in recruiting and preparing female candidates to run for office.

“They became empowered and decided this is something I can do,” Tarver said. “And they have just soared.”

On to the general

Whitmer’s Tuesday victory leaves Democrats with an all-female top-of-ticket, as attorney general nominee Dana Nessel and Secretary of State nominee Jocelyn Benson will run alongside her in the fall.

State politicos have been wondering how Democrats will fare with such a woman-heavy ticket. Sarah Hubbard, principal of Lansing-based lobbying firm Acuitas, said Tuesday’s results are an indicator that “maybe they’ve stumbled into something that’s going be the strongest hand.”

“Women certainly can bring a different perspective to the table, they can be seen as more collaborative,” Hubbard said. “Maybe people are looking for that right now.”

Republicans will be faced with the choice of whether they would like to follow suit later this month, when their state convention selects candidates for Secretary of State and Attorney General — which have female and male candidates to choose from to run alongside the male governor nominee, Attorney General Bill Schuette. Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents Vice Chair Mary Treder Lang is running against Shelby Township Clerk Stan Grot and Michigan State University professor Joseph Guzman for Secretary of State. And state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker is up against Speaker of the House Tom Leonard for Attorney General.

Republicans may want to consider choosing some women for top races after Tuesday’s results, Hubbard said. However, Tarver warned against choosing candidates based solely on a gender-oriented strategy.

“No one wants to be selected based on their gender,” Tarver said. “The women running at the Republican convention will have to earn it.”

For the women who have already secured a spot on the November ticket, the next three months may be challenging. Despite the advantages for women in this cultural moment, Lanza says female candidates are still subjected to scrutiny male candidates easily avoid.

“Voters are more caught up in perceived weakness of female candidates than perceived weaknesses of male candidates,” Lanza said. “Women really have to prove their abilities and suitability in a way that men are just assumed to be competent and able to take up the job.”

But should they prevail, Lanza said, the army of downticket women running in 2018 would likely change the conversation in coming elections, slowly wearing away at the walls built before them.

Bridge Magazine data reporter Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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