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Once solidly red, northwest Michigan offers fighting chance for Democrats

Two signs by the side of the road
Dueling candidate signs in northwest Michigan’s 103rd state House district show support for first-term Rep. Betsy Coffia, the lone Democratic candidate, and Katie Kniss, one of three Republicans in a primary race to challenge her. (Bridge photo by Lauren Gibbons)
  • Democrats have gained political foothold in northwest Michigan, flipping counties for statewide candidates and a key state House race    
  • Some of the changes are due to population growth in areas like Traverse City, but most rural areas are solidly Republican
  • Affordable housing, child care, mental health supports and the economy are top issues for voters

TRAVERSE CITY, MI —  Less than a decade ago, northwest Michigan Democrats considered themselves lucky if they found people willing to run for offices, let alone win them.

Demographic shifts, local organizing efforts and friendlier legislative maps have since opened doors for Democrats: the once reliably conservative counties of Grand Traverse and Benzie joined neighboring Leelanau County in becoming more competitive. 

“It’s really changed,” Pat Haber, a Democrat who has lived in Grand Traverse County for 15 years, told Bridge Michigan, joking that “it’s getting to be like Ann Arbor here now.”

Former President Donald Trump won all three counties in 2016, and Leelanau County was the lone county to flip for President Joe Biden in 2020, though Biden outperformed 2016 candidate Hillary Clinton in Traverse City and flipped some coastal communities like Benzie County's Lake Township.

The region’s congressional and state Senate districts still trend Republican, but Democrats have made significant inroads. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won Leelanau twice and in 2022 flipped Grand Traverse and Benzie, where voters in 2018 had backed Bill Schuette, a Republican and former state attorney general. 

New state House districts that split Grand Traverse County in two created a pickup opportunity in the state Legislature with the 103rd District, where a near 50-50 political split allowed Traverse City Democrat Betsy Coffia to eke a win over incumbent Republican Rep. Jack O’Malley by 765 votes.

Rep. Betsy Coffia is talking to two people. She is wearing a black jacket
Rep. Betsy Coffia, center, has represented northern Michigan’s 103rd district since 2023. She’ll enjoy the incumbent advantage in what’s expected to be a competitive state House race. (Courtesy)

That race was one of the most competitive and expensive state legislative contests in the 2022 cycle: by mid-October that year, Democrats and Republicans had spent a combined $814,700 on the race, according to the data research firm AdImpact.


National interests are taking notice: On Wednesday, First Lady Jill Biden and Chasten Buttigieg, a northern Michigan native and husband to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, headlined an office opening for the Biden campaign. 

Republican voters still dominate northwest Michigan’s rural regions, and conservatives are targeting the 103rd, which covers Leelanau and parts of Grand Traverse and Benzie, as a prime flip opportunity.


But northern Michigan Republicans are also dealing with divisions over party priorities in a primary battle that could complicate a comeback tour.

As the Aug. 6 primary approaches, observers say local issues like increasing population, affordable housing, and child care are more important to most voters than doctrinaire party politics.

“When I talk to people, what they prefer is a representative who's neither far right nor far left,” said Penny Morris, a Republican serving on the Grand Traverse County Commission. “They want someone in the middle who's going to serve everybody…people are tired of the fighting.” 

The winner of the primaries advance to the Nov. 5 general election.

Democrats’ long game

Democrats’ gains in the northwest are a relatively recent phenomenon.

Many northern Michigan counties are growing in population even as the rest of the state struggles to retain or attract residents, and Republicans and Democrats alike acknowledge the influence of retirees and other newcomers settling down up north, bringing voting preferences that are often at odds with the rural conservatives that have long dominated regional politics.   

Before 2016, few Democrats even bothered running in local races, said Chris Cracchiolo, chair of the Grand Traverse Democratic Party. 

Following Trump’s election, local Democrats regrouped, initially focusing on candidate recruitment for county commission seats. After the 2018 election, two Democrats won — one of whom was Coffia, who by that point had unsuccessfully ran for state House three times — and there are now three Democrats on the nine-member board. 


At the local level, Leelanau County now has a Democratic-majority county board, and in Grand Traverse County, the county board went from zero Democratic members in 2016 to four.

Coffia is one of three state House Democrats who won by fewer than 1,000 votes in 2022, and the only one who beat a Republican incumbent to win it. Only Rep. Jamie Churches, D-Wyandotte, had a smaller margin of victory in the general election, defeating her Republican opponent in the Downriver-based 27th District by 660 votes. 

On paper, the 103rd District is split nearly 50-50% between likely Republican and likely Democratic voters, according to data compiled by the state’s redistricting commission.  

The race could once again play a role in determining which party takes the majority in the state Legislature next term. 

Coffia, who is now defending her seat as a first-term incumbent and does not face a primary opponent, told Bridge her track record in the Democratic-majority Legislature matches the values she ran on in the first place. 

She said she didn’t flinch when voting on bills expanding abortion access or restricting gun safety, despite getting feedback that she should rethink her support due to the political makeup of her district. Her votes supporting gun reforms such as “red flag” laws and universal background checks prompted an unsuccessful recall effort.

“It was suggested and almost expected of me that maybe I would have a problem with taking those votes,” Coffia said. “I felt like I had a pulse on my district, and they elected me knowing where I stood on the issue, and I did what I believed was right.”

She said she views her work both in-district and in Lansing as an act of “long-game, patient persistence.” 

That involves a mix of marquee Democratic priorities like protecting abortion access and LGBTQ rights and championing policies aimed at northern Michigan residents, including addressing funding disparities for rural K-12 transportation and allowing local governments to offer subsidies on local housing projects

Republican still strong

Rep. John Roth, an Interlochen Republican who represents more conservative parts of several northwest Michigan in the state House, said Republicans are in good shape despite shifting demographics.

Rep. John Roth, R-Interlochen, posing for a picture outside. He is wearing a blue polo shirt
Rep. John Roth, R-Interlochen, said he’d love to see another Republican share representation of Grand Traverse County, but said the party has other paths to winning back a state House majority. (Bridge photo by Lauren Gibbons)

Though more populated areas in the region grown more liberal in recent years, Roth said much of the rest of the population is “pretty, pretty heavily Republican.” A majority of Leelanau County voters picked both Biden and Republican U.S. House and Senate candidates in 2020.

The population growth in the region isn’t exclusively benefiting Democrats, either, he said. 

“The cities seem to have the concentration of more progressive people, sure, but (there are) several new people moving in there that are more Republican-leaning,” he said. 

Among northwest Michigan Republicans, the latest big task is choosing who should challenge Coffia in the 103rd District’s primary, where two former Grand Traverse County Republican Party leaders who represent different factions of the GOP’s base are the main contenders.

Traverse City resident Katie Kniss in 2022 unsuccessfully ran against Roth for state House. She wants to ban critical race theory and “pornographic” library books from schools, eliminate the income tax, remove dead people from voter rolls, prevent vaccine mandates and repeal red flag laws and other recent gun reforms, according to her website.

Katie Kniss headshot
Katie Kniss is one of three Republicans running for state House in the 103rd District. (Courtesy)

Traverse City ice cream shop owner Joe Welsh wrote in an endorsement posted to Kniss’ website that she has his “1 million percent” support and would work to “secure our elections and stop the nonsense in Lansing.” 

She also has support from former Sen. Patrick Colbeck and Rep. Jim DeSana, a Downriver Republican and House Freedom Caucus member who has claimed Kniss is the “only conservative in this race.” 

Lisa Trombley, also of Traverse City, is a former government contractor and has promised to be a “fighter for Michigan families, small businesses, agriculture and our Great Lakes,” criticizing Coffia and the Democratic majority for being a “rubber stamp for the far-left agenda.”  

Trombley has appealed to business groups and recently received an endorsement from the Small Business Association of Michigan.

Lisa Trombley, wearing a grey turtleneck, poses for a photo
Lisa Trombley is one of three Republicans running for state House in the 103rd District. (Courtesy)

O’Malley, the former Republican lawmaker who lost to Coffia in 2022, is backing Trombley, victory, telling Bridge that only a moderate can beat Coffia.

“I believe (Kniss) is of the far right, our-way-or-the-highway thinking and I don't think that's going to attract the extra votes that she would need to win,” said O’Malley, who now lives in Alpena. 

“The far left, progressive Democrats want a firebrand and the far right want a firebrand, and the poor people in the middle want a representative,” he continued.

An expected debate between Kniss and Trombley was canceled and has not been rescheduled.    


Also on the Republican primary ballot is Tripp Garcia, a machinist who told Bridge Michigan he’s “tired of the politicians” and would like to see better representation of blue-collar workers in office, as well as more bills addressing illegal immigration, access to affordable health care and economic policies that “make things a little bit better for people to survive.”

Roth said he would love to see a Republican retake Coffia’s state House seat and help Republicans win back the majority, but said it’s not the only viable race to do so, citing other vulnerable first-term Democrats in southeast Michigan and west Michigan.

His main concerns are what he views as a lack of attention to northern Michigan in recent state budgets and limited cooperation between parties. 

“We had an opportunity for about six months to really do some good bipartisan work, and we didn't, because we couldn't work together,” he said, arguing that a Republican-majority House would open the door to more bipartisanship.

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