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Seven races to watch on what could be a long Election Day in Michigan

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Michigan election officials expect some 2 million people to turn out at polling places on Tuesday. Another 2 million are expected to vote absentee. (Shutterstock)
  • The governor’s race is the marquee matchup, but Proposal 3, attorney general race and others are hotly contested
  • Turnout could play a huge role: absentee votes are up, but fewer voters are expected in Democratic strongholds like Detroit
  • It’s first election to test legislative maps created by citizens redistricting commission.

LANSING — Michigan voters are headed to polling places Tuesday to cast ballots to the governor’s race, abortion rights, congressional matchups, control of the state Legislature and more.

It’s a long — and consequential — ballot that will determine who leads Michigan for the next four years, who represents the state in Washington D.C. and whether to add reproductive and voting rights to the Michigan Constitution.

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As of last week, more than 1.1 million Michiganders had already voted via absentee ballots, but many more are expected to drop off ballots or vote in in-person as polls open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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Overall, the state expects 50 percent turnout, about 4 million votes. That would be down from a record 4.3 million in 2018, the state’s last mid-term election, but up from 3.2 million in 2014.

Because of absentee votes, all results may not be in until Wednesday night or beyond. Here are races to watch:

1. Gretchen Whitmer vs. Tudor Dixon

The governor’s race is obviously among the most consequential in Michigan, because it will determine who leads the state for the next four years. The governor has broad powers over state government and a pen she can use to either sign or veto legislation, making her the most important political figure and policymaker in the state.

While midterm elections typically don’t go well for the party that controls the White House, as Democrats do this year, Whitmer has history on her side: An incumbent Michigan governor has not lost re-election since 1990, when Republican John Engler unseated two-term Democrat Jim Blanchard. An incumbent has not lost since voters in 1992 amended the state constitution to prevent governors from serving more than two terms.

Dixon, a former steel executive who has never held elected office, has attempted to make the campaign a referendum on Whitmer’s tenure and response to the global pandemic. The Norton Shores Republican has hammered the Democratic governor over COVID-19 business closure orders and argued she did not listen closely enough to parents who wanted their kids back in school. 

Polls suggest Dixon has cut into what was once a double-digit deficit to make the gubernatorial race a close one. Whitmer has led recent polls by an average of 4.2 percentage points, according to RealClear Politics. 

Dixon is "peaking at exactly the right time,” said John Sellek, a Republican campaign veteran who now runs Harbor Strategic Public Affairs in Lansing. 

Whitmer has been smart to focus on boosting turnout efforts in Detroit, which is crucial for statewide Democrats, said Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond of Grassroots Midwest in Lansing. Last week, city officials said they expected 28 percent to 33 percent turnout. 

The governor's race is the most important on the ballot because winners typically have "coattails" that other candidates can ride to their own victories, Hemond said. 

If Whitmer wins by 5 or more percentage points, Democrats will have a good shot at flipping the state Senate; if she wins by 8 points or more, the state House could be in play too, Hemond said. 

Conversely, an upset win by Dixon could portend a huge night for Republicans, who would likely ride the top-of-the-ticket momentum to potential pickups in Congress and continued control of the state Legislature, giving them a broad mandate to enact conservative policies in Lansing. 

2. Proposal 3

It may be on the back and bottom of the Michigan ballot, but Proposal 3 is one of the most important races to watch in the state. 

From a policy perspective, the proposal will determine whether abortion rights are written into the Michigan constitution. It would permanently prevent enforcement of a 1931 abortion ban that would criminalize physicians for performing the procedure and restore rights women had nationwide before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Moving forward, courts would have to decide whether the proposal would also undo other regulations, including a law requiring parental consent for minors to have an abortion. 

The proposal is especially consequential because it could also drive voter turnout on Tuesday in a way that impacts other races. 

Michigan is one of three states nationwide deciding an abortion ballot measure, along with California and Vermont.

Public opinion polls suggest the downfall of Roe v. Wade gave new energy to Democratic voters, particularly women, decreasing a motivation gap with Republicans who were already fired up to vote because of inflation and the economy. An unexpected turnout surge for Proposal 3 would benefit Democratic candidates. Conversely, a big “no” vote push could benefit the GOP.

Other proposals to watch: Proposal 1, which would amend term limits and require some financial disclosures by political candidates; And Proposal 2, which would guarantee nine days of early voting and enshrine several current election rules in the Michigan Constitution. 

3. Dana Nessel vs. Matthew DePerno

Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel underperformed the top-of-the-ticket in 2018. She appears to be doing so again, setting up what could be one of the closest statewide races in Michigan against Republican challenger Matthew DePerno. 

Four years ago, Nessel defeated Republican nominee Tom Leonard by less than 3 percentage points despite Whitmer’s 10-point win at the top of the ticket. It could be even closer this time around: A recent poll commissioned by The Detroit News showed Nessel in a statistical dead heat with DePerno despite a 9-point lead for Whitmer over Dixon. 

Nessel has proven to be controversial because of her "shoot-from-the-hip" style, and she is also "pretty clearly the furthest to the left” among top statewide officials, said Hemond, the Democratic strategist with Grassroots Midwest in Lansing. 

The Democratic incumbent had a major fundraising and advertising advantage over DePerno but has struggled to effectively remind voters of her accomplishments in Lansing, said Sellek, the Republican campaign veteran.

"It looks like people heard more about the controversial things than about the good things that she was doing," he said.

DePerno made his name by fighting 2020 election results in Antrim County. He’s not particularly popular among voters who know who he is, according to recent polling, but Hemond said DePerno may benefit from voters not knowing anything about him.

"Being a replacement level Republican in this political environment this year is good,” Hemond said. 

4. Jocelyn Benson vs. Kristina Karamo

In an era where a significant portion of the population no longer trusts the nation’s election system, the secretary of state position is one of the most important in Michigan. 

The winner of the matchup between incumbent Democratic incumbent Jocelyn Benson and GOP challenger Kristina Karamo will oversee the 2024 presidential election, the first since Trump tried to overturn his 2020 loss. 

Benson has faced a flurry of litigation over new steps she’s taken to make voting easier, including 2020 signature match guidelines for absentee ballots that were later struck down on technical grounds. Courts upheld her decision that year to mail absentee ballot applications to all registered voters. 

Karamo rose to prominence as a Detroit poll watcher who claimed fraud in the presidential contest and has vowed to crack down if elected.

Several recent polls have shown Benson with a sizable lead over Karamo, but an unexpectedly big turnout for Republicans could make the race more competitive. 

5. Elissa Slotkin vs. Tom Barrett

The most expensive congressional race in the country is in mid-Michigan, where competing campaigns and national allies have been flooding the airwaves and mailboxes with ads to benefit Democratic U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin or GOP challenger Tom Barrett. 

Both have military backgrounds, and leaders in their respective parties believe both have bright futures.

On paper, the new-look 7th Congressional District is a true tossup, with local voters backing former President Donald Trump by 4 percentage points in 2016 before narrowly choosing Biden by one point in 2020. 

Slotkin was elected in 2018 and has represented parts of the district in Congress. But she moved from Oakland County to Lansing to run in the 7th after lines were redrawn. The new district combines Ingham, Livingston, Shiawassee and Clinton counties, along with most of Eaton County and small portions of Oakland and Genesee counties.

Democrats currently have a 220-212 edge in the U.S. House, and re-election Slotkin is a top priority. Every congressional seat in the country is on the ballot this fall. 

Democrats and Republicans alike see Michigan as an opportunity to gain ground. The state delegation is currently split 7-7 between Democrats and Republicans, but Michigan is losing a seat next year due to redistricting.

Other notable, competitive congressional races: Republican John Gibbs vs. Democrat Hillary Scholten in the 3rd District; incumbent Democrat Dan Kildee vs. Republican Paul Junge in the 8th District; Republican John James vs. Democrat Carl Marlinga in the 10th District.

6. Pam Hornberger and Kevin Hertel 

Control of the Michigan Senate is on the line this year as Democrats hope to take advantage of newly competitive maps to flip the upper chamber for the first time since 1984.

A citizens redistricting commission, created by voters in 2018, drew legislative districts for the first time this year. Before, the process was overseen by the party in control of the Legislature, resulting in what federal judges in 2019 called a “gerrymander of historical proportions.”

The maps they produced create a fairer playing field for the major political parties, but they are also expected to reduce Black representation in Lansing.

If Democrats win a majority in the Senate, it’ll be because of wins in highly competitive districts like the 12th, where Republican state Rep. Pam Hornberger of Chesterfield Township and Democratic state Rep. Kevin Hertel of St. Clair Shores are battling it out in Michigan’s most expensive legislative race. 

As of mid-October, Hornberger, Hertel and their allies had aired more than $6 million in TV ads — more than some competitive congressional races. Democrats were outspending Republicans, but the new-look district leans GOP on paper: Local voters backed Trump by 11 points in 2016 and 4 points in 2020. 

Other Michigan Senate races to watch: Republican state Rep. Annette Glenn of Midland vs. Democrat Kristen McDonald Rivet of Bay City in the 35th District, Republican incumbent Sen. Mark Huizenga of Walker vs. Democratic Rep. David LaGrand of Grand Rapids in the 30th District.

7. Jack O’Malley and Betsy Coffia 

Redistricting left Republicans in a good position to retain control of the Michigan House, but experts say Democrats have a slim chance to flip the chamber if they win a key races in newly competitive districts. 

One race to watch is between Republican incumbent Rep. Jack O'Malley of Lake Ann and Democratic challenger Betsy Coffia in the 103rd District, which includes Leelanau, northern Grand Traverse and northern Benzie counties. 

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O'Malley coasted to re-election in 2018, but he's never run in a district like this: Voters in the new 103rd backed Trump by 3.6 points in 2016 and Biden by 4.7 points in 2020.

O'Malley is a former radio host who is well known throughout the region, but Coffia is "made in laboratory to fit the progressive fight," said Sellek, the GOP campaign veteran.

Other Michigan House races to watch: Republican Kevin Whiteford of South Haven vs. Democrat Joey Andrews of St. Joseph in the 38th District, Democrat Denise Mentzer of Mount Clemens vs. Mike Aiello of Clinton Township in the 61st District, Democratic incumbent Rep. Alex Garza of Taylor vs. Jim DeSana of Carleton in the 29th District.

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