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Tough year for incumbents: Nine Michigan legislators tossed out by voters

Jack O’Malley
Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, was one of three incumbents who lost their reelection bids in the general election and one of nine altogether this cycle. He lost to Grand Traverse County Commissioner Betsy Coffia.

Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, had the incumbent advantage. But in the new 103rd District, he viewed himself as the underdog.

The northern Michigan Republican, a former radio host who had already served two terms in the Michigan Legislature, was drawn into a district split nearly 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats — and his opponent, Grand Traverse County Commissioner Betsy Coffia, was running a tough, well-funded campaign.

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In the end, his incumbency wasn’t enough to put him over the edge. Unofficial results show Coffia won by 765 votes. O’Malley acknowledged he’d come up short, saying he was frustrated by how the redistricting process impacted his and other districts in rural Michigan as well as the statewide successes of Democrats that ultimately impacted his own race.

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“I'm upset, I’m mad … dang it, I wanted to win because I wanted to do more,” O’Malley said. “But that's not what happened. And so I have to accept that.”

Due to a combination of better-than-expected Democratic performance up and down the ticket and new political maps drawn by an independent redistricting commission last year, O’Malley and state Sen. Mike MacDonald, R-Macomb Township, won’t return to the Legislature. 

Incumbent Democratic Rep. Alex Garza, D-​​Taylor, also lost his bid for another term in the state House to Carleton Republican James DeSana. His new district covering parts of Downriver and Monroe County was more competitive than the one he currently represents and was deemed a target by Republicans.

Counting the six lawmakers who were knocked out of contention during the August primary election, a total of six Republicans and three Democrats ran for reelection and lost this cycle.

Although a higher-than-usual exodus of incumbents is expected in the aftermath of legislative redistricting, the 2022 cycle is above average in terms of incumbent attrition nationally. 

In Michigan, 10.3 percent of incumbents who ran for re-election lost their bids either in the primary or the general election cycle. An analysis by the political newsletter MIRS conducted ahead of the August primaries found that prior to the 2022 election cycle, only four incumbent Michigan lawmakers had lost in primary races to non-incumbent challengers since 2010.

That’s a significant increase, but considering the state’s political districts shifted dramatically after an independent redistricting process, many Michigan incumbents proved they had staying power, said Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and political science professor at Michigan State University. 

Ahead of Michigan’s primary election, former President Donald Trump made his presence known in many Michigan contests, in several cases endorsing challengers to sitting incumbents. His success at the local level was a mixed bag, with some Trump-endorsed candidates winning seats in the Legislature and Congress and others losing in primaries or, in the case of John Gibbs, against Democrats in the general.

Although Democrats ultimately earned slim majorities in both the House and Senate, some Republican incumbents like Sens. Mark Huizenga, R-Walker, and Jon Bumstead, R-North Muskegon, fended off spirited challenges from well-funded Democratic opponents with state legislative experience. 

Moving into future election cycles, incumbency will likely continue to have advantages, Grossmann said, but he noted first-time lawmakers under the new districts will be the most vulnerable after their first term. The absence of a major turnout driver like Proposal 3, which was approved by voters and codifies abortion rights in the Michigan Constitution, could become another test of who has the advantage under the new maps, he continued.

“That actually might make this more of a one-off, in the sense that it’s hard to think of another, similar dynamic happening next time,” he said. 

Congressional incumbents fare well

Meanwhile, every Congressional incumbent who made it to Tuesday’s general election survived challenges and will continue to serve Michigan in Washington, D.C. 

Five Republican and three Democratic incumbents were running in safe seats for their respective parties, winning by double-digit margins. 

It came down to the wire for sitting Democratic Reps. Elissa Slotkin, D-Lansing, and Dan Kildee, D-Flint, who were running in new, more competitive seats, but high turnout in Democratic regions of their districts helped push them over the top.

There will still be a significant amount of turnover in Michigan’s congressional delegation, however. 

In the August primary, Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids, lost to Republican John Gibbs. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, lost to Stevens in a competitive incumbent-vs.-incumbent primary in the 11th Congressional District. 

Two current members of Congress, Reps. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, and Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, opted not to run for re-election and will retire at the end of their current terms.

How Trump-endorsed candidates fared 

At the statewide level, the Republican slate backed by Trump succumbed to a Democratic sweep, with gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, attorney general candidate Matthew DePerno and secretary of state candidate Kristina Karamo losing to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Dana Nessel and Jocelyn Benson, respectively. 

In Congress, five of his Michigan picks — Republican incumbent Reps. Jack Bergman, Bill Huizenga, John Moolenaar, Tim Walberg and Lisa McClain — were running in safe seats and projected to win regardless. 

Trump’s record is 50-50 in the two competitive federal races where he endorsed. Gibbs, who successfully ousted Meijer in the 3rd Congressional District primary by attacking Meijer’s break from Trump, was defeated by Democrat Hillary Scholten this week. John James, a businessman and third-time candidate for federal office, eked out a victory over Democrat Carl Marlinga in the Macomb County-based 10th Congressional District. 

Trump also endorsed in 10 state legislative races prior to the Republican primaries, five of whom advanced to the general election. 

Of those, all five — incumbent Rep. Matt Maddock, R-Milford, Jonathan Lindsey of Bronson, Rachelle Smit of Martin, Angela Rigas of Caledonia and Mike Hoadley of Au Gres — won seats in the Legislature.

Although incumbent Rep. Matt Maddock of Milford, a key Trump ally, won re-election to a third term, Trump had endorsed him to become Michigan’s next House speaker — a prospect that would have been unlikely even if Republicans had won a majority.

Rep. Matt Hall, R-Comstock Township, was chosen by Republicans to lead the caucus next term. Rep. Joe Tate, D-Detroit, will serve as speaker and will be the first Black man to hold the post.

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