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Who will control the Michigan Legislature? This year, Democrats have a shot

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There are a lot of political contests to keep tabs on in Michigan, but don’t sleep on state legislative races. 

Michigan has had a Republican trifecta over 14 of the last 30 years, controlling the executive branch and both legislative chambers. Democrats never controlled all branches over that time.

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Although there have been two Democratic governors during that period — Gretchen Whitmer and Jennifer Granholm — Democrats haven’t had a majority in the state House since 2010 or the Senate since 1984.

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New political districts drawn by an independent panel made the state far more competitive this year. Senate Democrats hope to seize their chance at calling the shots in the chamber, and have lined up eye-popping amounts of campaign cash to do it.

Republicans now hold a 57-53 edge in the House and 22-16 advantage in the Senate. 

The new maps lean Republican 56-54 in the House, while Democrats are favored 20-18 in the Senate, based on a Bridge Michigan analysis of recent presidential elections.

How we got here

In a word, redistricting. 

Every 10 years, all 50 states redraw state legislative and congressional maps based on updated U.S. Census data. Prior to last year, districts over the last several decades were drawn either by the Legislature or the courts — the most recent iteration resulted in maps so skewed toward Republicans that federal judges in 2019 called them a “political gerrymander of historical proportions.”

Enter the Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative in 2018, which added a constitutional requirement that an independent, 13-member citizens redistricting panel draw the maps. 

The group’s final product, completed in late 2021, resulted in districts drastically different from their predecessors.

Competitiveness wasn’t a requirement for commissioners, but in many state legislative districts, it was a byproduct. New tossup districts cropped up in several regions of the state long dominated by one party.

Why it matters

The majority party in the House and Senate sets the legislative agenda and determines what bills are brought up in committees and for votes on the floor.

That reach can have major impacts on Michiganders’ daily lives, ranging from what kids are required to learn in schools to how much in state taxes come out of each paycheck. 

The majority also holds the reins in budget negotiations, playing an outsize role in deciding what gets funded and what doesn’t.

Depending on who controls the executive branch, the majority party in the Legislature can make or break a governor’s agenda — see Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s frequent spats with Republican leadership over taxes and COVID policies in the past four years.

What decides it?

Nationally, headwinds are favorable for Republican candidates in a midterm election where both the White House and Congress are controlled by Democrats. 

Republican candidates up and down the ballot are hammering Democratic candidates on high inflation and increased costs of living, as well as cultural issues like what books are available to school-age children.

But after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, abortion rights could be a driving factor in 2022 — especially in Michigan, where voters will decide on a ballot initiative that would enshrine abortion rights in the state Constitution. 

In many legislative swing districts key, groups supporting Democratic candidates are running ads highlighting Republican candidates’ views on abortion, painting them as extreme. 

Big spending

Another factor in the race for legislative majority: massive amounts of campaign cash. 

At $29 million total so far, Michigan tops the nation in ad spending for state legislative races, according to the group AdImpact, a data research firm.

Bolstered by investment from national groups, Democratic state Senate candidates have thus far spent more than Republican candidates in 19 of 38 districts, and 24 entered the final stretch of the election cycle with more cash on hand than their rivals.

After the August primary, 14 Senate Democratic candidates had more than $100,000 available to spend, compared to five Republican candidates. 

Combined, Senate Democratic candidates have spent $983,372 thus far, and Republican candidates have spent $912,476, according to finance committee reports filed in September, the most recent ones available.

Candidates in several state House seats made more competitive by redistricting are also posting big fundraising numbers, but not yet at the same level as competitive state Senate seats.

Across the House’s 110 districts, House Democratic candidates have spent a combined $1.25 million at this point in the cycle, while House Republican candidates have spent about $1.2 million. 

Both Democratic and Republican national groups have said they are committed to investing heavily in Michigan.

What to watch in the Senate

The Michigan Senate, which has been controlled by Republicans since Ronald Reagan was president, is more competitive because of how the redistricting commission divided up metro Detroit.

Critics argue that the new configuration, which splits Detroit into several districts with outlying suburbs, could diminish the power of Black Detroiters in the state Legislature. 

The most competitive districts on the map are sprinkled across the state. 

The 11th and 12th districts covering Macomb and portions of Wayne are tossups, as is a Kent County battle between two sitting lawmakers in the 30th and the 35th District covering Midland, Saginaw and Bay City. 

Others to keep an eye on include the 32nd District covering the Lake Michigan shoreline, the 4th District covering Downriver communities and Oakland County’s 9th and 13th districts.  

In most of these districts, candidates are well-matched, with Republican and Democratic candidates boasting significant state legislative or local government experience.

Another thing to keep in mind: The party that wins the governor’s race also makes a difference in the event of a 19-19 tie in the upper chamber. 

The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate and can cast a tie-breaking vote.

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What to watch in the House

Some of the key regions to watch include west Michigan, where districts covering Kent County and the Lake Michigan coast are expected to be competitive, and Downriver districts where Democrats need to perform well in order to have a chance.

One bellwether race in the state House is the new 103rd District in northwest Michigan, where Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann, is in a competitive race against Democrat Betsy Coffia. 

The redistricting commission estimates the district is split nearly 50-50 between Republican and Democratic voters. Perhaps that’s why it’s currently the most expensive state House in the state, with over $800,000 combined in ad spending and reservations so far.

One Jackson-area seat initially deemed competitive will likely now trend solidly in Republicans’ favor after Democrats dropped their support of Maurice Imhoff, a 20-year-old candidate who has been investigated for allegedly making threats against schools he attended.

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