Last week’s election was won by Republicans in a rout. Rick Snyder was re-elected governor, and the GOP solidified its hammerlock on the Michigan Legislature, picking up four seats in the state House, now 63-47, and even a seat in the Senate, now 27-11.
In the aftermath, it’s useful to try to peer behind the daily cut and thrust of politics to glimpse the powerful underlying forces at work. Here’s a quick guide:
Overreach: Like a moth attracted to a bright light, the party that wins elections often feels compelled to take its new majority to extremes, thereby antagonizing the very voters who put them in power in the first place. It’s a bipartisan reflex, as common as it is dangerous.
Former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm shanghaied thousands of people (often family members) taking care of elderly patients in homes into “joining” the Service Employees International Union. Organized labor tried to jam collective bargaining guarantees into the state constitution in 2012. Both attempts collapsed amid savage criticism. Labor’s overreach also caused irate majority Republicans to make Michigan a right-to-work state just weeks later.
Now, with their heavy majorities in the new legislature, Republicans will be faced with similar urges. An early conservative favorite idea is changing with the present rules for allocating state votes in the Electoral College.
Michigan is among 48 states that allocate all their electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins a majority of votes statewide. Republicans have long grumbled about this “winner-take-all” system that has regularly given Democrats the state’s electoral votes since 1988. Some GOP conservatives for years have talked about changing the system so that a presidential candidate would get electoral votes for winning in each congressional district.
The effect would be considerable. President Barack Obama earned Michigan’s 16 electoral votes in 2012, when he defeated Mitt Romney by 9 percentage points. Under the proposed change, Michigan’s electoral votes would have been split 9-7 in favor of Romney, even though he lost Michigan by 449,313 votes.
Such a change would be enormously controversial and regarded as deeply unfair by many.
Last year, delegates to the Republican state convention overwhelmingly supported this method of allocating electoral votes. The governor has said he isn’t interested in such a change; to gauge GOP tendencies to overreach, keep an eye on what happens here.
Roads: If there is one issue that a clear majority of Michigan citizens support, it’s fixing our terrible roads. According to polling last winter and community conversations sponsored by The Center for Michigan, citizens are fed up with bad roads and (by a smaller margin) are willing to pay more in taxes to get the job done. Experts in the state’s Department of Transportation report that Michigan spends less than any other state in the union on our roads: $174 per person annually, compared with $235 in Illinois and Ohio and $315 in Minnesota. Another way of looking at it, as Bridge Magazine reader Charles Richards points out, is spending per lane mile. Michigan spends $11.70, while the national average is $17.20.
Different numbers; same point. Gov. Snyder and legislative leaders agree fixing the roads will cost more than $1 billion annually, which the state doesn’t now have. The legislature ducked funding the road program before this year’s election – no surprise. But hours after his victory, Snyder called for an increase in road funding in the lame duck session of the legislature.
Since the legislature that takes office on January 1 will be more conservative (several extreme tea party supporters were elected last week) moving now makes practical and political sense.
Ignoring the clear consensus that roads need to be fixed would be a significant sign the legislature is prepared to put anti-tax ideology above public opinion.
Govern, not gridlock. A clear message from this election is that voters are tired of partisan gridlock, whether in Washington or Lansing, and strongly prefer a system that actually gets things done.
President Obama’s Democrats were blamed for Washington dysfunction and paid the price. Gov. Snyder’s Republicans passed some controversial stuff – right to work, taxes on pension income, for example – but won the election by showing they could get things done in the face of Democratic whining.
So part of the political calculus of the next two years will be to see if Republicans can quell disputes inside their own caucus and assemble a robust agenda for governing that avoids the sin of overreach. Newly elected legislative leaders ‒ Majority Leader Arlen Meekoff in the Senate and Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter ‒ are substantially more conservative than their predecessors. They’ve got the votes to steamroll any Democratic opposition, but can they overcome the governor’s somewhat middle-of-the-road preferences?
For the past two years, I’ve puzzled at why minority Democrats in the legislature never tried to join with Snyder and other moderate Republicans to put together a working majority. Best I can figure is they preferred to beat up on Snyder in hopes of winning the governorship in this election just past.
Well, now they won’t have that chance till 2018. Another important thing to keep an eye on over the next months is whether a moderate bipartisan coalition is beginning to emerge in Lansing.
Elections bring change; that’s their nature. And change is never easy. But the trick is to figure out what underlying forces are at work, and understand how they play out in the daily news headlines.