Republicans will keep power in Michigan’s Legislature next year, even though Democrats got more votes statewide and dramatically slashed margins in safe GOP seats, a Bridge Magazine analysis shows.
Although Democrats flipped six House seats (and lost one) and five Senate seats, they couldn’t overcome built-in advantages from political districts drawn by Republican mapmakers in 2011.
GOP Legislature candidates received less than 50 percent of total votes statewide, but the party still maintained a 58-52 advantage in the House, and 22-16 majority in the Senate – even in an election when Democratic candidates won for governor, secretary of state, attorney general and several other major offices.
Bridge Magazine examined results in dozens of legislative districts, and found that Democrats typically needed huge surges to flip seats – and even then often came up short.
- In the House and Senate districts Democrats flipped, they averaged a 16 percentage point swing from the party’s performance in the district in 2016.
- That wasn’t enough in 18 House districts, where Democrats narrowed the gap with Republicans by 10 to 25 percentage points – and still lost.
- When Democrats won, they had blowouts – winning House seats by an average of 41 points and Senate races by 35, double the margins of Republican victories (21 and 18).
To be sure, a host of factors influence elections, from incumbency and the strength of individual candidates to fundraising.
Related Michigan gerrymandering coverage:
But Michigan’s legislative districts are recognized by experts as among the most gerrymandered in the country. By law, the party in control of Lansing after the decennial Census redraws districts – and that’s been Republicans in 2001 and again in 2011.
“The lines were drawn to withstand a significant change in public opinion,” said John McGlennon, a government and public policy professor at William and Mary, a public university in Virginia, and an expert in redistricting.
Evidence in an ongoing federal lawsuit from the League of Women Voters challenging the constitutionality of the 2011 redistricting process has produced emails and evidence showing Republicans and consultants worked together to draw districts favorable to the GOP.
Others, especially Republicans, say Michigan’s boundaries reflect a state where the majority of Democrats are clustered in southeast Michigan. They argue laws limit manipulation and require lines be drawn to keep municipal boundaries intact.
When asked about Bridge Magazine’s analysis on Thursday and whether Republicans could claim a mandate, incoming Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield didn’t directly answer the question but pledged to work with Democrats including Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer.
“The sword always cuts both ways when it comes to elections and there will be states in the country where the GOP potentially won the popular vote in the state but the Democrats may hold majority, and it depends on where people choose to live, work and raise their family,” Chatfield, R-Levering, told Bridge.
“I think it's important that each person coming here (to the Legislature) best represents their constituents."
The process will change in a few years.
A statewide ballot measure passed Nov. 6 aims to radically change how the maps are drawn. Proposal 2, backed by 61 percent of voters, calls for a citizens’ commission of Republicans, Democrats and Independents to draw the next set of maps in 2021.
GOP keeps Macomb
Famously home of so-called Reagan Democrats – union members who sometimes vote Republican – Macomb County is one of the biggest swing counties in Michigan.
In 2016, voters there favored Republican Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton for president 54-42. Last month, voters backed Democrat Gretchen Whitmer for governor 50-47.
Even so, none of the county’s legislative seats changed parties. The Republicans kept a 2-1 advantage in the Senate and a 5-5 split in the House.
The GOP was able to keep power in Lansing because of candidates like Republican Michael MacDonald – and boundaries like the 10th Senate District.
MacDonald survived a 21-point swing toward Democrats, and held on to beat Democratic former state Rep. Henry Yanez by 4.6 percentage points, about 5,100 votes. Just four years earlier, Republican Tory Rocca won the seat by 25 points.
MacDonald prevailed because he carried Macomb Township.
He won the Republican-leaning community by 6,145 votes, while losing the rest of the district by nearly 1,000 votes.
Macomb Township hadn’t been part of the 10th District until the 2011 redistricting, when Republicans also changed boundaries to put the reliably Democratic city of Roseville in the 9th District (which Democrat Paul Wojno won handily).
For opponents of gerrymandering, the results are proof of “packing” – the practice of putting as many voters of the minority party into one district to dilute the power of their overall vote.
TJ Bucholz, a Democratic political consultant, said the results are unsurprising.
“That’s what reapportionment is all about – whoever is in power sets the rules,” he said.
Jamie Roe, a Republican consultant who lives in the 10th District, attributed MacDonald’s victory less to gerrymandering than to old-fashioned campaigning.
He said Yanez campaign leaned too heavily on attacking MacDonald for a 2007 DUI arrest.
“Yanez ran a lousy race,” Roe said, saying he heard about the arrest in ads for weeks. “I got bored with it.”
He defended the redesign of the 10th, saying voters in Sterling Heights had more in common with Macomb Township than with voters in Roseville.
Emails from the 2011 redistricting process have uncovered several emails from Roe, who at the time served as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. Candice Miller.
In one, he writes that a redrawn 9th Congressional District is “perfect” because it looks like it’s “giving the finger to Sandy Levin,” the longtime Democratic incumbent.
An ‘effective gerrymander’
Just west of Macomb, in suburban Oakland County, Democrats posted some of their best gains in the state, flipping two House and two Senate seats.
Doing so required a big surge: To flip the 12th Senate District, Democrat Rosemary Bayer erased a built-in GOP advantage – the Republican had won the seat by 15 points in 2014. She won by 0.8 percent and fewer than 1,000 votes.
Countywide, voters favored Democrat Gretchen Whitmer over Republican Bill Schuette 57-40 percent.
Even so, Democrats only broke even in the House, turning a 9-5 GOP majority to a 7-7 split. Yet three other Oakland County GOP districts remained in Republican hands despite huge swings toward the Democrat.
Sam Wang, a Princeton University neuroscience professor and head of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, which seeks to find solutions to partisan gerrymandering, said the fact that Republicans still in control the House four elections after the maps were drawn proves their potency.
“Yes, the stability of the state House breakdown since 2012, in spite of swings, is a sign of an effective gerrymander,” Wang said in an email conversation with Bridge.
Blue wave but rocky shores ahead
The results also reinforce an uncomfortable truth for Democrats: They have trouble winning in rural areas, either because of the layout of the districts or the party’s message and image.
Democrats didn’t win a Senate seat north of Flint or in any county touching Indiana or Ohio. Their 16 senate seats are in Metro Detroit, Flint, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids and Lansing.
Democrats only did marginally better, geographically, in the House, holding on to a northern Michigan seat (surrounding Marquette). But all other wins include cities or are in Lansing or Metro Detroit’s suburbs.
In some cases, Republicans won by even bigger margins in rural areas in 2018 than they had in 2016. They even flipped a western Upper Peninsula House district that had been held by a Democrat.
“They’re rural conservative areas and there are no rural conservative Democrats,” said Roe, partner and president of Grand River Strategies, a Republican consulting firm. If Democrats nominate “gun-grabbing, pro-choice liberals, you’re not going to win. That’s just a fact of life.”
State Rep. Tim Griemel, Auburn Hills, the Democratic minority leader who was term-limited out this year, concedes the difficulty facing his party in areas outside of the cities and suburbs.
“If Democrats want to win rural areas, Democrats need to focus on an economic message, which offers something to farmers and to relatively low-income people who are struggling,” said Greimel, who lost ran in the Democratic primary for the 11th Congressional seat ultimately flipped by Democrat Haley Stevens.
Staff writer Riley Beggin contributed.
More Michigan gerrymandering coverage:
- These Republican insiders split $1 million to design and defend Michigan 2011 map
- Emails suggest Republicans gerrymandered Michigan to weaken ‘Dem garbage’
- Democrats blast Michigan Chamber over gerrymandering emails
- Voting results deliver on Michigan Chamber VP’s gerrymandering promise
- Gerrymandering in Michigan is among the nation’s worst, new test claims