With less than a quarter of a point separating Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Michigan was the state with the closest margin in the 2016 presidential election, and it’s certain to be a state which will be highly watched in 2020 on all levels. As the parties battle it out on the urban, suburban, and rural levels of the state, downballot races will be affected.
This week, in the fourth installment of “Let the States Decide“, I’ll be talking about the Michigan House of Representatives. Elections for Governor and Senate occur every four years, the last ones being in 2018. As a result, the House elections will be the most important non-federal elections in Michigan taking place this year. Republicans hold a 58-51 majority in the House, with one vacant, Safe Democratic seat. This means Democrats will need to net four seats to gain a clear majority. There’s a clear path toward this goal, and it will rely heavily on suburban seats. They will be defending one highly competitive seat while contesting five. Of these five seats, three are in one heavily suburban county.
This county is of course Oakland County, just north of Detroit.
Battle for the highly-educated suburban voter
Oakland County has been a bright spot for Democrats in recent years, remaining static as the state has shifted rightward. At the same time though, it is very difficult to gauge politically, due to several competing forces occurring there. The county has minority filled areas, diversifying areas, heavily white liberal suburbs, and heavily white conservative exurbs. The county voted narrowly against George Bush twice but has since moved to the left. Hillary Clinton won Oakland County by 8.1 points, while Governor Gretchen Whitmer won it by 16.9 points. Recent polling has shown that Joe Biden will win the county by impressive margins. If this holds true, and Democratic support carries downballot, this would be very good for Democrats’ hopes of flipping the State House.
While Oakland County may be heterogeneous as a whole, the three competitive districts are all relatively similar to each other. All three are Trump-Whitmer districts that are consisitently close in statewide elections. All three are predominantly white, and cities within the districts have college attainment levels approaching 60% and high median income. They are spots of middle-class areas in a largely working-class state and they will likely decide who wins the House in November.
Highly competitive seats
Before we get onto the Oakland County districts, there is one seat that is a more likely pickup opportunity, and that’s the 61st district. Based in Kalamazoo County just outside the city of Kalamazoo, it contains many of its suburbs, such as Portage. Hillary Clinton won the district by 4.3 points and incumbent Republican Brandt Iden is term-limited. The race in 2020 is between two women, Democrat Christine Morse and Republican Bronwyn Haltom. Morse is a cancer survivor running on public education, healthcare, and clean drinking water. Haltom listed the economy, education, and roads as her priorities. Morse has the partisan lean of the district on her side, while Haltom has fundraising on hers. Democrats look like they have the edge here, and while flipping the seat isn’t a certainty, but it is a must-win if Democrats wish to flip the chamber.
The first Oakland County seat that Democrats are targeting is the 38th district. Containing the city of Novi, the district is rapidly diversifying, with a respectable Asian-American population. President Trump won the district by 3.6 points, and term-limited Republican Kathy Crawford represents the district. Running for the open seat are Democrat Kelly Breen and Republican Chase Turner. Both Breen and Turner ran against Crawford in 2018, but Turner ran from the right in a Republican primary. He is running on conservative positions and has campaigned in opposition to Gretchen Whitmer. Breen flipped a city council seat in 2017 and is considered a strong pick. Turner, however, is out of the mainstream and beat an establishment-backed candidate in the primary. Breen appears to have candidate quality on her side as well as fundrasing, where she leads 2:1. This seat is looking like a top Democratic pickup opportunity in November.
Just next to the 38th, the 39th has a similarly competitive race. Trump won the district by a similar margin (3.7 points), and it contains Commerce Township and parts of West Bloomfield Township. The area has a high Jewish population of about 30-35%, which will be a critical voting bloc in the district. Of all Democratic targets listed, this is the only one with an incumbent running for re-election. First-term Representative Ryan Berman is facing Democratic challenger Julia Pulver. Berman won in 2018 by double-digits after his opponent embezzled funds. In 2020, however, Berman faces a credible opponent and may be in for a tough race. Pulver is running on a somewhat progressive, pro-worker message, and is prioritizing healthcare and education. She and Berman are running neck-and-neck in fundraising, and the chances of flipping the seat are about breakeven.
The longest shot for Democrats of the three Oakland County seats is the Rochester Hills-based 45th district. While it has a somewhat similar profile to the other two, the district is very wealthy and is redder. Trump won it by 7.6 points, and although Gretchen Whitmer won it, there’s reason to believe that Democratic strength won’t carry through downballot. Nonetheless, Democrats are running a somewhat strong candidate in Barb Anness. Incumbent Republican Michael Webber is term-limited, so Republicans are running Mark Tisdel. Both Anness and Tisdel have public service experience in the Rochester Hills local government. Although Democrats may hope for a surge in the area, it will be an uphill climb for Anness as a result of partisanship and fundraising.
Moving far away from Oakland County, the next most likely seat to flip is the 104th district. This district is synonymous with Grand Traverse County in the northern part of the state and it is significantly less suburban than the other competitive districts mentioned. Donald Trump won the county, and thus the district, by 12.5 points. Incumbent Larry Inman, who won re-election in 2018 by a very narrow margin, faced abuse of office allegations in 2019. Inman is term-limited, but the scandal still looms large in the district. 2018 Democratic challenger Dan O’Neil is running again, and John Roth is running on the Republican side. Roth started off weak in fundraising but has since managed to get solid financial backing. However, he has still failed to compete with O’Neil’s sizeable war chest. Democrats have their hopes up about winning the district, but considering the partisan lean they may fall short.
Beyond the seats listed above, there are a handful of Republican-held seats that Democrats could realistically target. Chokwe Pitchford is challenging incumbent Pauline Wendzel for the 79th district in Benton Harbor. Pitchford is very young (no, not that one) at just 21 years old, but those who know him consider him to be a very strong candidate. The 91st district in Muskegon County was an Obama district, and Democrats on the ground are hoping for small business owner Brian Hosticka to bring those voters back. Sarah Schulz caused the 98th district to come very close in 2018, and is hoping to use the same energy to flip the seat this year. And finally the 110th in the Upper Peninsula flipped to Republicans in 2018, and Democrat Janet Metsa is hoping to flip it back.
Highly competitive seats
Democrats flipped six seats in the chamber in 2018, but only one should be seriously watched. The 19th district in Livonia is Trump+7.5 and is a patch of red in deep blue Wayne County. Democrat Laurie Pohutsky won by 224 votes in 2018 and is running for re-election. Pohutsky has taken progressive positions on issues like healthcare and the environment. Some think that Pohutsky is not a good fit for her swing district and that Republican Martha Ptashnik could unseat her. Both candidates are running grassroots, localized campaigns. Ptashnik, a teacher in Livonia, is prioritizing education, which she has taken somewhat moderate positions on. Despite Ptashnik’s strength though, Pohutsky is still running a strong campaign and is outraising Ptashnik. Without holding this seat, it’s difficult to see a path to the majority for Democrats. Pohutsky appears to have a narrow advantage, but Democrats should look at this race with caution.
10 districts represented by Democrats were won by Donald Trump, but many are considered fairly safe for the inumbents. Trump won both the 23rd district in Downriver and the 25th district in Sterling Heights by around 10 points. However, incumbents Darrin Camilleri and Nate Shannon look to be in strong positions, and should not be too worried. Republicans would be wise to instead look towards districts like the 62nd and 71st in Calhoun and Eaton Counties instead. Democrats flipped both seats narrowly in 2018, and both have potential openings for Republicans.
Path to victory
Control in the Michigan House is not by any means in the bag for Democrats, but there is a clear path to victory. The easiest path forward for them would be to win the 56 districts that Gretchen Whitmer won in 2018, i.e. the 52 they currently hold as well as the 61st district and the three competitive Oakland County districts. Alternatively, it is possible that they win the 104th district before the 45th district, winning the majority that way. Either way, the outcome in Oakland County districts will be pivotal in deciding which party has the majority come 2021.
The Michigan House of Representatives: What’s at Stake
The answer to this may disappoint you, but not much is at stake in these elections. In most, if not all of the competitive state legislative chambers up this year, a party has an opportunity to gain or lose a trifecta. Michigan currently has a divided government, with a Democratic Governor and a Republican Senate. And since neither are up this year, a divided government is a guarantee going into 2021.
However, Democrats shouldn’t give up completely on this chamber. A majority in the House could give them leverage or bargaining power when making laws. This may give Governor Whitmer and the party more room to pass through their agenda, which includes better education, roads and drinking water, provided they have at least some crossover support in the Senate. It would also put Democrats in a better position in 2022, where a trifecta would be up and fair maps will be in place.
When the election takes place in November, the Presidential, Senate, and some House races will be worth watching. But the Michigan House of Representatives races will be sure to bring a lot of excitement, so be sure to watch them, and stay tuned for updates.
These articles will be continuing as usual all the way up to Election Day. Next week, for a change, I’ll be covering a Republican target, the Alaska House of Representatives. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment, email me, or send me a direct message on Twitter.
Special thanks to Ballotpedia, CNalysis, Christopher Herweyer and all members of the “Michigan ET” group chat for providing useful information on these races.
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