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The incredibly close and incredibly high-stakes battle for the Michigan legislature

Democrats’ best chance at flipping a state legislature lies in Michigan.

Supporters of former President Donald Trump gather outside the Michigan House building before Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani testified on December 2, 2020, in Lansing, Michigan.
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Michigan is giving Democrats their best chance this year of flipping a state legislative chamber — or two.

It’s also a state where a Democratic failure to keep at least some government control could have immediate, drastic consequences for abortion access, and where unchecked Republican control could have potentially dire long-term consequences for democracy.

Michigan, as a battleground state, will likely play a decisive role in future presidential elections. And state Republicans, including those who’ve campaigned on the notion that they would have attempted to subvert the election in 2020, would be well positioned to try to overturn the results, particularly if they’re given new powers over elections by a looming Supreme Court decision.

Michigan Democrats haven’t had a majority in the state House since 2010, or in the Senate since 1984. But this year, thanks in large part to redistricting, Sabato’s Crystal Ball rated both the Michigan Senate and House as tossups. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is also favored slightly in a tough fight for reelection.

“The playing field is more even,” Bill Ballenger, a longtime political pundit in Michigan, said.

“We know that control of the Michigan Senate runs right through our district,” said Kristen McDonald Rivet, a Democrat running in Michigan’s 35th state Senate district, one of three key battlegrounds this cycle that could tie the chamber. “We feel this weight of the importance of what it will mean both if we win and if we don’t. None of us really sleep anymore.”

Michigan is competitive, but Democrats have an uphill battle

Redistricting was a game changer for Democrats in Michigan.

A 2018 ballot initiative added a constitutional requirement that an independent, 13-member citizens redistricting panel redraw the state’s electoral maps. As a result, a significant number of districts became more competitive, including McDonald Rivet’s newly created district.

Democrats seized on the opportunity and have spent more money than ever in their attempt to flip both chambers of the legislature. Races have also attracted big outside funding from Democratic-aligned Forward Majority PAC and the States Project, a group focused on advancing Democratic power at the state level. (However, Republicans still have the cash-on-hand advantage in the weeks before Election Day.)

As in other parts of the country, the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has also been a galvanizing force on the Democratic side, especially given that abortion rights in Michigan are under imminent threat — and literally on the ballot.

The Republican caucuses in both the state House and Senate have already gone to court to try to enforce a ban that’s been on the books since 1931, with no exceptions for rape or incest. And there’s a ballot initiative, known as “Proposal 3,” that would enshrine the right to an abortion in the state Constitution if approved by voters.

According to FiveThirtyEight, Whitmer is polling just 5 percentage points ahead of her Republican opponent Tudor Dixon on average, and several October polls have shown her ahead by even smaller margins. Sometimes high-profile candidates at the top of the ticket can lift down-ballot candidates, but Ballenger said Whitmer’s “coattails are down to literally nothing.”

The abortion ballot measure, Proposal 3, is also not polling as well as it was previously: just 52 percent of likely voters said they would vote for the measure in an October 18 Emerson poll with 10 percent undecided. The numbers are down from 64 percent (including 59 percent who said they would definitely vote for it and 5 percent who said they were leaning toward doing so) in a September EPIC-MRA poll commissioned by the Detroit Free Press. A simple majority of voters would have to approve of the measure for it to succeed.

The slippage might be the result of an aggressive campaign by anti-abortion activists against the measure, which has centered on false claims that it would take away parental consent laws for minors seeking abortion, allow for unqualified people such as veterinarians to perform the procedure, and permit abortion up until birth.

“The pro-life forces have succeeded in convincing a lot of people out there that it’s way too extreme,” Ballenger said. “They’re scaring the hell out of people.”

Increasing sentiment against the measure might not bode well for Democratic candidates who were hoping that the ballot initiative would significantly boost turnout and send a resounding message to Republicans, perhaps even on the scale of the Kansas abortion ballot initiative over the summer. Though a slim majority of voters support the proposal per the polling, there is still a possibility that it could fail.

Democrats, both nationally and at the state level, are facing headwinds among voters worried about their economic security. In Michigan, 43 percent of likely voters ranked it as their top issue in the Emerson poll, and McDonald Rivet said that it’s overshadowing their feelings about abortion. Her district — which encompasses the “Tri-Cities” of Saginaw, Bay City, and Midland — is losing population faster than any other in the state, which has hampered economic growth, and 75 percent of its jobs are low wage, she said.

“Voters want to talk about the availability of good-paying jobs that allow you to support your family and maybe go to Disney World every once in a while,” she said. “And then, of course, the other issues that are at play are a part of the national conversation around voting rights and reproductive rights. But honestly, those issues are taking a backseat to the bread-and-butter issues across the district.”

Her district will likely be decided by mere hundreds of votes. It went for Biden by less than 3 points in 2020, according to the States Project. That kind of performance will still be hard to replicate in a midterm election, and perhaps even more so given that voters who rank the economy as their top issue broke toward Republicans in the Emerson poll.

In spite of this, Sabato’s Crystal Ball still sees both the Michigan House and Senate as tightly contested, mostly thanks to successful fundraising and the opportunities afforded by the new electoral maps.

The consequences if Democrats fail

Democrats worry about the consequences of failing to flip at least one chamber of the Michigan legislature, or at least achieving a tie in the state Senate. Abortion rights in the state and the future of election security — not just in Michigan, but potentially across the US — hinges on the outcome. That becomes even more true if Whitmer, who has served as a Democratic veto against the state GOP’s agenda, loses reelection. If she does, “you’re gonna see a whole new ballgame unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time,” Ballenger said.

That new ballgame could include harsher abortion restrictions. Currently, abortion is legal in Michigan up to fetal viability, which is generally around 24 to 26 weeks of pregnancy. However, Republicans in the state legislature have repeatedly voted against repealing an ultra-restrictive 1931 abortion ban and have gone to court to defend it. The ban is currently blocked from going into effect while the legal battle plays out.

Whether that ban remains on the books depends on the Michigan Supreme Court, as well as the outcome of the abortion ballot measure. If the measure succeeds, it would prevent Republicans from enacting restrictions on abortion prior to fetal viability and in cases where it’s necessary to protect the life or the physical or mental health of the pregnant person, restoring the protections that existed while Roe was still in place. But if it fails, Republicans have signaled that they’re likely to try to pass other restrictions, making it much harder to get an abortion in Michigan.

Should they maintain power, Republicans haven’t explicitly articulated their intentions for changes to elections in the state in the same way they’ve made their agenda on abortion clear. However, Democrats and election advocates are warning that the consequences could also be far-reaching.

The US Supreme Court is set to hear a case later this year on what’s called the “independent state legislature theory,” which, if adopted by the justices, would give state legislatures the power to potentially manipulate election results. Under an extreme interpretation of the theory, it would give them ultimate authority over how elections are conducted in their state, allowing them to supersede other officials, such as the secretary of state, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

“The nightmare scenario is that a legislature, displeased with how an election official on the ground has interpreted her state’s election laws, would invoke the theory as a pretext to refuse to certify the results of a presidential election and instead select its own slate of electors,” the center wrote this year.

In Michigan, such a ruling would also allow Republican lawmakers to do away with the state’s independent redistricting commission and certain state constitutional provisions, such as the right to a secret ballot, according to the center.

Gus Portela, deputy chief of staff and communications director for the Michigan GOP, dismissed the notion that Republicans in the state would use control of the state legislature to try to manipulate or overturn election results: “Right on cue, panicked Democrats are outright lying and fear-mongering to voters about what’s at stake this cycle,” he said in a statement.

But a swath of GOP candidates in Michigan, including incumbents, have already denied or cast doubt on the results of the 2020 election, furthering former President Donald Trump’s lie that he won. It’s possible that they might seek to undermine the results of the 2024 election if it doesn’t go their way, and if Republicans maintain control of the Michigan legislature, they’d potentially have the power and the votes to do so. Though the same might be true of GOP-controlled legislatures in other swing states, Michigan Republican incumbents have already shown a greater willingness than in many of those states to fight election results.

Republicans have long dominated at the state level, controlling roughly two-thirds of legislative chambers across the country. But Michigan, along with Pennsylvania and Arizona, present Democrats with an opportunity to prevent Republican legislatures from controlling 270 Electoral College votes, the number needed to win a presidential election.

And some Democrats fear that if they fall short this year, they won’t get another chance.

“This cycle could be the difference between a free and fair presidential election in 2024, or the end of our democracy,” Simone Leiro, a spokesperson for the States Project, said. “When we break down the map, ending right-wing control of the Michigan state legislature could be the difference in having enough right-wing power to overrule the voters or not.”

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