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What Michigan Democrats will do now that they control a key swing state

Michigan Democrats are going big and bold on abortion and unions with their new trifecta.

A photo showing Gretchen Whitmer’s face as she makes a speech.
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a campaign rally on November 4, 2022 in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Brandon Bell/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 Democrats shocked the nation in November when they won control of both chambers of the state legislature for the first time in nearly 40 years. Now that the legislative session has started, they’re acting swiftly and aggressively on issues ranging from abortion to strengthening unions.

In doing so, they’re laying the groundwork to preserve those delicate majorities in 2024, when Michigan will be a key national battleground. The GOP has long dominated state governments, controlling 57 of 98 partisan legislative chambers across the US. Democrats had some major state wins in 2022, including in Pennsylvania and Michigan. If Michigan Democrats can repeat their success in 2024, they’ll have made a strong case for more national Democratic investment in state legislative contests.

For now, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Democratic legislators seem to be on the same page as they begin work on advancing the agenda she laid out in her recent state of the state address. Binding Michigan’s Democrats together is their shared excitement at the prospect of enacting proposals that previously would not have even been entertained for a hearing in committee, let alone a vote.

“There is a lot of pent-up Democratic energy to be able to get things through without obstruction,” said Democratic state Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet, who won a tossup race last year.

Though Whitmer and Democratic legislators have signaled a willingness to work with Republicans, they haven’t appeared too concerned with making overtures to the other side so far. Some legislators who won tough races last year say that they think acting on a bipartisan basis where possible is essential to retaining their majorities in 2024. But others say that delivering results, with or without Republicans, and ensuring they have a record they can run on next year is more important.

“I say this as somebody in a marginal swing seat: go bold, show up for people, put in the work, and I believe that the voters will respect and reward that,” said Democratic state Rep. Betsy Coffia.

Michigan Democrats have been bold out of the gate

In the first weeks since the start of the legislative session, Democrats have already made progress on some of their priorities. In the next two years, they hope to shore up abortion rights, expand LGBTQ rights, implement stricter gun safety measures, take aggressive climate action, institute free universal preschool, and reverse policies like a “right to work” law that hurt union membership and was previously implemented by the Michigan GOP.

They have the numbers to do so, with a 20-18 majority in the state senate and a 56-54 majority in the state house — so long as their caucus stays unified, and that’s been the case so far. At the moment, the biggest question seems to be when any new laws will take effect. In order for bills to be effective immediately, they need at least a two-thirds majority of each chamber to approve them, which would require at least some Republican support. Otherwise, bills will only take effect 90 days after the end of the legislative session.

There could be opportunities for bipartisan action. Whitmer signed roughly 1,000 bills during her first term when the GOP controlled the legislature, even though she vetoed more bills than any Michigan governor since 1953.

The economy could be one such area for compromise. So far, Democrats have reached an agreement with the governor on an economic package that includes $180 “inflation relief checks” for taxpayers, a repeal of the state’s 4.25 percent tax on retirement income, and an expansion of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, allowing roughly 700,000 low-income workers to claim a state tax credit of 30 percent of the federal amount starting this year, up from 6 percent.

There’s broad support for elements of the proposal given that the state is sitting on a $9 billion budget surplus. But while some Republicans have supported repealing the retirement income tax and expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit, they’ve expressed concern about issuing relief checks in lieu of a potential cut to the state’s personal income tax and came out against Democrats’ proposal on Wednesday.

Democrats are preparing to go it alone on abortion access, however. They’ve introduced a bill to repeal the state’s ultra-restrictive 1931 abortion ban, which has no exceptions for rape or incest. Republicans had sought to enforce that ban after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year and went to court to defend it. But after Michiganders approved a ballot measure in November that codified abortion rights in the state constitution, the law was already effectively dead. Democrats’ bill would deliver the final blow in striking it from the books.

They have also introduced a bill that would repeal a 1931 ban on contraception and abortion pills. Though Republicans had not signaled that they intended to enforce that ban, Democrats are trying to foreclose any such possibility.

Codifying a 2022 Michigan Supreme Court decision, Democrats have introduced a bill that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. At least 21 other states and Washington, DC have similar laws.

They’re also eyeing legislation to protect poll workers and combat election misinformation and to reinstate the requirement that state construction contractors pay union wages and benefits after the GOP repealed it in 2018.

Guns and unions may test Michigan Democrats’ unity

Upcoming battles over gun safety measures and repealing the state’s “right to work” law, which allows workers to reap union benefits without paying union dues, might prove to be some of the thorniest challenges for Democrats, said Bill Ballenger, a political commentator based in Michigan and former Republican state legislator.

Whitmer has called on the legislature to implement what she called “common sense” gun reforms, including universal background checks, mandatory waiting periods, safe storage laws, and red flag laws, which aims to temporarily prevent people who pose a danger to themselves or others from having firearms.

Michiganders have shown widespread support for many of those policies in public opinion polling. A majority of Michiganders go even further than what Whitmer has proposed, supporting a ban on assault weapons, a limit on the size of gun magazines, and a ban on guns in schools. But some Democrats who won tight contests last year appear reluctant to go too far in a state where nearly 40 percent of residents own a gun.

“If Democrats tried to do more on gun control and it looks draconian, some of these legislators might desert the cause,” Ballenger said.

Republicans and business groups in Michigan are also already campaigning against Democrats’ stated goal of repealing the state’s “right to work” law, arguing with scant evidence that doing so will hamper economic development and make it harder for Michigan to compete for business investment.

Signed in 2012 by then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder amid protests at the state capitol, the law exempts workers from union dues even when they’re covered by a union contract, which Democrats argue has lowered union membership and undercut wages and benefits.

It’s not clear whether the GOP’s campaign against it has scared off any members of the Democratic caucus yet, but they can’t afford more than a single defection in the state house, and it could bring up internal divisions in the party, Ballenger said.

Overwhelmingly, however, the vibe in the caucus is hopeful for the first time in a long time. Coffia noted that there hadn’t been a Democratic trifecta in Michigan since she was 5 years old and consequently there was “a lot of damage that was done that we need to undo.” McDonald Rivet said that, since the session started, her Democratic colleagues are constantly putting in bill requests and passing them around caucus rooms to get cosigners in an effort to move quickly.

“I think the excitement is really holding us all together. We’re all committed to making sure we all continue to work well together,” said Democratic state Sen. Veronica Klinefelt, who won a tossup race last year.

Can Michigan Democrats hold onto their majorities?

It’s still early days in the legislative session, but the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the fundraising arm of the Democratic Party dedicated to state legislative races, and other outside funders have already identified preserving Democratic majorities in the Michigan legislature as a top priority heading into 2024.

There are differing philosophies on how to achieve that. Whitmer and many Democrats seem to feel that this is a moment to be bold and not waste any time in racking up accomplishments — and that has so far meant abandoning any illusions of bipartisanship.

During her state of the state speech, Whitmer said she hoped to work with Republicans, including on her universal preschool plan. But state Senate GOP leader Aric Nesbitt dismissed those comments as lip service in a response video, and so far, his assessment has been accurate. Practically all of the legislative progress that Democrats can boast so far has been rammed through with their majorities.

“When we get right down to it, Whitmer is not looking for bipartisan support,” Ballenger said. “Whether this backfires and some of these Democrats who won in very iffy swing marginal districts can withstand the blowback in 2024 remains to be seen.”

Some Democrats, though comfortable with the progress that has been made so far, are counseling caution going forward.

“We want to move thoughtfully and not just throw everything at the wall,” Klinefelt said. “I think we’re all on the same page that we’ve got a couple of years here to get some things done. Let’s not try to rush into everything. Let’s take our time and make sure we get things right.”

McDonald Rivet also urged her colleagues not to play political games and make efforts to reach across the aisle if they want to stay in power. She acknowledged that they might not be able to do that on the state budget or on right to work, but said she’s already working with Republican colleagues to help communities affected by flooding and to bring grocery stores to a food desert.

“My voters don’t care who is in the majority. What they care about is whether or not they have high-wage jobs, whether we’re working on the childcare problem, whether or not the schools are strong,” she said.