Michigan Democrats Set Sights On Retaking State House

Oct 27, 2020

It’s been ten years since Democrats had control of the Michigan House of Representatives. Now, they’re trying to take back control of the lower chamber.

In 2018, a blue wave swept Michigan’s highest offices—Governor, Attorney General, and Secretary of State. Democrats also flipped two congressional seats and made gains in the state Senate, but in the state House of Representatives, despite gaining six more seats, they came up short.  

Representative Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), won in 2018. She said this year—holding on to her seat and picking up four others seems more realistic than the party’s goal of nine seats two years ago.  

“I think the target is much more manageable, to be honest with you, even just being a candidate on that side of it in 2018; nine seemed like a really tall order,” said Pohutsky.  

This year the party has recruited a slate of Democrats who personify what won in the suburbs in ’18; most of the candidates in districts that they’re trying to flip are millennial women and many have past local government experience.  

Kelly Breen is one of those Democrats. She ran for Michigan’s 38th House District in 2018 and lost. But, this year, if GOP fundraising is any indication, her race is one of the most competitive.  

According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Breen’s race for the Novi seat is one of five of Michigan’s 110 House Districts that have attracted nearly half of the $2.5 million spent on broadcast advertising in races this year. The others are all competitive territory Democrats think they can swing this year including the 39th, 61st, 104th, and the 19th.  

Breen believes this year, changes to the suburbs around Novi are working in her favor.  

“All the factors that tend to favor Democrats are in play here, with a diverse population, with people moving out this way. And then when you add on, on top of that, the horrible rhetoric that we hear, coming from the top of the chain against our own governor whose life was just threatened, literally threatened. That does not sit well with people,” said Breen.  

Outside groups like the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee—which back Democratic candidates in state legislatures across the country say they are on the offensive in Michigan. They’ve spent $1.4 million on Democrats in Michigan.  

The DLCC is also banking on shifting suburban demographics that are aging out of Michigan’s gerrymandered maps.  

Jessica Post is President of the DLCC. She said President Donald Trump is toxic in the suburbs and that’s making downballot Democrats even stronger. 

“Now we’re competitive in Novi and Northvillle and places that are even further away from sort of the city center. So, we’re not just winning sort of the inner ring suburbs we’re now ready to win expanded parts of Oakland County which I think is quite exciting,” said Post.  

While Democrats are focusing on Oakland County, they’re also looking to pick up seats outside of Kalamazoo in Michigan’s 61st House District and in the 104th House District in Traverse City.  

Representative Pohutsky and Breen contend beyond demographics, voters are connecting more with Democrats original messages of believing in science, funding education, and protecting healthcare now that residents have lived through the COVID-19 pandemic, their kids may be in online school, and they’re thinking more about health.  

“It seems to be more pressing for a lot of people and because of that it seems they’re more willing to have conversations with a Democrat when perhaps they might not have in 2018 and certainly in 2016,” said Pohutsky. 

Pohutsky’s seat is one of the crucial seats Democrats need to keep to maneuver a flip.  

John Lindstrom is a longtime observer of the state legislature and former reporter for Gongwer. 

He said higher Republican turnout in a presidential election year could, “put some pressure on some of the seats Democrats won in 2018,” in areas like Bay City and Livonia.  

But he contends if former Vice President Joe Biden wins Michigan by six or seven points Democrats could flip the state House. However, if the win at the top of the ticket is less substantial it’s more likely Democrats could end up with a split House.  

“A split House isn’t going to make things any easier for Governor Whitmer than they are now I would say. So, if she wants to have any increased influence, she really has to hope that Democrats can take control of the House,” said Lindstrom.  

Brian Began, who helped Republicans draw new maps in 2011, agrees. He said it’s more likely the House will be split 55-55.  

“Dems could like wake up and be like, ‘We may have lost the seat?’ Which would pretty much negate the effect of winning four seats.” 

That would be the second split House in nearly 30 years in Michigan which could mean even more gridlock at the state Capitol than there already is.