If Michigan voters are yearning for the roller-coaster ride that the 2016 elections brought, they need only look toward the coming months for what promises to be a rollicking 2018 campaign.
From nearly all the statewide offices, starting with U.S. Senate, governor, attorney general, secretary of state and many Supreme Court and university board seats, to Michigan's 14 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, the 38-member state Senate and the 110-member state House of Representatives, this year will be a bonanza for political consultants, advertising sales and voters.
Add in initiatives that could reach the ballot, including the legalization of marijuana for adult recreational use and changing the way state and federal legislative districts are drawn, and voter turnout could be unusually high for a midterm election.
“The ballot proposals will play a big role. People have some educated passion about redistricting. If there's one thing that people want, it's fairness and nobody understands how Lansing is lumped into a district with Rochester Hills,” said Lansing political consultant Robert Kolt. “And marijuana legalization will be good for Democrats.”
Republicans are still trying to gauge how the so-called “Trump effect” will impact the 2018 election cycle. They realize that the party in power — in this year, the Republicans on both a federal and state level — typically loses seats in non-presidential years. And the controversial first year in office by President Donald Trump has energized Democrats across the nation.
“We have some headwinds against us,” said Sarah Anderson, spokeswoman for the Michigan Republican Party. “But from our perspective, after the crazy 2016 election year and the recount, we never let our foot off the gas. … We still have paid staff all over the state.”
Democrats are taking nothing for granted.
“The fundamentals and environment are shaping up to be much more favorable for Democrats. But that doesn't mean it's destiny,” said Brandon Dillon, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party. “We went out in 2017 and organized. We've been knocking on doors and organizing protests. No matter what the fundamentals show, you have to have people on the ground.”
Matt Grossman, the director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University, said the momentum seems to be with Democrats going into this election cycle.
“The historical precedent is that it will be good year for the party out of the presidency. Couple that with Donald Trump's low approval rating and the level of excitement on the Democratic base that seems to be much, much higher than normal and that would be a good year for the Democrats,” he said. “Seventeen out of the last 21 midterm elections have been won by the party out of power.”
But Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party, predicted that even skeptical Republicans will come back into the GOP fold once they start to feel the benefits of some of Trump's accomplishments, especially the tax reform narrowly passed by Republicans in Congress in December.
“There's a lot of disinformation and inaccurate polling going on because of the mistrust of polls and media. So it's a little difficult to have an honest view of what's going on,” he said. “There will be a Trump effect, but I'm not sure if it's positive or negative. But when people feel good about the economy, they're not as likely to throw out the incumbents.”
Here's a rundown of the 2018 ballot.
Gov. Rick Snyder, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson can't run for re-election because of term limits. So dozens of candidates have been dabbling in speculation about a potential run, but only six have actually filed to run for the offices.
The biggest prize, the race for governor has attracted five Democrats — former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, former Detroit health department director Abdul El-Sayed, retired Ann Arbor businessman Shri Thanedar, retired Farmington Hills businessman Bill Cobbs, and Justin Giroux of Wayland — and seven Republicans — Attorney General Bill Schuette of Midland, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley of Portland, state Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Canton, Saginaw doctor Jim Hines, insurance agent Joseph DeRose of Williamston, Grand Rapids businessman Evan Space, and General Motors retiree Earl Lackie of Royal Oak.
It's the race that both Democrats and Republicans are targeting. Democrats want the seat back after eight years of Snyder, especially since the victor will preside over the redrawing of political district lines. Republicans want to continue their domination of all levels of state government, which they've had since 2011. Early polls show Schuette with a slim three-point lead over Whitmer.
In the race for attorney general, five candidates have filed for the office, including two Republicans — Speaker of the House Tom Leonard of DeWitt Township and state Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker of Lawton — and three Democrats — Detroit attorneys Dana Nessel and William Noakes and former U.S. Attorney Pat Miles of Grand Rapids. The office has been held by Republicans since 2003.
For secretary of state, four candidates want the job, including three Republicans —Shelby Township Clerk Stan Grot, Michigan State University professor Joseph Guzman of Okemas and Grosse Pointe accountant Mary Treder Lang — and one Democrat: businesswoman and former dean of the Wayne State University law school Jocelyn Benson. Republicans have held the seat since 1995.
The Republican and Democratic candidates for attorney general, secretary of state, state Supreme Court and the boards of Wayne State University, University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the state Board of Education will be nominated at political party conventions in August and the winners will run for the seat in November.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Lansing Democrat, is facing a fight for re-election with three Republicans lining up for the chance to challenge her in November, including Farmington Hills businessman John James, Traverse City historic preservationist Bob Carr and Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler. Former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Robert Young, who was considered one of the top-tier candidates, dropped out of the race on Wednesday.
State Senate and House of Representatives
There will be a huge change in the state Senate with all 38 of the seats up for election, but 26 of those seats will have no incumbent because of term limits. Republicans have a veto-proof majority in the Senate, with a 27-11 advantage over the Democrats. But there will be plenty of familiar names on the ballot. Of the 66 candidates who have filed paperwork to run for the seats, 37 are either sitting or former members of the House of Representatives.
In the House, where Republicans hold a 63-47 majority, all 110 seats are up for election, but only 23 have members who can't run again because of term limits.
Democrats acknowledge that it will be hard to gain a majority in the Senate, but are more hopeful of consequential gains in the House.
“A lot of it is going to depend on the top of the ticket and how well we can organize,” Dillon said. “The map makes it difficult for us, particularly in the Senate. But if we can continue that kind of success we're already seeing (in races in Virginia, New Jersey and Alabama), all of these chambers will be in play.”
U.S. House of Representatives
It will also be a consequential year for the Michigan delegation in Congress. Three seats will be open because of U.S. Reps. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak, and David Trott, R-Birmingham, leaving at the end of their terms in December and the resignation of U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, who left Congress last month amid claims of sexual harassment from former staffers.
Multiple candidates are lining up for those three seats as well as other seats around the state where Democrats are sensing a wave may sweep them into office. Political analyst Stuart Rotherberg wrote Wednesday in the online newsletter Roll Call that both Trott's seat and the one held by U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester Hills, could switch from red to blue if Democrats truly dominate the 2018 election cycle. Republicans hold a 9-5 majority of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Organizers of petition drives have turned in signatures to try and get their issues considered by the Legislature or voters that would repeal Michigan's prevailing wage law, which requires union-scale wages on public construction projects; legalize marijuana for adult recreational use, and shift how legislative district lines are drawn for state and federal offices from the political party in power in the state Legislature to a bipartisan, independent commission.
The state Board of Canvassers is still reviewing the signatures to make sure there are enough from valid voters. The prevailing wage issue is a priority for Republicans in both the House and Senate and, if there are enough signatures, it could be voted on by the Legislature and would immediately become law upon passage without a signature from Snyder, who opposes the repeal. If it doesn't pass the Legislature, the issue would appear on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.
Several other groups are gathering signatures on other possible ballot proposals, including raising Michigan's minimum wage from $9.25 an hour to $12 by 2022; ending the state's easement for the Enbridge pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac; making Michigan's Legislature part-time, and requiring that Michigan employers give employees paid sick time.
The marijuana legalization initiative and the constitutional amendment on redistricting would most likely appear on the November ballot if they pass the Board of Canvassers' scrutiny, where political observers predict the issue will energize voters and increase turnout, which generally benefits Democrats.
"The ballot proposals do bring issue-oriented voters out," said Oakland University political science professor John Klemanski. "You'll see fairly high turnout."
But Democrats shouldn't get too comfortable, he added. While all the signs point toward a big year for Democrats, "the state is more conservative. And I don't think Democrats have done a good enough job of presenting any sort of credible alternative. There is a lot of promise on the Democratic side, but they've got to do the work."
Kolt said if they can't get it done in 2018, after the tumultuous first year of the Trump administration, there is little hope for Democrats.
"If a Democrat is not motivated to vote in 2018, there's nothing you can do to get them motivated to vote."
Contact Kathleen Gray: 313-223-4430, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @michpoligal.