Presidential election years get the most ink, but a year like 2022 has the potential to set the tone and direction for the entire decade in Michigan. The governor’s race, which once seemed like it would be a referendum on whether Gretchen Whitmer had fulfilled her 2018 promise to “fix the damn roads,” will instead largely be a public judgment on her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Redistricting will also kick in, potentially giving certain parties and certain current officeholders happiness or heartburn. And changes on the Detroit City Council, as a result of the 2021 elections, promise to make life interesting for Mayor Mike Duggan.
For the third consecutive year, Hour Detroit assembled a crack panel from around the state and across the political spectrum to offer predictions on how it will all shake out. It’s a somewhat thankless task, but they had as much fun making these guesses as we think you’ll have reading them.
Meet the Experts
Dennis Darnoi is a Republican political consultant based in Farmington Hills.
Joe DiSano is a Democratic political consultant based in Lansing.
Mildred Gaddis is host of The Mildred Gaddis Show on Kiss-FM (105.9) as well as a longtime fixture on Black talk radio in Detroit.
Matt Grossmann is a political science professor at Michigan State University in East Lansing.
Adrian Hemond is a Democratic political consultant and CEO of Grassroots Midwest, based in Lansing.
Tom Ivacko is executive director of the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Nancy Kaffer is a columnist and member of the editorial board for the Detroit Free Press.
Luke Londo is a member of the Hazel Park City Council and a former staffer for Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek — both Republicans.
Darren Nichols was a longtime City Hall reporter for The Detroit News and is now a contributing columnist for the Detroit Free Press.
Jer Staes is producer and host of the Daily Detroit podcast.
How will Detroit City Councilmember Coleman Young II and Mayor Mike Duggan get along? Super duper!
Young, the son of the city’s first Black and longest-serving mayor, took some brutal shots at Duggan, now the city’s second-longest-serving mayor, during their 2017 faceoff. Now Young will be an at-large member of the Council — that is, elected by the entire city — and will have to work either with or against Duggan. How’s that going to go?
Swimmingly! “I think they’re going to get along just well, I really do,” says radio host Mildred Gaddis. “People are going to be surprised that the relationship is better than people believe it is.” Says Hazel Park City Councilmember Luke Londo: “He and Mayor Duggan share a lot of the same priorities, including vaccinating residents, breaking down barriers with the police, and continuing to move the city forward. It won’t be all sunshine and roses, but it will be productive.”
Columnists Darren Nichols and Nancy Kaffer, who interviewed Young for the Detroit Free Press, en route to the paper’s endorsement of his candidacy for City Council, say the 39-year-old former state senator has matured into a calmer, less bombastic politician. “Does he challenge the mayor on some of the things that he is doing? Yes, he will,” Nichols says. “To me, the question becomes, Do you get a softer, gentler legislator that criticizes the mayor in a more pragmatic way? The question is what the style will be.” Kaffer agrees: “He’s a very personable, friendly guy, and Mike Duggan is obviously an extremely savvy politician who knows he needs a supportive council. Both of these guys are too professional.”
That’s not to say there won’t be disputes. Young is part of a progressive shift on the council in a city that also overwhelmingly reelected a decidedly pro-business moderate to the top job. “You’re going to see issues raised that you wouldn’t have seen in previous councils,” podcaster Jer Staes says. Young and Duggan will “have to feel each other out quite a bit” on issues such as overcharged property taxes. But, Staes says, Young is “a smart politician. He knows how to horse trade. He’s in the catbird seat to win a lot of concessions.”
There’s another obvious reason for Young to tone it down and get into Duggan’s good graces: He’ll almost certainly run to replace Duggan, if the popular incumbent chooses not to run again in 2025 or 2029. “Coleman Young is going to put that into his calculations,” GOP strategist Dennis Darnoi says. To that end, Democratic strategist Joe DiSano says, “Spending four years being the anti-Duggan, when the public has overwhelming rewarded Duggan, is simply silly.”
If Roe v. Wade is struck down, does that impact the 2022 elections in Michigan? Uh, yeah.
The increasingly conservative majority of the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in 2022 on cases from Texas and Mississippi involving laws restricting the legal right to abortion. If they do away with Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark case that found a constitutional right for a woman to terminate her pregnancy, our panel says, it will be a political atomic bomb in favor of the Democrats, the likes of which have been rarely seen in American politics. “Michigan would presumably revert to its previous 1931 law, which bans abortion except when the woman’s life is at risk,” urban policy expert Tom Ivacko says. “In such a scenario, I would expect a very large Democratic turnout, although GOP voters might also be extra motivated to maintain control of the legislature, too. Either way, abortion rights would be a key issue, if not the key issue, in the 2022 elections.”
Londo, a former GOP staffer, doubts there’s an upside for Republicans. “You’ll see Oakland County become firmly blue, Grand Traverse and Isabella back in the blue column, and even counties like Midland, Bay, Calhoun, and Macomb coming way closer than they ever should,” he says. “This could be the single biggest driver for Democratic turnout we’ve seen in a generation.” Darnoi agrees, noting that the GOP is poised to have a wave year — unless this happens. “It takes the conversation off the economy, off education, off Gretchen Whitmer.”
Kaffer is more circumspect, though. The outcome depends on new redistricting maps — which had not been approved as of press time — because the current ones are heavily gerrymandered to bolster and protect Republican majorities in the legislature. Fairer maps would be big for Democrats, who would need to take control in Lansing in order to legalize abortion. “If we have different maps that more accurately reflect the political breakdown of our population, then yeah, I think Roe being struck down may actually make a difference.”
Does Gretchen Whitmer get reelected? Probably, but it’ll be close.
Our original question was actually “Gretchen Whitmer versus James Craig: Who wins?” but that had to be amended, because some of our panelists aren’t entirely sure the former Detroit police chief will be the Republican nominee. While Craig is clearly the frontrunner and establishment favorite to take on Whitmer — he’d raised $1.4 million as of late October, including maximum contributions from former GOP Govs. John Engler and Rick Snyder — many say he’s been a lackluster campaigner and has yet to answer for a big spike in violent crime plaguing the Motor City.
There is room, then, for another hopeful to build a following. Darnoi, for instance, suggests that auto dealer Kevin Rinke, who has said he is willing to self-fund his campaign to the tune of $10 million, could turn out to be “Michigan’s Glenn Youngkin” — that is, a wealthy first-time Republican candidate who muscles out a favored Democrat for the gubernatorial seat, as the Virginia governor did in 2021.
Still, Darnoi — and almost every other panelist — believes Whitmer will win, regardless of her opponent, perhaps in a close race. The sky-high popularity she enjoyed at the height of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 has waned considerably, but she has a stunning $12 million campaign war chest and doesn’t need to waste it on a primary, while the Republicans duke it out. She also has history on her side: Michigan has not failed to reelect an incumbent governor since Engler unseated Democrat James Blanchard in 1990.
Both DiSano and Kaffer believe Whitmer faces a stiffer challenge, in part because, after a 2020 of bold fiats aimed at diminishing the spread of the pandemic, she spent 2021 avoiding hard choices and relegating decisions about mask and vaccine mandates to localities. In doing so, she “undercut her hard-earned COVID fighter credentials,” weakening herself with her base, DiSano says. Agrees Kaffer: “She’s more vulnerable than she has to be.”
That being said, none of the current GOP contenders seem likely to unseat an indefatigable and savvy campaigner who will be able to tout the billions she’s gotten from Washington to fulfill her “fix the damn roads” pledge from 2018. Also coming to fruition on Whitmer’s watch was bipartisan auto-insurance reform and a recovering post-COVID economy.
Craig is “just not a very well-vetted candidate, not a candidate that has a lot of experience, not a candidate that comes with a built-in fundraising network,” Democratic consultant Adrian Hemond says. “It’s not impossible for him to win, but he’s gonna need those tailwinds” from an anti-Democratic wave election to win. Some believe Craig — a Black law-and-order conservative with roots in Detroit — can dent Democratic loyalty among Detroit voters, but Nichols is dubious. “Republicans also are discounting the ground-level chatter among the minority masses who are living in some of the worst neighborhoods in Detroit, where James Craig is not very popular,” he says. What’s more, Craig may need to become more “Trumpy” — that is, openly question the results of the 2020 election and align with the anti-immigration, anti-diversity credo of the 45th president — and that would turn off independent suburban voters, Staes says.
Michigan State University political scientist Matt Grossmann is our only panelist predicting a Whitmer loss. “It will be a referendum on the national Democrats, and history suggests that you go toward the Republicans,” he says, adding that the winners of 18 of 20 of the past Michigan gubernatorial elections were of the opposite party of the sitting president. His caveat: Craig, who he also thinks will get the nod, hasn’t shown himself a worthy opponent yet. “I’m not that impressed so far.”
How about Jocelyn Benson and/or Dana Nessel? Depends on Whitmer.
Whitmer’s fate is largely seen as a bellwether for that of Secretary of State Benson and Attorney General Nessel, Nichols and others say. If the national mood is so sour for Democrats that Whitmer is booted, the other two statewide constitutional officers have little chance of survival.
If Whitmer prevails, so too will the rest of the ticket, although most panelists say Benson is safer, if only because the Republicans seem set to nominate one of two wildly right-wing, very Trumpy candidates in either GOP activist Kristina Karamo or state Rep. Beau LaFave. Karamo, who has the Trump endorsement, recently spoke at a conference for adherents of QAnon, a cult-like right-wing movement steeped in disinformation and conspiracy theories, Darnoi says. In another year, Benson might have had to deal with criticism of how the Department of Motor Vehicles has functioned, but her willingness to stand up to Trump’s debunked claims of voter fraud in Michigan in the 2020 election are probably going to be the more germane issue, Kaffer says.
Nessel may struggle more, the gang thinks. Of the three, she is the most stridently progressive and prevailed in the trio’s closest race in 2018, so a red wave could be bigger trouble for her, especially if she faces a rematch against former Michigan House Speaker Tom Leonard, Darnoi says. “Tom Leonard has a really credible claim as to why he might be in the best position to challenge her, and now she has a record that conservatives can really dislike,” Darnoi says. The trouble for Leonard, though, is that Trump has endorsed Matt DePerno, who has vocally backed the former president’s untrue claims about the 2020 election, and “if Tom has to outflank the insanity and inanity of Matt DePerno to get the GOP nomination, he’s going to struggle in the general,” Londo says.
DiSano is an outlier on our panel, saying Benson is more vulnerable because of the DMV drama. Nessel, he says, is a more dogged, confrontational, and thus more effective campaigner.
Do any recreational marijuana shops open in Detroit this year? Unlikely.
Detroit has struggled since the legalization of non-medicinal pot as Duggan and the Council attempt to create a framework for issuing licenses that gives advantages and opportunities to minorities, long-term residents, and those whose lives were disrupted by prosecution for weed-related crime. A court rejected one such plan as unconstitutional, leaving the state’s largest city unable to partake in the marijuana gold rush.
“I don’t see it happening in 2022 because I don’t think the political will is there,” Nichols says. “They are concerned with the lack of minority participation in the industry. That’s a very big issue, but the question becomes, How do you change it?” Staes agrees that figuring out a scheme that accomplishes that and passes legal muster will take more than another year. “The big hang-up is how to craft a system that includes legacy Detroiters and people of diverse backgrounds without running afoul of the court,” he says.
Darnoi, however, is more optimistic. “They’re really behind all the other communities, but the opportunity is there and the money to do it is certainly there, so yeah, it will be done in this upcoming year.”
And Londo, the councilmember, has a snarky ulterior motive for rooting against Detroit working things out: “I hope not, because Hazel Park is grateful for the continued business of Detroit residents who seek our multitude of superior marijuana products.”
What is COVID By The End of 2022? A dull headache.
The pandemic that dominated the news in 2020 and 2021 will morph into an endemic virus that requires vigilance and regular booster shots, but it won’t be the mass killer it has been — at least in the U.S. “It will still be a part of our lives, and I believe that we’ll still be wearing masks,” Gaddis says. Kaffer agrees. “It will become just one more risk that you manage, like you do all the other risks in your life.”
Politically, “the salience will continue to decline,” Grossmann says. It will be a presence in the governor’s race, because so much of Whitmer’s bid for a second term will rely on what people thought of her leadership in the crisis, Darnoi and others predict, but the voters will be looking backward at the events and policies around COVID, rather than ahead.
“COVID-19 will still be on the radar by the end of 2022, but after nearly three years, it will have faded in terms of dominating headlines,” Ivacko says. “The 2022 election outcomes will be the hot topic — including what they mean for Trump and his hold on the GOP looking toward 2024.”
If it’s not, though — if COVID resurges and continues to cause a large amount of death and economic pain — then, DiSano warns, “Democrats are dead in the water. That’s the simple answer.”
Will any Michigan pro sports team have a winning record in 2022? Think soccer!
Most of our panelists heard this question, thought of the pathetic 2021 performances of Detroit’s entry in the four major sports leagues — the Tigers, Lions, Red Wings, and Pistons — and groped for some optimism. Both Nichols and Ivacko, for instance, say the Tigers, who finished strong last year, will “get over the hump in 2022, and it will be a fun summer at Comerica,” as Ivacko puts it. Hemond thinks the Pistons might “crack .500.” And Londo laid down a marker that could haunt him when Hour Detroit revisits these answers in January 2023: “Mark my words — the Red Wings will have a winning record and make the playoffs.”
But there actually is an easy answer to this question, one that only Londo and Staes went for: Detroit City Football Club. The team, which turns 10 this year and has never had a losing record, was the National Independent Soccer Association’s 2021 champ. Londo admits a slight conflict of interest — he owns a share of the team — so let’s just go with Staes on this: “It’s fun to be a Detroit City FC fan, and more people should be one because we can have a local sports team that won’t make us cry in our beer every week.”