2020, we constantly hear, will be the most momentous political year of our lifetimes. Of course, we hear much the same every four years. And yes, this presidential race could be a defining event of our times. But here in the Wolverine State there’s much more ahead than just a national verdict on Trumpism. Also in play: The fates of the prominent and the powerful in Michigan.
To assess their chances and answer some burning Michigan politics questions, we assembled a crack team of pundits from across the state and the political spectrum. Despite their diverse backgrounds, our panel — keep the Meet the Experts information handy as you read — offered some general consensus. In short, it’ll be a happy New Year for some, less so for others. Read on.
Meet The Experts
Dennis Darnoi is a Republican political consultant based in Farmington Hills.
Joe DiSano is a Democratic political consultant based in Lansing.
David Dulio is a political science professor at Oakland University in Rochester.
Mildred Gaddis is host of The Mildred Gaddis Show on KISS-FM (105.9) as well as a long-time host on African American talk radio in Detroit.
Nathan Gonzales is editor and publisher of the non-partisan insideelections.com based in
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 associate director of the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Dan McMaster is a Lansing-based Republican political consultant and chairman of Grassroots Midwest.
Chris Savage co-hosts the GOTMFV Show podcast and serves as chair of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party.
Walt Sorg is former board member of Voters Not Politicians, the group behind the successful 2018 gerrymandering reform ballot initiative, and is based in Lansing.
Will Democrats take back the state House? Maybe.
Democrats need to win four seats to gain control of Michigan’s lower chamber for the first time since 2010, so they’re pretty close. And in the event of a 2020 anti-Trump blue wave, Lansing-based Democratic campaign consultant Joe DiSano says it could happen. David Dulio, an Oakland University political science professor, concurs: “Democrats would need a resounding victory at the presidential level and really strong fundraising and really strong candidates in the swing districts at the state House level.”
Lansing-based Democratic strategist Adrian Hemond’s breakdown seems challenging but possible. He believes Democrats have pick-up chances in the 38th (Novi), 39th (Wixom), and 61st (Portage in Kalamazoo County) districts because of gains the party has made in suburbs nationwide since Trump’s election in 2016. But they also must defend seats they flipped in 2018 in the 19th (Livonia), 40th (Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham), and 41st (Troy). “Winning and holding those seats — that leaves you one short, and then you’re in a lot tougher territory,” Hemond says.
One target is the 45th, which includes Rochester and Rochester Hills, although Republican Michael Webber held it handily amid the Democrats’ big year in 2018. And then there’s the 104th in Traverse City, represented by under-indictment Rep. Larry Inman, a Republican who squeaked out re-election in 2018.
The trouble for Democrats is that “they’re currently being crushed by the House GOP caucus in fundraising.” Hemond says.
Plus, anti-gerrymandering activist Walt Sorg notes, there’s one policy wild card: If Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel succeed in shutting down the controversial Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac, residents in the Upper Peninsula could face an energy shortage for which they would blame Democrats and put the U.P.’s Democrat-held 109th district in play. “It’s a very localized issue, but it could make a big difference,” he says.
Who does Dana Nessel own in 2020? Everyone.
Firebrand attorney general Dana Nessel spent much of 2019 angering conservatives with efforts to expand LGBTQ and abortion rights, among other hot topics. She also has brought Michigan in on the liberal side of numerous multi-state lawsuits involving guns, immigration, and the environment. “Dana Nessel existing as a lesbian hard-left progressive will piss enough people off,” says Chris Savage, chair of the Washtenaw County Democratic Party. “She is going to sign on to every progressive thing that’s happening nationally, whether it’s happening in Michigan or other states.”
Yet her energy to thwart Enbridge’s efforts to build a tunnel to encase its Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac show she’s happy to upset the left, too. “The building trades want to build the tunnel,” Hemond says. “There are a lot of different constituencies whose ox is getting gored there.”
And her willingness to launch an investigation into questions surrounding Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s funding of a charity run by a close acquaintance won’t sit well with Democratic leaders, KISS-FM (105.9) talk-radio host Mildred Gaddis says. “I’m surprised that it’s even occurring,” she says of the probe. “Now, people tell me that Dana Nessel is the real deal when it comes to the law, so we’ll see what she finds.”
Still, Sorg thinks most of what she does is smart politics. “Yes, she does some things that make conservatives crazy, but then there’s the announcement [in November] about taking on robocalls,” he says of her package of initiatives aimed at ending phone spam. “I guarantee you that’s got like a 99.72% approval rating. There’s no lobby for that and it’s something that pisses everyone off. She’s going after utilities on rates. She’s been aggressive, but for the most part the issues she takes on have been consumer-oriented and not political.”
Does Shri Thanedar become a House member? Sure.
Shri Thanedar, the colorful former gubernatorial candidate and chemical-testing industry magnate who burst onto the Democratic scene by spending more than $10 million of his own money on his failed campaign, has moved to Palmer Woods and is running for the 3rd District seat being vacated by term-limited Rep. Wendell Byrd. Compared to a statewide race, Sorg says, a House race will be a bargain: “If you can dump $100,000 or $150,000 into a race, which Shri could dump very easily, sure, he can win.”
GOP political consultant Dennis Darnoi from Farmington Hills agrees. “Given his money and how well he did in his gubernatorial run in Detroit, it’s hard to see why he wouldn’t win,” Darnoi says. “He’s been pretty well vetted. He has name ID, and his money is going to be very effective.”
Says Hemond, who was often critical of Thanedar’s gubernatorial race, “Shri’s got a lot of money and nothing but time on his hands, and the person who gets closest to Shri in this race from a fundraising perspective will probably be outgunned like $10-to-$1. So, yeah, I expect him to make it.”
The move is, however, baffling to some. “I was the one who urged him to run for state Senate in an open seat in Ann Arbor a few years ago, and he said that was beneath him then,” DiSano says.
Do the damn roads get fixed? No.
Gov. Whitmer’s 2018 campaign promise-cum-rallying cry languished in 2019
as Republicans rejected her 45-cent-per-gallon gas tax proposal to raise $2.5 billion a year for infrastructure repairs. She went on to veto $375 million in road and bridge funding in the 2020 budget in a $1 billion line-item veto gamble to force GOP leaders to the negotiating table for a more permanent solution.
No major plan is likely to pass in 2020, our experts agree. Darnoi says Republicans are likely to try to stymie anything that could seem like a win for Whitmer so as to use it in a 2022 race against her. “If you can go into the next election saying she ran on the promise to fix the damn roads and hasn’t done a darned thing, that’s somebody’s step to securing the Republican nomination for governor,” he says. Lansing-based Democratic campaign consultant Joe DiSano thinks a smaller, less comprehensive deal may be reached, if only because Republicans up for re-election in the House will want to say they did something, too.
Interestingly, Dan McMaster, a GOP strategist based in Lansing, says voters may reward Whitmer for construction they’re seeing that was actually funded by her predecessor. “People are so confused, they think that what’s being done is Whitmer’s plan to fix the roads,” he says.
Gaddis doubts that, though: “That fix the damn roads thing may come back to bite Gretchen Whitmer. It may have been cute and funny during the campaign, but it’s no longer that way now. It’s a great slogan, but if you can’t deliver, then it becomes a problem for you.”
Does Betsy DeVos serve Trump’s entire first term? If she wants to.
After her very rocky Senate confirmation hearings, Betsy DeVos has settled into her gig at Secretary of Education with little — by Trump appointee standards — fanfare. She gets shellacked by advocates for efforts to reduce funding for public education and for making it harder for victims of college campus sexual assault to seek justice, but she keeps trucking while so many of her counterparts are fired via tweet or chased out of office by scandal.
“She keeps putting up budgets that cut education, and Congress keeps sending them back and giving her more money,” says Savage of the Amway heiress and GOP megadonor from Grand Rapids. “She’s safe until Trump’s gone. She’s exactly who he wants there and she’s not done anything corrupt necessarily.”
Darnoi agrees: “There are other members of the cabinet that are drawing more incoming fire than she is. She will leave the administration on her own terms.”
There’s another reason Trump is unlikely to throw DeVos under the school bus even if he wanted to: He needs her support to be competitive in Michigan in 2020, McMaster says.
“Say what you want about the DeVoses, but they put the money up to rally the troops and they do deliver results,” he says.
Who’s the worst Democrat to put up against Trump? Elizabeth Warren.
“The safer candidates are the ones in the middle of the pack: Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden,” Sorg says. “Both Warren and Bernie Sanders are big gambles” because of their hard-left policies.
Darnoi agrees: “There are a number of disaffected Republicans who could not vote for Elizabeth Warren but they’d give Biden or Buttigieg a look.”
McMaster describes the perfect Democrat to take on Trump as someone who able “to talk to working-class people and who can make the argument with the grandchildren of Reagan Democrats that Trump’s not doing a good job with economics and domestic stuff.”
Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has his own troubles in Michigan, Tom Ivacko, a University of Michigan urban policy expert, says. A white, openly gay candidate could depress turnout among African Americans, who some data show are generally less supportive of LGBTQ rights. A dip in black turnout in 2016 versus 2012 helped Trump squeeze out his victory in the state, Ivacko says.
And DiSano is loathe to make predictions so far out. “I’m old enough to remember when Bill Clinton wasn’t supposed to win, when George W. Bush wasn’t supposed to win, and certainly when Donald Trump wasn’t supposed to win,” he says.
Yet Warren’s efforts to end private health insurance would, he predicts, be “a huge loser for Democrats in places like Michigan, where people are generally satisfied with their insurance but maybe upset at cost.”
Savage is the main dissenter. “I am all-in for Warren,” he says.
“If she grinds it out and talks to people,” he adds, “she will turn some heads in ways that people won’t expect. She’s such a good communicator on a personal level. She is already being painted as an incredibly left radical, but when she starts to talk about her plans her programs it sounds really reasonable to me.”
Who gets the credit for auto insurance rate reform? Whoever supported it.
The bipartisan agreement passed in May to reduce auto insurance rates by making paying into the catastrophic injury fund optional kicks in this year. “There’s no partisan edge to this,” DiSano says. “People will reward local incumbent lawmakers whether it’s a Democrat or Republican if they voted for it.” Agreed Tom Ivacko, associate director of the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan: “It’s very much a pocketbook issue. If people see relief in their pocketbooks, both sides will take credit, as they should. The people will remember that it required bipartisan work across the aisle.”
The question is, will voters even know who did this for them? “There’s been such a lag in the time between when the bills passed and when somebody might see those benefits. Are they going to remember that this package of bills got pushed through and that this is what the result is?” Dulio asks.
Federal Races to Watch
A handful of Michigan contests could have major ramifications in Washington in 2020
The presidential race is the main event in 2020 politics everywhere, but a Democratic senator’s re-election bid and a handful of Michigan’s 14 U.S. House seats offer their own intrigue. Our experts offer their analyses of what to expect.
Sen. Gary Peters
First-term Democratic incumbent Sen. Gary Peters is among the nation’s least-known senators, but he’s the odds-on favorite to keep his seat anyway, absent a big pro-Trump wave. He’s known as an indefatigable fundraiser and shoe-leather campaigner, Lansing-based gerrymandering reform activist Walt Sorg says, and Michigan has not elected a Republican to the Senate in more than two decades.
Still, the Republican Senate Campaign Committee is throwing its weight firmly behind challenger John James, the 38-year-old combat veteran who surprised many by losing by just 7 points to Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2018. Why? Because the GOP has only “two legitimate takeover opportunities in the Senate anywhere in the country — Alabama and Michigan. Those are the only two states that Trump carried in 2016 where a Democratic senator is running for re-election. Otherwise, Republicans are mostly playing defense across the country,” says Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of the non-partisan website insideelections.com.
That means, if nothing else, the state’s airwaves and mailboxes will be clogged with messages about the two well-funded candidates. Already, interest groups are attacking Peters as an environmental extremist and Peters is tying James to statements made in 2018 vowing his “2,000 percent” support for the Trump agenda. Michigan State political science professor Matt Grossmann believes James’ political career, should he lose, will be tied to whether he can outperform Trump as he outperformed the 2018 ticket-topper, failed GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette.
Rep. Haley Stevens and Rep. Elissa Slotkin
The first-term Democrats in the Detroit suburbs who flipped long-held Republican seats in decidedly purple districts to help their party take control of the U.S. House are almost always mentioned in the same breath because they face similar circumstances. These are two pickup opportunities for Republicans in Michigan, given that Trump won both districts.
Yet as 2019 wound down, Rep. Haley Stevens and Rep. Elissa Slotkin each had more than $1.6 million cash on hand and spent their first year in Congress in constant campaign mode. Both have tried to show their independence, most notably by initially resisting support of impeaching President Trump after the Mueller Report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election. They did, though, join the impeachment push following the scandal involving Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
More important, several of our experts say: Neither has drawn a marquee-level challenger. “You can’t beat somebody with nobody, and right now the GOP has nobody,” Democratic political consultant Joe DiSano says. “This is the bottom of the barrel.”
The big caveat, from Gonzales: “Slotkin and Stevens have the financial resources and the ability to overperform a bit if the Democratic presidential nominee loses their district narrowly. If the Democratic nominee gets clobbered and Trump rolls through, I think they also would lose.”
GOP political consultant Dan McMaster doubts either woman will lose, but he thinks state Sen. Tom Barrett, a Republican from Potterville who is also an Army veteran who served in Iraq, could give Slotkin a tough race if he jumps in. Since Barrett wouldn’t have to give up his current office, as he isn’t due for re-election until 2022, this “would be a free run for him, and he’d probably be the best candidate.”
Rep. Justin Amash
The longtime West Michigan congressman, who in 2019 left the GOP and supported impeachment, says he’s running for re-election in the 3rd District as an independent. If he does so — there’s talk that Rep. Justin Amash could instead seek the Libertarian Party’s nomination for president — he could split the conservative vote and open the door to a Democratic flip.
Our experts are split about how likely a Democratic win is, though. Sorg says it could be “very easy” if Amash runs a strong race, and points to immigration attorney Hillary Scholten or former Obama staffer Nick Colvin as likely Democrats to pull it off.
Republican political consultant Dennis Darnoi, too, says he would not be surprised by a flip to the Democrats. But Democratic political consultant Adrian Hemond is doubtful: “President Trump would have to do really, really badly in Kent County for that district to be in play for Democrats. This district’s never really been competitive.”
On the GOP side, 31-year-old supermarket heir Peter Meijer and state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis are duking it out for the party’s nod. Sorg gives the edge to Meijer based on his famous family name and fortune. McMaster believes there could be a path to victory for Amash after all: “The more people who get in, the more of a chance he has of staying in office. He really understands the voters of that district. He’s got a following.”
Rep. Fred Upton
The only U.S. House member from Michigan with any real seniority — 33 years and counting — could face one of the stiffest re-election contests of his career as the Kalamazoo area turns bluer and he’s challenged by openly gay Democratic State Rep. Jon Hoadley. “The Hoadley-Upton race is a beauty,” Sorg says. “Jon Hoadley is the toughest candidate to ever go up against Fred Upton, and it’s becoming a tougher district for Upton anyway.”
Perhaps, but Rep. Fred Upton has carefully crafted a centrist image that has included some pointed criticisms of Trump, which likely will help him stay put. “It’s always tough to take on an incumbent, and the middle-of-the-road style that Upton portrays is palatable for a lot of voters,” DiSano says.
The big question is whether Upton, 66, will retire. Rumors of such a move have followed him for several cycles and he’s said he’s running in 2020, but there’s no guarantee until the filing deadline in April. “Upton could change his mind depending on what happens with impeachment, how Trump is polling in Michigan, and what the odds are that the Republicans regain the majority in the House,” Hemond says. “If Hoadley doesn’t have an incumbent to face off against, then that gets real interesting all of a sudden.”
And Hoadley could win by losing, anyway, because the new district map drawn for the 2022 election would likely make it more Democrat-friendly. “Jon Hoadley’s status will only be enhanced by a hard race, but at this point I’d still put my money on Upton,” DiSano says.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib
One of the new hard-left rock stars — part of the Trump-maligned “Squad” that includes Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley — is probably pretty safe because the people of her district appreciate her unapologetic scrappiness. “She is extremely bright and she does not forget her constituents,” says Mildred Gaddis, host of The Mildred Gaddis Show on KISS-FM (105.9). Sorg thinks her constituents are proud of how often she’s slammed by the president. “Donald Trump has done her a big favor by attacking her on a regular basis,” he says.
Still, until Rep. Rashida Tlaib won in 2018, the heavily Detroit district that was drawn to ensure African American representation had been served for decades by the late civil rights icon John Conyers. Tlaib’s victory in the Democratic primary — which decided the election given the district’s overwhelming Democratic makeup — was excruciatingly close; she took just over 31% percent of the vote and edged out City Council President Brenda Jones by fewer than 1,000 votes. Had there not been several black candidates other than Jones in the race, Tlaib might easily have lost.
But replacing her, given her prominence, is a hard argument for a challenger to make, political science professor David Dulio says: “The things that she’s saying may seem outrageous sometimes, but they are not out of step with her district.”