4 Takeaways from the Michigan Primary Election

The election produced a landmark field of candidates for the fall
Michigan governor race - gov gretchen whitmer - tudor dixon
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon photographs courtesy of the State of Michigan and Tudor Dixon campaign

Michigan’s traditionally low-turnout election — midterm primaries in the middle of the summer — nonetheless produced a landmark field of candidates for the fall, headlined by the state’s first all-female battle for governor, the likely end of a legendary political dynasty, and a halt to Detroit’s streak of 68 years of sending a Black person to Congress.

Here are four takeaways from the Michigan primary election:

  1. Trump Still Rules the Right

Anyone wanting to imagine that Republican primary voters were ready to move on from the grip of former President Donald Trump had their fantasy pierced in two key places. First, his late-inning endorsement of Muskegon businesswoman Tudor Dixon might look like a case of him watching the direction of the parade and jumping out in front, but he had given her some praise along the way and boy did she run with it.

Still, pan out west and witness the demise of first-term Rep. Peter Meijer, one of the 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. He lost by just under 4 points, but a win’s a win for election-denying MAGA disciple John Gibbs, who now faces Democrat Hilary Scholten in the new Michigan 3rd. Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report tweeted on Tuesday that he would rate that seat a “lean Republican” if Meijer won the primary because of his appeal to independents, but now that Gibbs is the nominee it’s Democrat Scholten’s race to lose because Gibbs is so far to the right.

The big question becomes whether the Trumpist candidates can carry the day in the general election. But there’s little question that to be a GOP nominee, for the most part, means embracing the ex-president’s lies about the 2020 election and shrugging off his role in the Jan. 6 riots.

  1. Shri Proves Money Matters

How else to explain the ascendance of State Rep. Shri Thanedar, who spent his way to a seat in Congress via months of unanswered TV ads while the Black community in Detroit splintered itself eight ways to Tuesday? Self-made millionaire Thanedar, 67, built that notoriety by blowing $10 million to lose the 2018 race for Democratic gubernatorial nomination, then moving to Detroit and won a seat in the Michigan House.

Two years and another $5 million or so later, he’s virtually assured to head to Congress in a Detroit-based district that is overwhelmingly Democratic. If he thinks the expense is worth a $174,000-a-year gig in D.C., good on him.

The other thing that money bought: An end to Detroit sending Black people to Congress, at least for now. It’s the Blackest major city in America, but population decline and redistricting that merged it with bigger swaths of the non-Black suburbs means Motown will send Thanedar, who is Indian-American, and Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian-American, to Washington. That might have been avoided if the city’s Black powerbrokers had thought more strategically, embracing one of the Black female candidates to acknowledge the fact that Black women vote in much bigger numbers and probably don’t appreciate older men telling them who they should be for. State Sen. Adam Hollier ran a solid campaign, but he failed to unite the community.

  1. Levin Loses Because Campaigns Matter

From the start, Rep. Andy Levin’s campaign baffled everyone. He would’ve had an easy road to the Democratic nomination if he’d stayed in his own district, Michigan’s 10th, and he would’ve had a tough but winnable race in the fall against two-time failed Senate candidate John James, now the GOP nominee and odds-on favorite for that district.

Instead, Levin switched to Michigan’s 11th to take on fellow incumbent Rep. Haley Stevens, a superb campaigner with outstanding consultants to guide her. Stevens knows how to win tough elections, having done so twice when the district was more purple than it is now thanks to redistricting. Levin, by contrast, has never had a tough race — he took over his father’s longtime seat in 2018 as if it were his birthright — and clearly had no idea how to make his case.

Stevens’ ads were upbeat, bright, topical — and plentiful. In his, Levin looked surly, rumpled, irritated by even having to campaign at all; he came across as a less glamorous version of Bernie Sanders, which is hard to do. There also weren’t many ads, and his choice to tout his backing from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren showed he didn’t understand what might appeal to center-left Oakland County voters.

In the process, he flung a venerable Michigan political dynasty — and the only Jewish one in national politics — into the lake. His father, Sander Levin, and uncle, Carl Levin, of course, served in Congress for decades each, and his uncle, the late Federal Judge Theodore Levin, served for 24 years. The judge’s son, Charles Levin, then spent 22 years as an elected Michigan Supreme Court justice.

At the moment, it doesn’t look like there are any new Levins on the rise in Michigan politics. Oy vey.

  1. Coming This Fall: Abortion v. COVID

Tudor Dixon’s big issue is a litigation of the shutdown policies of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, which were among the strictest — and occasionally most illogical — in the country. It’s an open question whether that once-in-a-century crisis, a scarring and traumatic period most of us are trying to move past, remains front-and-center for the independent suburban voters who put Whitmer in office in 2018.

Whitmer, facing headwinds of high inflation and high gas prices over which she has no control, is ready to make this campaign about the rights of women to terminate their pregnancies now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned and Republicans want to reimpose a 1931 law banning abortion here. Expect to see ubiquitous use of a particularly damning clip of Dixon with journalist Charlie LeDuff insisting that abortion should be illegal with no exceptions, showing no hesitation or empathy when LeDuff posited to her the prospect of a teenage incest victim being forced to carry a fetus to term. “Perfect example,” she replies, which could very well be two famous last words.

Fact is, a referendum in ruby-red Kansas, of all places, proved that the right to choose is hardly a liberal position; more than 60 percent of Kansans voted to uphold a pro-choice protection found in the state’s constitution. Just imagine how much bigger than majority of pro-choice voters will here — and Whitmer will have a ballot measure to codify abortion rights in Michigan’s constitution on the ballot to motivate voters to turn out.