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Good News Alert: Democrats Might Actually Flip the Michigan Legislature

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What’s their secret sauce? Support for public education.

October 28, 2022

Sarah May-Seward was pouring drinks at the Irish pub in White Lake, Mich., where she works three nights a week, when a group of bikers showed up. They stood at the end of the bar, staring at her, recalls May-Seward. “My first thought was ‘uh-oh.’” But the bikers weren’t there to menace. They’d stopped by to tell May-Seward, who is running for state representative in Michigan’s 51st district, that she has their support. “You’ve got our vote because we can’t stand Matt Maddock,” was how one of the men put it, referring to Seward’s GOP opponent, a Trump loyalist who is married to the cochair of the Michigan Republican Party. The Maddocks, MAGA royalty, embody the party’s trajectory in this state, from Romney Republicans to January 6 insurrectionists and self-styled religious warriors.

Matt Maddock, who was ousted from the GOP House caucus last spring, is an increasingly divisive figure among voters, even in this lake-area district known for Trump boat parades. “Campaign experts will tell you not to mention your opponent’s name, but I changed the script,” says May-Seward. “And when I mention who I’m running against, they tell me, ‘You’ve got my vote.’”

In a typical election, a grassroots shoestring campaign that has received no support from the state party wouldn’t have a chance. But this election is anything but typical, says May-Seward. “It’s a different kind of year out there.”

Flip the statehouse
For the past decade, Republicans have held a majority of both chambers of the state legislature—thanks in large part to gerrymandered maps that allowed them to hang on to power even when Democrats amassed more votes. But new legislative and congressional maps drawn by an independent redistricting commission mean better Democratic prospects. An abortion-rights measure on the ballot—and top-of-the ticket contests that pit relatively popular Democrats against controversial Republicans—could also translate into much-needed down-ballot momentum. Pollsters now give Michigan Democrats the best chance of flipping a statehouse this year.

Of course, Democrats here have had hope before. After making significant inroads in 2018, they seemed on the cusp of gaining control of the state House in 2020, only to fall agonizingly short. Chris Savage, chair of Washtenaw County Democratic Party, places himself squarely in the hopeful camp. “We’re looking at more seats this cycle where Democrats are more competitive than they’ve ever been,” says Savage. “Republicans don’t have the grip they used to have.”

The DeVos effect
Michigan’s 71st, northeast of Lansing, is one district that is a little less red, thanks to redistricting. “It’s still red, but fairer,” says Mark Zacharda, who is running for an open state rep seat against Brian BeGole, the sheriff of Shiawassee County.

Democrats make up roughly 41 percent of registered voters in the district, Republicans the rest. In order to win, Zacharda, a former public school teacher who now farms full-time, needs the votes of every Democrat and independent, along with enough “swingable” Republicans. That’s a tough proposition, he concedes, but Zacharda says he’s optimistic. Against an opponent who has been mired in a series of scandals, Zacharda says that his “straight-shooting” message—“I don’t bullshit or lie”—is resonating with people.

When Zacharda goes door to door, he lets voters know that, in addition to being a farmer, he was formerly a teacher. Then he points out that his opponent is being bankrolled by former secretary of education Betsy Devos. Her extended family maxed out its personal donations to BeGole, who has also received support from DeVos-backed PACs.

Anti-DeVos sentiment runs deep here, not just among Democrats but also Trump supporters, many of whom see her as an anti-MAGA turncoat for raising the possibility of invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office after January 6. Says Zacharda, “I ask them, ‘Do we want Betsy DeVos choosing who represents you?’”

Zacharda’s winning here would be a political earthquake; it’s been nearly a quarter century since a Democrat last represented this area. And yet he remains convinced that a win is possible. A poll he commissioned this fall showed him with a sizable lead over BeGole. And even if he falls short, Zacharda hopes that by running he’s improved his party’s longer-term prospects. “To have a full-time farmer run as a Democrat inspires hope and raises morale,” says Zacharda.

Culture-war backlash
When Michigan voters go to the polls, they’ll also be deciding whether to enshrine abortion rights in the Michigan Constitution, or to let stand a 1931 law that would essentially ban abortion in the state. Kelly Dillaha, Michigan Program Director for the grassroots women’s group Red Wine and Blue, which claims 11,000 members in the state, says that the issue is galvanizing suburban women, but that it’s not the only one. The public school culture wars, largely orchestrated by the far right, are also activating voters.

“People see the attacks on school board members and on children themselves,” says Dillaha. “They’re tired of the attacks and the divisiveness, and they want it to stop.”

But where the GOP sees parent outrage as a path to victory, Dillaha predicts that the GOP’s culture-war strategy will backfire, largely because candidates are ignoring what the majority of parents really care about. Red, Wine and Blue members, says Dillaha, many of whom are suburban moms, prioritize issues like school funding, support for students and teachers, and school safety, especially in the wake of last fall’s school shooting in Oxford, Mich., that claimed the lives of four students and injured seven others. Instead, Republicans here have embraced increasingly incendiary claims about Michigan’s schools, including that they are awash in pornography, a claim echoed by GOP gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon. In the 71st district, Mark Zacharda’s opponent has sent out mailers warning of drag shows and “oversexualization” in schools.

“There is fear from that side of the aisle that we have it together, that we have candidates and proposals that people want are willing to vote for,” says Dillaha. “All they can do is create chaos and try to make people afraid.”

Fear factor
Syd Olthoff, a senior in high school in Muskegon, is still too young to vote, but she’s doing her part to impact the results of the election anyway. This fall, Olthoff, an activist with Detroit Area Youth Uniting Michigan or DAYUM, helped organize a text-banking party with her friends. The goal was to make sure people know about Proposal 3, the reproductive rights initiative, and to encourage them to vote. “This issue affects so many people who can’t vote yet and that’s just really scary,” says Olthoff.

A student representative on the school board for Mona Shores, south of Muskegon, Olthoff also has a front-row view of the school culture wars. At recent board meetings, conservative parents have demanded the removal of books from the library, and an end to sex education. “They’re scared of things changing and losing control,” says Olthoff. “But they’re also the people who vote.”

While DAYUM focuses on an array of issues that students care about, including gun violence, climate justice, and support for LGBTQ rights, this is the first time that the group’s members have involved themselves in an election. Olthoff says that the students feel that they have no choice but to educate their own parents about how kids are being impacted by book bans, curbs on reproductive rights, and anxiety over school shootings. “Adults don’t understand what it’s like to be a kid right now, and it really shows in their policies,” says Olthoff.

Yet Olthoff’s view of the future is decidedly upbeat. The text-banking party she helped organize reached 60 potential voters, and she’s convinced that the student-led conversations with adults are changing minds. Regardless of what happens with the midterms, she says that the culture war backlash that’s driving so much of Michigan’s political debate right now is a sign not of electoral strength—but of weakness.

“The kids are a lot less scared than the adults,” says Osthoff. “I think we’re realizing how much power we actually have.”

Out of touch
Back in the 51st district, Sarah May-Seward knows just what to do when she encounters Republican voters who instinctively recoil at the thought of voting for a Democrat. “I move onto the issues so that they can see where I stand.” Keeping the government out of our bedrooms and doctors’ offices, as she puts it, is at the top of the list. But she’s also quick to showcase her support for public schools. For May-Seward, the issue is personal. The parent of a child with hydrocephalus and cerebral palsy, she spent years fighting to get her daughter the services she needed. “Without public schools, she wouldn’t have gotten an education, and I wouldn’t have even had the right to fight.”

The contrast with her opponent is stark. While May-Seward tells stories on the stump about her daughter’s special education teachers who were paid so little that they worked second jobs, Maddock argues that Michigan spends too much on its schools. He’s running on what he calls the “backpack of cash” vision for education—let parents choose between public, charter and private schools—while also committing to eliminate the state income taxes that partially pay for schools.

For May-Seward, it’s another sign that Maddock is oblivious to the needs of his constituents, the majority of whom attended public schools and send their kids to them. “Our representative is too busy hanging out in Bedminster to pay attention to what people care about.”

The conservative-leaning Detroit News recently voiced a similar sentiment in a surprise endorsement. “Maddock is a self-serving bully who adds no value to the legislature. Sarah May-Seward gets our enthusiastic endorsement.”

Source : The Nation

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