LANSING, Mich. – Democrats will be in charge of Michigan's state government for the first time in nearly 40 years come January, raising progressive hopes of undoing decades of Republican-backed measures and advancing an agenda that includes restrictions on guns and help for the working poor.
With control of the state House and Senate and the governor's office, Democrats also will face a test of whether their party can deliver on years of promises in a swing state where they must appeal to more than just their base. Their performance could have wider consequences in 2024 for the presidential battleground state: The way voters feel about two years of Democratic control may be a factor in which party’s candidate they want in the White House.
“The most important thing is actually delivering,” said Democratic Rep. Elissa Slotkin, who won reelection to her central Michigan district in one of the country’s most competitive U.S. House races. “You can say what you want all day long. You can have an agenda on a piece of paper. But in Michigan, you’ve got to deliver something.”
Full Democratic control will begin a new challenge for the party and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a close ally of President Joe Biden who has been mentioned as a future White House candidate.
Whitmer, who resoundingly won reelection last month, must now balance the enthusiasm of a newly powerful Democratic caucus with the need to maintain support from moderate and independent voters when the Legislature is up for grabs again in two years.
“We’re mindful that people are watching. What happened here in Michigan’s only happened four times in 130 years,” Whitmer said during a recent meeting with reporters. “There are a lot of eyes on us. It’s our job to make sure that we stay focused on what matters to Michiganders, not what national pundits are interested in.”
Pressure from lobbyists and special interest groups already is immense, and Democratic caucus members are having internal debates about how to proceed, said Rosemary Bayer, a Democratic state senator first elected in 2018. She and others already have tried to lower some expectations and focus on passing legislation that has widespread appeal across the state.
“We can’t do everything at once,” she said. “We don’t want to scare everybody.”
Bayer’s district includes Oxford, the community outside Detroit where a 15-year-old gunman killed four people and injured others at the local high school in 2021. Bayer is now leading the charge for increased gun restrictions, but said she expects to begin by asking lawmakers to approve measures that voters have been asking for and can accept, based on polling reviewed by the party.
That likely means legislation to require background checks for nearly all gun purchases, gun storage laws and a red flag law that bars people deemed to be a danger to themselves and others from having a firearm.
“That’s what people are comfortable with. That’s what they’ve been asking for,” Bayer said. “We have to help everybody understand that if we don’t do this correctly and we end up scaring the crap out of everybody, we get nothing done.”
Republicans have warned that the Democrats' agenda will be bad for the state's economy. One of the biggest battles is expected to be over a right-to-work law approved by Republicans about a decade ago that allowed workers covered by union contracts to not pay dues.
The law is seen as weakening organized labor financially and politically. Labor unions, among Democrats' biggest supporters, have been pushing to repeal it. Business groups and the GOP say doing so would hurt the state's recovery from the pandemic.
John Sellek, a Republican consultant who advised GOP state House speakers and was state director for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, cautioned Democrats that the last time the party controlled both chambers of the Legislature and the governor’s office, in 1983, it was short-lived. After a tax increase was passed, two Democratic senators were recalled, and the GOP returned to power.
Like that time, Democrats now will have a slim majority. They will hold 56 of 100 seats in the House, all of which are up for reelection in two years, and 20 of 38 in the Senate.
“There’s going to be a ton of pressure on the governor in how she handles this,” Sellek said. “It is not a science, it’s an art.”
Whitmer and other Democrats have said they expect to pursue tax credits, education changes and action on climate change.
The Legislature also will work to put in place two ballot measures that voters overwhelmingly approved in November. One expands voting access, allowing nine days of early in-person voting for the first time in the state. The other enshrines the right to an abortion in the state constitution and eliminates a ban on the procedure that was approved in 1931. Whitmer sued to stop the ban from taking effect after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the Roe v. Wade ruling from 1973 that legalized abortion nationwide.
Democrats also control the statewide offices of attorney general and secretary of state. Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson plans to ask the Legislature to impose stricter penalties for harassing election workers and spreading misinformation about voting.
Michigan could be the focus of even more attention than usual in the next election cycle. The Democratic National Committee’s rule-making arm voted to move Michigan up in the party's presidential primary calendar for 2024. If the full DNC approves the plan, as expected, Michigan would be the fifth state to vote in the primary process and the first contest in the Midwest.
That may not matter much if Biden runs again, as he has indicated he will. If he opts out, it could raise the stakes for Whitmer, who has insisted she will not forgo serving a second term to run for president. U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who ran for president in 2020 and is considered a likely future White House contender as well, moved to northern Michigan this year to be closer to his husband’s family.
State Sen. Mallory McMorrow, who received national attention after a viral speech on the state Senate floor in April, said what Michigan Democrats are able to accomplish could stand in contrast with Washington, which will have divided government with the GOP holding a slim House majority.
“It feels like Michigan is going to be a real opportunity to signal to the rest of the country what it looks like when Democrats are in charge,” McMorrow said.
Burnett reported from Chicago.
Joey Cappelletti is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.