I just read a 62-page article (big type, lots of pictures!) in POLITICO Magazine that provides an interesting perspective—especially after the Republican Senators’ predictable but still distressing refusal to even allow discussion of S.1, the voting rights bill.
The article, written by Zack Stanton, is titled: “As Long as the Party Embraces Trump, It’s Going to Have Trouble.” (emphases mine throughout)
Stanton provides a decades-long look at Oakland County, Michigan, where both Senator Mitt Romney and Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel were raised. He calls it “a national warning light for the Republicans at the highest levels of the party.”
Oakland County was, according to a former state Republican party executive director, “kind of the quintessential suburban Republican stronghold over the postwar period.”
The party and its candidates obtained vast sums of funding from donors in Oakland County—and they still do. It was an essential campaign stop for Republican presidential candidates and sent an “influential bipartisan delegation” to Washington, reports Stanton.
“A Once-in-a-Generation Talent”
Stanton covers in detail the evolution of an important Republican figure in the county:
“the once-in-a-generation talent named L. Brooks Patterson, who made Oakland County into a Republican political behemoth first by perfecting the art of culture war, and later by trading away grievance-based politics for business-oriented conservatism only to see that traditional approach banished from the Trump-era GOP.”
Patterson rose to prominence by supporting the opponents of school integration through busing. He was careful, however, not to seem too extreme (he publicly condemned a KKK bombing of school buses!). Still, he rode the growing wave of fear and anger to election as county prosecutor.
Eventually elected Oakland County Executive Director, he was sensitive to a changing environment and knew he needed to subdue his use of the culture wars. In an interview with a business journal, he said:
“I have opinions on social issues, but I don’t represent us on social issues…My job now is to be an ambassador…for what’s good about Oakland County.”
He apparently did his job well, though his party didn’t benefit. No Republican Presidential candidate has won Oakland County since 1992, when George H.W. Bush carried it by just a plurality in the race he lost to Bill Clinton.
Although Patterson was reelected every four years until his death in 2019, Democrats were now ascending. The college graduates and new immigrants who were drawn to the county’s prosperity weren’t voting as Patterson had assumed they would.
An Indefatigable Young Game Changer
Stanton now introduces Dave Woodward, who was elected to the Michigan House at age 22. Noting that Bill Clinton had carried the county in 1996, Woodward set out to persuade people to vote for Democrats down ballot as well.
He and his colleagues began a 10-year plan to build Oakland County’s Democratic Party “from scratch,” Woodward said—with good old door knocking, finding their voters and getting them to the polls.
Term-limited in the legislature, he ran for—and was elected to—a lower position on the county Board.
The Democrats contrasted their party with the Republicans by working for “transit, clean water, urban redevelopment, and making sure middle-class areas weren’t neglected in favor of wealthier communities.”
In other words, they focused—on the community level—on the bread and butter issues that voters had said they wanted.
Patterson took notice—well before his fellow Republicans. In 2004, he told the Detroit Free Press:
“I’ve said all along that the far-right wing of the [GOP] has done a very effective job of running moderate women out of the party.”
But here’s where I think Woodward’s efforts for the Democrats made a difference that may not be replicated as widely as Stanton suggests. He was building a down-ballot majority, and he then focused on redistricting. The goal was to be ready for the 2008 election.
Obama won the county with 56.5 percent of the vote. Democrats won two offices, which gave them control of redistricting. But Patterson was reelected to his fifth term as county executive with 58 percent of the vote.
Political Hardball and a Changing Electorate
Surprise! Patterson persuaded the still-majority Republican state legislature to rewrite the redistricting rules so that control was switched from a five-member bipartisan panel to the Republican-majority county board. The change applied only to Oakland County. Republican Governor Rick Snyder signed this highly particular bill in 2011.
Woodward said that meant the Republicans held power for about a decade longer than should have been the case. But he and his fellow Democrats kept pursuing their goal.
And, writes Stanton, “The commission seats hadn’t flipped yet,[but] the voters themselves already were.”
Oakland’s population was becoming more diverse and better educated. In a population of 1.2 million residents, more than one in ten was born outside the US.
“For Republicans, it was a demographic time bomb. And it ticked down just as the Republican Party—nationally and locally—was about to be taken over by someone whose politics were uniquely tailored to turn off people who had immigrated to the country; someone who would make it radically easier for Democrats to recruit donors, volunteers, and voters from those same groups; someone who would replace Brooks Patterson as the Republican Party’s indispensable man—just as he did with local Republican power-brokers throughout the country: Donald J. Trump.”
Awakened Women Candidates, “Less Republican” Republican Voters
Trump’s 2016 election persuaded a number of women nationally that they had to take a more active role in politics. In Oakland County, one was Mallory McMorrow, who decided to run for state Senate in 2018. She was told by local Democratic leaders that “You’re going to get destroyed.” She won.
Now we get to Stanton’s major point. In addition to the growth of college-educated Asian American and South Asian residents turned off by Trump’s “white grievance politics,” this growing diversity affected the primarily white residents. “Republicans became less Republican.”
Though McMorrow’s district is more than 80 percent white, she said:
“There is enough diversity…that even if you are a straight, white, Christian person who lives in Oakland County, you don’t want to demonize somebody who’s an immigrant, because they live next door to you and you work with them…I don’t think my constituents see diversity as a threat.”
Mari Manoogian, who ran and won for the state House in 2018, lives in Birmingham, a wealthy town in which she grew up. She has seen attitudes in her community change dramatically, giving rise to the “Biden Republicans.”
“The ‘Oakland Hills Country Club set’ is changing, or at least having some serious reservations about the current version of the Republican Party.”
When she knocked on doors in 2018, she heard people say,
‘I’ve voted Republican my whole life, but I’m not voting Republican anymore. … They’re not focused on the issues that matter to us. They’re focused on these culture-war issues.’”
A similar sentiment was voiced by a Republican (Martin Howrylak) who served in the state House from 2012-2018.
“It’s the opposite of a big-tent party right now. That was really the game plan of Trump: to create lines: ‘You’re either with me or against me. And if you’re not with me, you might as well—politically speaking—die.’
“And that ‘take no prisoners’ approach is the antithesis of what’s needed here. As long as the party continues to embrace the former president, it’s going to have trouble in Oakland County.”
In addition to McMorrow and Manoogian’s wins in 2018, both of Oakland County’s Congressional seats went from Republicans to Democrats: Elissa Slotkin and Haley Stevens. Gretchen Whitmer, whose grandfather had been Pontiac’s schools superintendent during the busing battle, won more Oakland votes in her successful race for governor than any Republican presidential or gubernatorial candidate–ever.
Biden carried the county by more than 110,000 votes.
And, Dave Woodward, the stalwart Democratic organizer, finally achieved the majority in the County board: 11-10. The deciding Democratic vote came from Gwen Markham, whom Woodward had encouraged to run.
Markham’s Republican father had preceded Brooks Patterson as County Executive. She’d been a Republican like her father until “the party left her.”
In what seems like karma, Woodward will preside over the redistricting.
“Long-Term Historical Consequences”?
Stanton writes that there are counties like Oakland throughout the US: “affluent, longtime Republican suburbs that have been trending Democratic for a long time, but where the Trump years marked a tipping point.” Women have been a key factor in ousting incumbents in formerly Republican seats.
Republicans, he believes, appear to have missed a critical trend:
“Suburbs aren’t at war with their cities any longer, and claiming they are has alienated potential Republican voters.”
He contends that if the Republicans had done a postmortem after losing the White House and Senate (a hard task, Stanton points out, when you don’t acknowledge that the election was lost, rather than stolen), they probably would have found that lack of interest in the changing suburbs prevents the non-Trumpian power brokers like Patterson from surfacing, “and that this will have long-term historical consequences.”
I am struck by how fitting the phrase “all politics is local” seems to be. Still, I wonder how many energetic Dave Woodwards there are throughout the US, patiently building their local organizations. That seems to be an essential step in this progression.
What do you think of Stanton’s assessments?