Is One Michigan County an Important Electoral Bellwether?

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.

Stanton writes:

“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.

Michigan State Senator Mallory McMorrow; image from wkar.org.

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.”

She observed:

“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.’”

Michigan state House member Mari Manoogian; image from Ballotpedia.org

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?

Annie

13 thoughts on “Is One Michigan County an Important Electoral Bellwether?

  1. Thank. you for sharing your summary of this hopeful article! Yes, let’s keep a focus on local AND national (and global — we are all living on this small, blessed planet together, after all…) politics. One of my co-workers is long-time friends with Ms. Slotkin — so I gave her some money during the last election cycle. I recently read an article about how giving money EARLY to candidates is five times more valuable to them than last minute, right-before-an-election donations. Guess it might be time to send her more money! We continue to have LOTS of work to do. Right now I have 100 postcards to personalize and send to voters in NH and ME — encouraging/inviting them to contact their senators regarding big bills currently working (or not) their way through Congress. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Yet we cannot let all of the work that needs to be done prevent us from appreciating the cardinal singing in the backyard. Another deep breath in. And deep. breath out. Please keep writing, and I will do my best to keep reading!!!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks very much, Will. I’ve also been supporting Elissa Slotkin: she’s a sharp, knowledgeable, sensible woman. I’ve also heard about the value of giving early: makes sense—candidates need to define themselves before their opponents do.

      Good for you for finding time for post cards. I’m with you—breathing deeply, writing, donating—and appreciating bird songs! But the human singing I leave to you, who do it so well.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Believe it or not, I grew up in this county Annie. My parents moved there in 1968, from Detroit when I was 8. It was a shock to the system that I never recovered from. 🙂

    My parents were very active in politics and would go door to door for most big elections. People would be polite but in the end, the Republican candidates always won by a landslide. In one local election (our neighbor told me several years ago) the democratic candidate only received 8 votes. According to her, she and my mom figured out who had cast 7 of the 8 votes but never determined who that last person was.

    L. Books Patterson was indeed a force to be reckoned with. I’d long since moved out when he came into power but my mother was always writing to him (and writing letters to Oakland County and Detroit newspapers), objecting to his rhetoric.

    The town where my parents lived is still pretty red but I can believe that Trump has been a big turn off. Other areas of the county, with higher population density, have been more progressive than the rural areas like the one where I grew up.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s so interesting, Carol. You might appreciate all the specifics in the Politico piece. Though long, it’s a quick read. And I suspect your mom would have been pleased to learn that Patterson’s successor is a young woman with Republican roots. There’s a nice quote from her saying her sensibilities haven’t changed; she’s long been concerned about climate change and a woman’s right to choose.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I just read through the entire article and reposted on FB, tagging several friends. You’re right that my mom would have appreciated Markham and the other women featured in the story.

        Bravo for those diehards that have fought for years to bring about change. It’s heartening to see that not all conservatives are wiling to abandon reason just to remain in the Republican party.

        The racism (not to mention homophobia) out there when I was growing up was very upsetting for me–to the extent that even today, I feel less than comfortable when I go back and I only live 35 miles away.

        When I read that the county was 96.5% white in 1970, I was thinking that figure might well be low for the town in which we lived. Moving from Detroit, it was a huge shock that I never fully recovered from.

        I still believe that there is a lot of deep-seated racism in the area–especially in my peer group. Thankfully, fewer and fewer young people hold the same views. However, as the article pointed out, many young people are still leaving, unwilling to tolerate the high levels of intolerance. As privileged as these communities are, I would not have wanted to raise my kids there.

        Like

  3. I don’t know much about American politics but I’m certainly learning a lot through you! This post was extremely interesting. In the Netherlands we have eighty-nine different political parties – each of which we had to learn about at schol. The U.S.’s number certainly seems small in comparison! I liked reading about how Trump’s election awakened more female canditates. Good for them! It was also interesting reading about how much impact building up a local organization can have – there is a lot of power in having one place that thinks a certain way. It’s always extremely educational visiting and reading your posts. Thank you so much for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We learn from each other, Simone!
      Eighty-nine political parties—wow!
      At this point, we seem to have only one political party interested in doing the people’s business, and that is not a good thing. I remember when the Republican Party had independent thinkers and wasn’t appealing primarily to people’s fears and anger. As the Politico article suggests, many Republicans —and former Republicans—preferred that party.
      Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating and hopeful. I would like to echo Simone’s observation that your pieces are packed full of information and insight. I also have some personal experience with Oakland, though before my political self was awake! Really glad to learn of the young women coming up in the ranks. One county in Michigan a bellewether? We’ll see and let’s hope.

    Like

    1. Thanks so much, Denise. So interesting that you also have Oakland County experiences.
      I’ve heard several people interviewed in the past several days contend that the Republican culture wars approach will lose them the suburbs big time in the next few elections. So perhaps hope will precede reality!

      Like

  5. Carol,
    I get frequent emails from Elissa Slotkin’s organization. Today’s said that she is under attack (no surprise) in a district that voted for Romney, Trump, and Trump in the last three Presidential elections. That information underscored your point that the area around Oakland County hasn’t yet seen the light.(!)
    Thanks for sharing your first-person knowledge and experience.

    Like

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