Opinion

A primer on how the Democrats can keep the House and Senate

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Michigan Democrats picked a good year to win control of the Michigan House and Senate. 

If you’re a Democrat, every year might seem like a good year, but starting with a majority in 2023 tees you up in particular.

The new term limits law allows those elected to their first House term to serve for 12 years as opposed to six. Ten of those years will be representing the same legislative districts until the 2031 redistricting process. 

Leaders such as Rep. Julie Brixie and Rep. Angela Witwer could serve in the House for six years longer than they had initially planned.

Since it’s easier to win a seat with an incumbent than a new candidate, Democrats will be approaching swing seats for at least the next three cycles with a decided advantage.

The dynamics at play give them an opportunity to hold to a majority for a while as long as they don’t get too complacent and overplay their hand. In politics, that’s easier said than done. 

To set this up, Democrats will have control of both Michigan legislative chambers for the first time in 40 years. They will control the gavel in the 2023-24 session with slight 56-54 and 20-18 majorities. 

This edge is not a mandate. It’s a slim majority they won, in large part because:

— The U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority overturned Roe v. Wade, igniting young women voters to become politically active in numbers that are uncommon for non-presidential years.

— Former President Donald Trump repelled Republican-leaning independents by pushing the election conspiracy nonsense and playing footsie with the Q-anon crowd. 

Without those two dynamics, this week’s column would be much different.

Really, Democrats should have lost in 2022. President Joe Biden’s approval numbers are low. Inflation is high. The economy is on shaky ground. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s disapproval rating is rock solid in the mid 40s. After her emergency COVID restrictions, moving that number is tough.

Democrats and their supportive interest groups have a laundry list of priorities they want. After 40 years in the minority, how could they not? If they blissfully check off items like the 1983 Democrats did by passing an income tax increase, things could go badly.

The D’s lost two Senate recall elections that year, and the Republicans have controlled the majority ever since.

Whitmer has backed off her 45-cent gas tax increase (remember that?). Instead, she’s talking tax cuts, not tax increases.

That’s a good start. State legislators have billions in leftover money to spend. If that’s squandered in a way where voters don’t feel its impact, they’ll hear about it.

If police funding and working conditions aren’t improved to push down crime numbers, Democratic legislators will hear about it. 

As much as environmentalists may want the Legislature to pass bills to shut down Line 5 along the Mackinac Straits, doing so likely raise fuel prices for Northern Michiganders and Yoopers. If that happens, Democrats will hear about it.

I’m not saying Democrats need to walk on egg shells. They simply need to be smart. 

A majority of voters support moderate gun safety legislation. They support codifying the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act to include the LGBTQ population. They support school safety.

They can keep the focus on helping working families, seniors, children, education and health care. The issues they take up can focus on solving problems, not scoring points or getting retribution.

As long as the Democrats govern from a sensible middle — something Republicans struggled to do last term — they limit the attacks that’ll be hurled at them later. They can gain support from independents.

If they can make relationships and work with Republicans on common goals like economic development, Democrats can prove themselves to be an inclusive, majority party. 

If they make this term about paybacks and kowtowing to the hopes and dreams of a passionate progressive base, their time in the majority will be short.

 

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