Susan J. Demas: Trump Taxes and Tariffs Squeeze Michigan GOP in 2018

If President Obama had socked Michigan with a one-two punch of higher taxes and steel tariffs, Republicans would be licking their chops about 2018.


The GOP playbook of running against a tax-’n’-spend liberal president who just knifed the domestic auto industry practically writes itself.

But it’s actually a Republican president — the first to win Michigan in three decades — who’s pushed this rather bizarre economic agenda.

Last week, President Trump angrily announced tariffs on steel and aluminum, shocking many conservatives and ultimately leading to the resignation of economic adviser Gary Cohn.

We’ve seen this movie before. When President George W. Bush tried steel tariffs in 2002, every state lost jobs. That confirmed for most fiscal conservatives that protectionism, even in small doses, is a bust. As the home of GM and Ford, Michigan was one of the hardest hit, shedding almost 10,000 jobs.

The leading GOP candidates for governor are both running hard on the economy. Lt. Gov. Brian Calley is selling himself as the right person to continue the “Michigan’s comeback” since the Great Recession. And Attorney General Bill Schuette is pitching a “Paycheck Agenda.”

Trump’s tariffs could sour both their plans, but so far, Schuette and Calley have been awfully quiet about this.

The auto industry is far from the only one that will be affected. Aluminum tariffs will squeeze beer and soft drink makers, particularly smaller craft brewers, many of which make their home in Michigan.

If you think this isn’t going to be a big deal here, consider the fact that Michigan’s beer tax hasn’t been raised in more than 50 years. And any time a politician proposes doing so, the idea dies within days, if not hours.

While soda taxes have gained some currency in cities as a way to combat obesity, good luck making that case in Michigan. Last year, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a law banning local governments from taxing pop (even though Republicans supposedly love local control, at least when it’s ideologically convenient).

Naturally, other countries quickly vowed to retaliate against the United States. The European Union wants to raise tariffs on bourbon, which basically means anything you try to drown your financial sorrows in will end up costing you more now.

But no worries. Trump tweeted that “trade wars are good, and easy to win,” demonstrating, once again, his grade-school-level grasp of economic policy.

At least when Bush started his ill-conceived trade war, it was after he signed a tax law giving almost every American a tax rebate.

Trump has taken a different tack. The 2017 tax law does achieve the Republican Party’s greatest priority, slashing taxes for the rich and big corporations. But its tax relief for middle-class and lower-income families is modest at best. The law also eliminates some big deductions so many will actually owe more to the IRS.

One of those deductions is the personal exemption, which is $4,000 in Michigan. That amounts to a pretty hefty tax increase, so the Michigan Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder scrambled to restore and increase it over time, so the GOP could run on a tax cut.  

Republicans were careful not to criticize the president or GOP-controlled Congress, just as they would have done if Democrats were in charge (snort).

I mean, Schuette is still running against Jennifer Granholm as the Ghost of Tax Hikes Past, even though she hasn’t been in charge since 2010 and had GOP help in passing the ‘07 income tax increase.

And because Schuette keeps pushing this misleading narrative, I’m going to keep pointing out that Republicans have been in complete control of Michigan’s government for more than seven years. Instead of killing the income tax, they enacted in 2011 a $1.4 billion tax hike on individuals to help pay for an almost $2 billion corporate tax cut.

Between taxes and tariffs, Trump hasn’t done the GOP any favors in the 2018 election in Michigan.

But if worse comes to worse, they can always go back to the tried-and-true tactic of blaming Obama. And remember, anyone who points out actual facts to the contrary is just peddling “fake news.”

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: African-American Women Want Conyers’ Seat

The race to replace former Dean of the House John Conyers Jr., who angrily resigned in December after a series of sexual harassment allegations, promised to be a rollicking free-for-all.

And so far, it hasn’t disappointed.

When all is said and done, more than a dozen Democrats could appear on the August ballot for the Detroit-based 13th congressional seat. And to add to the confusion, many, if not all, will appear twice — once for the special election to fill the remainder of Conyers’ term and another for the next term starting in 2019.

So far, most attention has been on the two men named “Conyers” vying for the seat, but there’s another important story of African-American women yearning for more representation.

In its typical snarky style, Vice noted how Michigan’s penchant for dynasties could play a role in not just the open 13th, but the 9th district this year: “Lord Conyers of Highland Park [sic] has two relatives trying to replace him; and retiring Representative Sander Levin (brother of former Senator Carl Levin and resident of perfectly named Royal Oak) is trying to get his son Andy to win the nomination for his old seat.”

Right before tendering his resignation, Conyers endorsed his son, John Conyers III, a hedge fund manager and political novice. The scion’s campaign isn’t subtle — his committee is titled “Conyers to Conyers.” After his father’s historic civil rights career ended in scandal, the younger Conyers could bring more of the same to Congress, as he was busted for driving a taxpayer-funded Escalade and arrested in 2017 for domestic violence.

State Sen. Ian Conyers (D-Detroit), has also declared. The congressman’s great-nephew, who won a special election in 2016, was considered leadership material in the Legislature. He’s also been an ally of Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, but failed to earn his blessing this time around.

Instead, Duggan, fresh off a thunderous re-election, just threw his weight behind Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, with whom he’s worked on rebuilding Detroit post-bankruptcy. They mayor’s early endorsement — before the field has even been set — sends a message to rivals and key organizations that Jones is the favorite. TV Judge Greg Mathis, who briefly flirted with a bid, is on board. Look for the UAW to follow suit.

Jones is a logical standard-bearer. She’s the former president of Communications Workers of America, Local 4004 and won the National Organization for Women’s Sojourner Truth Award. Jones has pledged to uphold Congressman Conyers’ civil rights legacy and fully restore the Voting Rights Act.

She would also join U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) as the second African-American member of Michigan’s congressional delegation (and, as it stands now, she’d be only the third woman). Many politicos, by the way, underestimated Lawrence in the open 14th primary back in 2014. Her longtime adviser, Christy Jensen, who’s one of the savviest Dems in Michigan, now works for Jones.

Two other African-American women have declared in the 13th and it’s no coincidence. They’ve been leading the resistance against President Trump, after 94 percent voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. In last year’s special Alabama U.S. Senate election, 98 percent of African-American women voted for Democrat Doug Jones, putting him over the top in the blood-red state.

“Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party, and we can’t take that for granted. Period,” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez said after the Alabama election.

But many black women still feel taken for granted. Many Democrats remain obsessed with winning back working-class white men and sneer at “identity politics.” There’s never been an African-American female governor in the nation. U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) is only the second black woman to serve in the body. And there are just 19 African-American women serving in the U.S. House.

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo (D-Detroit), a former educator, is also running in the 13th. But she has some baggage as a fiery defender of Conyers and one of only 11 representatives to vote against a resolution calling for Michigan State University President Lou Anna Simon to resign over the Dr. Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal.

Former state Rep. Shanelle Jackson (D-Detroit), who lost her primary bid to Conyers in 2012, is set to run again. She’ll face blowback for her job as director of government relations for the Moroun family’s Detroit International Bridge Company, whose business and environmental policies have long rankled progressives.

One of them is former state Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), who just declared for the 13th and won’t be shy about banging on the Morouns or her other foes, like Duggan. She’s also a master at getting media attention. In 2016, more than a dozen protesters were tossed out of Trump’s speech at the Detroit Economic Club, but the only name anyone ever remembers is Tlaib’s.

She would be the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. But although Tlaib won three terms representing a majority African-American district in the state House, it remains to be seen if she can muster the same support for a far larger congressional seat.

Everyone is always looking for political analysts to whip out their crystal ball and definitively declare winners. That’s always a recipe for folly.

That’s especially true in the diverse 13th, which features two concurrent elections with so many candidates and dynamics. Anyone who tells you they know how this one will end is lying.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Another GOP Stabenow Challenger Bites the Dust

What a difference a year makes. And U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing) probably couldn’t be happier.

This week, yet another one of her high-profile opponents, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Bob Young, bowed out. The Harvard alum known for his erudite eviscerations from the bench had tried to metamorphose into an angry Trump acolyte, from his Facebook Live announcement in which he yelled about being “the disruptor” to his cringey slogan, “Bow Tie. Bad Ass.”

It was like if William F. Buckley suddenly tried to transform himself into Vanilla Ice. And it didn’t work.

Young follows in the footsteps of Lena Epstein, a Trump surrogate who decided her talents would be best used in an open metro Detroit congressional seat. And of course, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and rap/rock star Kid Rock never pulled the trigger, despite considerable hype.

That leaves the GOP field with three candidates: John James, an Iraq war veteran and political newcomer; businessman Sandy Pensler; and historic preservationist Bob Carr.

President Trump’s numbers have tumbled in Michigan. Our Senate election hasn’t even cracked the top 10 races in 2018. And more and more analysts are predicting a national Democratic wave next year.

Stabenow, who’s sitting on a $7 million war chest, probably isn’t shaking in her boots — but she’ll run like someone who’s 20 points behind. That’s just the Stabenow way.

But let’s remember that at the onset of 2017, Republicans were riding high. Trump had just become the first Republican to win Michigan since 1988, pushing him over the top in the Electoral College. And victory was all the sweeter since even many conservatives had resigned themselves to four years of another Democratic president.

So Republicans were feeling buoyant about 2018. They’d already had an impressive run since 2011, controlling the governor’s mansion, attorney general’s office, secretary of state’s domain, state House, state Senate, state Supreme Court and congressional delegation. And most GOP strategists expected the good times to keep on rolling through the next election, especially as Michigan was Trump country now.

They even set their sights on the most powerful Democrat in the state, something that had seemed laughable before Nov. 8, 2016. I’d even written a column in the fall of 2015 with this lead: “Every six years, Michigan Republicans get to play their least-favorite game: Who wants to lose to Debbie Stabenow?”

Consider the electoral history of Michigan’s senior senator. Stabenow won the seat in 2000 by coming from behind to knock out incumbent Spencer Abraham, who Republicans had thought was a lock. Since then, she’s dispatched both her challengers, Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard and former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, by double digits.

The three-term senator is the once (and perhaps future) Senate Agriculture Chair, as she’s never lost touch with her farm roots in Clare. Nobody outworks her and she’s always a prodigious fundraiser.

But as Republican powerbrokers eagerly awaited President Trump’s inauguration, they tittered that Stabenow’s time was finally up.

Some dejected Democrats worried they were right and confided that if the GOP could oust Stabenow, that would be the death knell for the party in Michigan. The state’s other Democratic senator, freshman Gary Peters, would be toast in 2020 and nobody with a “D” after their name would ever win anything again.

If there’s one thing that Democrats excel at, it’s dreaming up elaborate Chicken Little scenarios.

Republicans began jumping into the ‘18 Senate race with abandon. But everyone was overshadowed by the prospect of Kid Rock teasing a run, with even former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon reportedly wooing him.

The national media nearly collectively lost their mind, spinning cliché-strewn stories and tweets about how the hardscrabble Macomb County kid (who grew up in a sprawling mansion) would capture the hearts of all the hard hats at the Warren bowling alleys and become the Donald Trump of the Senate.

After exploiting everyone’s credulousness and selling out some concerts, Kid Rock went on “The Howard Stern Show” last fall and almost admirably declared, “F--- no, I’m not running for Senate; are you kidding me?”

By then, Epstein had already dropped out of the Senate race to pursue the seat left open by the retirement of U.S. Rep. Dave Trott (R-Birmingham).* But at least she left behind the gift that keeps on giving, a deliciously awkward 55-second YouTube video titled, “Lena Epstein Welcomes Kid Rock 2 the Party,” complete with her flashing a Sarah Palin-style wink.

Upton took a pass on the race before Thanksgiving (thankfully before he had to degrade himself on social media). And now Young has taken his badass bowtie and gone home.

As it stands now, Republicans find themselves in the familiar position of trying to coalesce around a less-than ideal nominee, kicking in some cash and hoping against hope that Stabenow slips up.

They could always get lucky in 2018. But not too many would take those odds.

* Party affiliation corrected.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: The War Over Gerrymandering Has Just Begun

You can’t really pick an issue that’s more inside baseball than gerrymandering. And yet remarkably, this has inspired the most genuine grassroots political effort I’ve seen in Michigan.


Before Christmas, a group called Voters Not Politicians turned in 425,000 signatures for a ballot initiative that would create an independent citizen commission to draw legislative districts in Michigan instead of the Legislature. The group will need 315,654 of those signatures to be valid in order to get the measure on the 2018 ballot.

You’d think most non-political junkies never think twice about gerrymandering, which establishes an advantage for a political party by manipulating district boundaries.

But you’d be wrong.

The playbook for getting questions on the Michigan ballot is well-established. First, raise $1 million. (With Gov. Snyder signing a 2016 law tightening up the timeframe for the signature-gathering process, banking $2 million in advance is helpful). Then you pay people to circulate petitions across the state, an arduous process.

Voters Not Politicians broke the rules. They raised about $130,000 as of August and launched an all-volunteer effort, finding folks lining up to sign petitions from Detroit to Holland and everywhere in between.

Many of the petition circulators had never attended a political rally or a party meeting. But crusading against gerrymandering — which might seem to be the ultimate pie-in-the-sky effort — has attracted people from across the political spectrum who want more of a say in their government.

In other words, Voters Not Politicians has become what the Clean Michigan Government part-time legislature effort launched by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley advertised itself as being: A groundswell of regular people sick of politics and government as usual. That petition drive, in contrast, has been plagued with problems and was turned over to far-right ideologues Tom McMillin and Dave Agema after it served its true purpose, launching Calley’s 2018 gubernatorial bid.

Here’s how the current redistricting process currently works. After each decennial census, the Michigan Legislature is charged with redrawing the boundaries for the state House, state Senate and Congress based on shifts in population. And the governor has to sign the new plan.

So in the case of the state Legislature, you literally have politicians being able to pick their voters. I have watched staffers go block by block to find the “right” mix of voters for their boss’ district (i.e. enough Democrats or Republicans to keep them “safe”). The first rule of redistricting is politicians protect their jobs.

It’s also a partisan process by design. For the last two redistricting cycles in 2001 and 2011, Republicans have controlled everything, as they held the governorship, both chambers of the Legislature and even had a majority on the state Supreme Court, which could be counted on to rule in favor of the GOP’s maps.

Not surprisingly, Republicans have drawn districts that favor GOP majorities in the state Legislature and Congress. It’s paid off handsomely. Consider 2014, a good Republican year in which Snyder was re-elected. Republicans won a 63-47 majority in the state House, a 27-11 majority in the state Senate and maintained their 9-5 majority in the congressional delegation.

But when Inside Michigan Politics examined statewide votes, it wasn’t exactly a red tsunami. Democrats won a majority of the statewide vote for state House races and a plurality of votes for Congress. Republicans won a narrow statewide vote majority for the state Senate.

And yet Republicans ended up with bone-crushing majorities in all three bodies. That was by design.

It’s true that some areas are heavily Republican, like Allegan County, or overwhelmingly Democratic, like Detroit. It’s impossible to draw competitive districts there and it wouldn’t represent voters to do so. However, it would be pretty painless to draw dozens more districts that didn’t favor one party or the other. But right now, there’s little incentive — from either party — to do so.

Voters Not Politicians proposes a process controlled by a 13-member body would be composed of Democrats, Republicans and independents who don’t have a stake in the outcome. After covering redistricting in Iowa, which has a similar framework, I can say that it’s not a perfect process but it’s far superior to what goes on in Michigan and other states.

Not surprisingly, Republicans have been quick to slam the ballot measure as a stalking horse for Democrats, as several board members have given to Dem candidates. Republicans feel they’ve got a good shot at running the show for the 2021 redistricting process, so if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Of course, with Democrats winning a slew of special legislative races and big victories in Virginia and New Jersey this year, that’s not exactly a guaranteed outcome. And there’s a Supreme Court case that could also upend Michigan’s redistricting process.

It wouldn’t be shocking for the GOP-controlled Legislature to try and throw a monkey wrench into anti-gerrymandering efforts. Republicans could pass a proposal of their own that would appear on the ‘18 ballot and muddy the waters, for instance.

This fight is just beginning.  

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Democrats Learn to Love Liberalism Again


As a kid with an abnormal interest in politics growing up in the 1980s, I quickly learned a couple of maxims: The Russians were our mortal enemies hellbent on destroying the American way of life and “liberal” was a dirty word.

Nobody wanted to be labeled a liberal in the Reagan era, except, perhaps, Ted Kennedy. In politics, liberalism was shorthand for government bloat and old ideas. But more generally, it was synonymous with whining and failure.

Talk about an effective branding campaign by Republicans. It’s little wonder that in the decades since, many on the left have tried to escape this negative frame by favoring the term “progressivism.”

So I have to admit to experiencing a bit of whiplash in our post-2016 election world. I still have to rub my eyes and wonder if I’m truly awake every time President Trump or Republicans defend the Russians, who may have ditched communism but are still dedicated to undermining the United States on the world stage. They demonstrated that plainly by meddling in our presidential election, something undisputed by our intelligence agencies.

It’s even more bizarre to hear some conservatives decry those of us not down with a hostile foreign power as “McCarthyites.” (It’s less surprising coming from the far left, which has always had a blind spot for Russia).

Another fascinating development is seeing many Democrats embracing liberalism, both elected officials and activists. And it’s not just defending specific policies, but arguing that liberalism is the mark of a forward-thinking society. That’s a 180 from the 80s-style Republican caricature of the ideology.

To see this transformation in action, look at Democratic primaries. Candidates are jockeying over who’s the furthest left, even for seats that favor Republicans in general elections. My inbox is jammed with releases like this: “Progressive Candidate Fayrouz Saad’s Statement on Rep. Trott’s Retirement” (Saad is a Democrat running in the 11th congressional district, which has been represented by Republicans for years). Some Bernie Sanders-style candidates are proudly declaring themselves to be socialists.

For decades, Republican primaries have been “who’s the most conservative” measuring contests. Candidates typically make the case with their platforms, arguing over who could cut taxes and ban abortion fast enough.

Incumbents love to trot out their voting records as proof of their conservative bona fides. Every year, my publication, Inside Michigan Politics, ranks the most liberal and most conservative state legislators on how they voted on dozens of key social, economic, taxation, environmental, civil rights, and public health/safety issues. In 2017, IMP used 31 votes taken in the Senate and 32 votes in the House.

Those who win, place or show on the conservative side are usually thrilled and often trumpet the honor in their campaigns. But the reaction from the “most liberal” honorees has often been mixed. Some, like state Sen. Rebekah Warren (D-Ann Arbor), a five-time “Most Liberal Senator” champ, wear it as a badge of honor. Other lawmakers, especially those in marginal seats, have been less than thrilled to be tagged with the liberal label.

But given the leftward turn in Democratic politics, I expect more legislators to celebrate their liberal voting records in the 2018 election.

So who took home the honors in IMP’s 2017 rankings?

In the House, the “Most Liberal” House member was state Rep. Yosef Rabhi (D- Ann Arbor), with an 87.5 percent liberal voting record. State Rep. Jeff Noble (R-Plymouth) is the conservative champ, voting liberal only 18.8 percent of the time.

For the Senate, state Sen. Morris Hood III (D-Detroit) was the “Most Liberal” member, posting an 88.9 percent liberal record. State Sen. Peter MacGregor (R-Rockford) was the 2017 “Most Conservative” titan with a 19.4 percent liberal voting score. The complete rankings of all 149 legislators are in the December editions of IMP.

In 2018, it’s worth watching how the furthest left candidates fare in their primaries and how many triumph in fierce general election battles. That’s a key way to assess if the Democratic Party will keep swinging left.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: Can Levin and Conyers Hand Down their Seats to their Sons?

levin conyers.jpg


This is America, where we instinctively detest monarchies and political dynasties … until a dynamic scion catches our particular fancy.

For every Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton and Chelsea Clinton (who’s yet to even run for anything yet) that the political class bemoans as tiresome emblems of nepotism, there’s a George W. Bush, Mitt Romney or Joseph Kennedy III whose political pedigree and charisma captures their hearts.

The difference between disdain and acclaim usually comes down to whether people believe a family-connected politician has earned his/her position and therefore the right to run for a more prestigious office. And that’s, of course, somewhat subjective.

Michigan has a fine tradition of rewarding powerful political families at the ballot box, including two members of Congress. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) succeeded his uncle, Dale Kildee, in the MI-5 in 2012 after serving as Genesee County treasurer and founding the nonprofit Center for Community Progress.

Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) was elected to the MI-12 in 2014 after the retirement of her husband, former Dean of the House John Dingell Jr. (who had succeeded his father, John Dingell Sr.). Mrs. Dingell has been a Democratic National committeewoman, Wayne State Board of Governors chair and longtime Democratic fundraiser.

It’s safe to say that the extensive résumés of both Debbie Dingell and Dan Kildee would put them in the “worthy” category of familially linked politicians, although the former is derided more than the latter (which naturally isn’t uncommon for women).

But even if you disagree, consider the fact that neither of them have faced any real competition in their respective Democratic primaries, even though there are plenty of ambitious politicians (often stunted by term limits) who would have run in a heartbeat if they thought they had a chance. So if Kildee and Dingell were just riding their families’ coattails with no significant accomplishments of their own, you can bet they would have had to overcome serious rivals.

For the last week, political nepotism has been back in the news, thanks to two other Michigan members of Congress who announced they’re stepping down. There’s Sandy Levin (D-Southfield), who will next year under favorable circumstances, and John Conyers (D-Detroit), who left this week in shame amid several women accusing him of sexual harassment.

Conyers has declared he wants his son, John Conyers III, to succeed him in the MI-13, while his great-nephew, state Sen. Ian Conyers (D-Detroit) is almost certainly expected to run. Even Conyers’ once-estranged wife, Monica Conyers, has been mentioned as a candidate, even though she went to prison over a bribery scandal when she was on the Detroit City Council.

It’s pretty clear that Monica Conyers has no business running — having a felon replace her scandal-plagued husband would send a terrible message. Their son, John Conyers III, got busted for driving a taxpayer-funded Escalade and is a 9/11 truther (as a prolific social media user, he also tweeted in 2010 that his dad is a “f------ player and reckless as hell.”) It’s safe to say that if his surname wasn’t Conyers, no one would take him seriously as a candidate.

His cousin, Ian Conyers, hasn’t put in decades in politics like Kildee and Dingell did — he’s only 29. But he’s been a congressional aide, worked on President Obama’s 2012 re-election and was elected to the state Senate in 2016. Conyers is a serious candidate, but not so formidable to chase off other Dems. He’ll have to fight his way through a crowded primary next year.

Meanwhile, Levin — who’s the brother of former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin — has long wanted his son, Andy Levin, to take his place in the MI-9. When the younger Levin revealed right before Thanksgiving that he wouldn’t run for governor, most politicos took it as a signal that his father was retiring. Less than two weeks later, Sandy did. And Andy promptly declared for the seat on Wednesday.

Like his father, Andy Levin is a Harvard-trained lawyer, but he has never held elective office. He lost a state Senate race in 2006 and the consolation prize was go to work for the Gov. Jennifer Granholm administration, where he briefly served as director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. Afterwards, he founded Levin Energy Partners.

Is that enough to win his father’s seat next year? Time will tell. But other Democrats don’t seem particularly intimidated and a big field is expected.

The next generation of Conyerses and Levins will have their work cut out for them if they want to carry on their respective political dynasties.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: No Room for Pro-Choice Candidates in the GOP


Shortly after Grosse Pointe businessman Sandy Pensler announced he would run for U.S. Senate as a Republican next year, his spokesman had to quickly put out that he had “evolved” on abortion and he’s now pro-life.

Pensler had run for the same office in 1992 as a pro-choice Republican.*

I can’t speak to Pensler’s personal beliefs, which I presume are sincere. But he’s getting attacked from the far-right Faith and Freedom Coalition for his pro-choice past, anyway. And there’s no doubt that the political winds have shifted in his party.

Last year, the Grand Traverse GOP embarrassed itself by excommunicating its most famous and most successful member, former Gov. William Milliken. In addition to endorsing Democrats (expressing independent thought, the horror!), the moderate was specifically lambasted for vetoing pro-life legislation that was “contrary to the core principles of Republicans.”

As recently as the last decade, there were a smattering of pro-choice Republicans in the Michigan Legislature, like former state Sen. Shirley Johnson. But no more.

Take former state Sen. and U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Battle Creek), a Catholic physician who’s personally pro-life but refused to have every vote dictated to him by Right to Life. In 2006, he lost his Republican congressional primary fight to now-U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), an outspoken pro-life preacher.

After watching what happened to Schwarz and pro-choice Republicans like former U.S. Sen. Lincoln Chafee, ambitious Republicans have learned to toe the pro-life line. I can’t tell you how many GOP officials have told me off the record that they’re pro-choice or don’t really care about abortion, but they keep quiet, because they’d like to keep their jobs.

So it wasn’t surprising to see Mitt Romney declare he was now pro-life when he ran for president the first time in 2008. Now-President Donald Trump had the same conversion.

And now-Gov. Rick Snyder, who had bucked Right to Life by backing the ‘08 embryonic stem-cell constitutional amendment, ran in 2010 as being firmly pro-life. Although Snyder has signed a number of bills clamping down on LGBT and abortion rights, his occasional independent streak has made social conservatives apoplectic.

But that will change if Snyder is succeeded by a Republican in 2019 — whether it’s Attorney General Bill Schuette or his own lieutenant governor, Brian Calley. Bills like the Right to Life license plate will be signed into law within the first month. Count on it.  

Meanwhile, those Republicans who have stuck to their pro-choice politics have found themselves wandering in the political desert. Both Schwarz and Chafee became independents after losing their elections, with the former flirting with running for Congress in 2012 as a Democrat and the latter running for president in 2016 as one.

If there’s currently a pro-choice Republican holding office in Michigan, I’m not aware of it.

There are plenty of pro-life Democratic officials left in Michigan, however, although their numbers are shrinking. Democrats seeking higher office, like governor or U.S. Senate, are now overwhelmingly pro-choice. Former U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Menominee) would be the exception if he does jump into the ‘18 gubernatorial race, but he could suffer the same fate of pro-life former Speaker Andy Dillon (D-Redford), who lost badly in the ‘10 Dem primary.

There’s been a fierce debate within the party over whether to run pro-life candidates in 2018, particularly to win over voters in more conservative areas after Trump’s surprise win.

This was inflamed by Bernie Sanders endorsing a pro-life mayoral candidate Health Mello in Nebraska, but snubbing pro-choice Jon Ossoff in his Georgia congressional race. In the end, neither man won, but Dems are left to grapple with abortion as a litmus test.

You can expect this to play out in some Michigan legislative primaries next year, as Rep. Kristy Pagan (D-Canton) and others are recruiting pro-choice women, even in socially conservative areas up north and on the west side of the state. They now have a big victory under their belt with pro-choice Sara Cambensy winning this month’s special 109th state House election in the U.P.

Don’t expect pro-life Democrats to disappear from the Legislature completely. And it’s worth noting that even when Dems have run the state House — as recently as 2006 to 2010 — there was still an anti-abortion majority.

There’s no doubt that the parties are becoming more polarized on abortion. But the Dems still have a ways to go before they achieve the ideological purity that Republicans have.

*Correction: The column originally misstated Ronna Romney ran for Senate on a pro-choice platform; she did not.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: GOP’s Gun Votes Could Backfire in 2018


Last week, we learned that a Michigan Republican lawmaker had lost an assistant U.S. Education secretary post over several outré blog posts, including one that called for throwing all Muslims on the no-fly list for terrorists.

There’s some irony that this First Amendment-chucking proposal from Rep. Tim Kelly (R-Saginaw) cost him a key slot with the Trump administration, which has proposed several variations of travel ban targeting Muslims.

Kelly followed the playbook of Republicans in the Trump era, bemoaning that he’d been thwarted by the “toxicity of the swamp.” He also argued that he was a “conservative Republican with opinions” that “don’t match those of the left,” which is a bit strange considering that his candidacy was rejected by uber-conservative Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Interestingly, the Kelly news broke just as the no-fly list was back in the news in Michigan.

A majority of Republican senators had just voted against banning those on the no-fly list from being able to get a concealed pistol license (CPL), which flies in the face of the GOP’s usual get-tough-on-terrorists stance.

It’s also an awful position for lawmakers to defend in next year’s election. Now many senators are term-limited, but you can bet that Democrats will be pushing Republicans up and down the ballot whether they support “guns for terrorists.”

Democrats often have a problem distilling their issues and attacks into easy-to-remember soundbites. GOP messaging guru Frank Luntz, who has a history of advising Michigan Republicans, is a master of this. He’s won the rhetorical framing war on host of political topics, most famously rebranding the estate tax that affects only .2 percent of Americans as the menacing “death tax,” which many mistakenly believe they’ll have to pay, as none of us is getting out of here alive.

But Democrats have a tailor-made issue with the no-fly list loophole.

Sen. Curtis Hertel (D-Meridian Twp.), who helps run the Senate Dems’ campaign effort, gave us a nice preview of the 2018 ads to come with this quip after the vote: “If you’re too dangerous to board a plane, you’re too dangerous to have a CPL.”

The Republican majority also voted against banning people with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions from obtaining CPLs. Just a few days before, Devin Patrick Kelley allegedly shot and killed 26 people during a Texas church service. He had a long history of domestic violence against his wife and stepson, fracturing his skull. And still, Kelley was able to obtain the AR-15 he used to slaughter people as they prayed.

Just a few months earlier, James Hodgkinson allegedly shot up a GOP congressional baseball practice, injuring Michigan native Matt Mika and U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.). Hodgkinson had a history of beating his daughter and other young women.

Many mass murderers share a similar background. There’s ample research that a history of domestic abuse is a key factor in violent recidivism. But Michigan Republicans refused to take a basic step to keep guns out of the hands of those who have beaten and abused those closest to them.

And they voted against stopping sex offenders from being able to get CPLs. That was also pretty timely with the Washington Post breaking a story that former Judge Roy Moore, the GOP Alabama U.S. Senate nominee, had allegedly sexually abused four teenage girls when he was in his 30s. Moore has denied molesting girls, but wouldn’t rule out having dated teenagers during that time.

These gun policies are terrible. And the politics are just as bad. So why would Republicans take these votes?

Because their top priority before before dashing out of town for their two-week “hunting break” was passing legislation allowing people with CPLs to carry concealed weapons in gun-free zones like schools, churches, daycares, sports stadiums, college dorms and bars.

If you’re not crazy about people packing heat where your kids go to learn their ABCs or while downing a fifth of bourbon and getting riled up over the Lions game at your favorite tavern, you’re not alone. Almost 60 percent of Michigan voters agreed with you in the most recent polling from EPIC-MRA in October 2015.

But apparently Republicans decided they wouldn’t even attempt to make unpopular legislation slightly more palatable. And so they soundly rejected Democratic amendments to stop people on the no-fly list, domestic abusers and sex offenders from getting concealed weapon permits.

That decision probably made NRA lobbyists proud. But it could end up backfiring big time in 2018.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.

Susan J. Demas: With a Key U.P. Victory, 2018 Looks Brighter for Michigan Democrats

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If you’re looking for a window into 2018 in Michigan, the most important race took place last night in the western Upper Peninsula.

On first blush, it looks like a pretty routine result in the special election for the 109th state House District: Democrat Sara Cambensy held a seat that’s been blue for more than a half-century. The district has a solid 56.9 percent Democratic base, per Inside Michigan Politics, and became vacant after Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette) tragically killed himself this spring.

But Republicans made a real run at this 109th. Why? They knew that this election was bigger than a single state legislative seat.

Democrats were palpably nervous about the race after Cambensy narrowly won her August primary. Divisions in the party reared their head, as leaders fretted her pro-choice and liberal politics wouldn’t play in a district Donald Trump won by 5 points in 2016. Cambensy’s history of primarying Kivela last year hadn’t been forgotten. And the memory of Trump defying all expectations and winning Michigan in 2016 certainly put a fire under the Dems.

So if Republicans had managed to flip the 109th, I noted that they would have changed the narrative that 2018 would be a good Democratic year in Michigan. Democrats’ efforts to take back the House next year (now split 63-47 in the GOP’s favor) would have instantly been seen as lost cause and fundraising would have mostly dried up.

The GOP has controlled all three branches of government here since 2010. Trump became the first Republican to win Michigan since 1988. A Republican victory this year in the U.P. — an area that’s been shifting conservative since 2010 and went big for Trump in ’16 — would have confirmed that Michigan really is an emerging red state. And so even if 2018 continued to look bright for Democrats nationally, we’d have had good reason to believe that Michigan would be immune from the trend.

But those fears were laid to rest, as Cambensy didn’t just win. She won in a 14-point rout. Any divisions in the Democratic Party didn’t hurt the outcome — just as we saw in the marquee gubernatorial races last night in New Jersey and Virginia.

Republicans really did give this Michigan state House race their all and their nominee, Marquette school board President Rich Rossway, was up on TV. He didn’t run a bombastic, base-inspired Trump campaign, either. In fact, he played down his party affiliation (much as Democrats in red areas have done for years) and even walked a picket line, something relatively unheard of for Michigan Republicans since they rammed through Right to Work in 2012.

So now House Democrats are back in the same place they were on Nov. 9, 2016, with two victories Tuesday (the other was the 1st in the Detroit area). Republicans once again have a 63-47 majority, meaning Democrats have to flip nine seats next year to take control.

That’s the exact situation the Dems faced in 2016 when they failed to make any net gains. But Democrats’ smashing successes in Virginia legislative races last night — a state that, like Michigan, boasts heavily GOP-gerrymandered districts — has definitely made leaders more optimistic. And with clear evidence of an energized base, Democrats are also feeling better about their chances at the top of the ticket with next year’s gubernatorial race.

Winning the governor’s mansion or the state House in 2018 would give Democrats a seat at the table during Michigan’s critical 2021 redistricting — something that hasn’t happened for three decades.

And of course, a big Michigan Dem victory would be a stunning reversal for a newly minted Trump state, portending serious problems for the president in 2020.

Susan J. Demas: Democrats Now Have a Road Map for 2018


Democrats smashed all expectations on Tuesday, racking up key election wins across the country. To make victory even sweeter, this was almost a year to the date from when Donald Trump shocked progressives by conquering the presidency.

Indeed, the news was so bad for Republicans that Fox News barely covered the results and the only election Trump referenced on Twitter was the one in 2016.

The year after a presidential election, the marquee races are for New York City mayor, New Jersey governor and Virginia governor. On Tuesday, Democrats won the trifecta — and no election was even close, even as pundits declared they’d “blown it” in Virginia.

These elections have long been considered a barometer for what to expect in the midterms. As of now, everything seems to be coming up roses for the Dems.

In 2009, a year after Barack Obama’s first victory, Republicans took both gubernatorial races. Mike Bloomberg switched that year from being a Republican to an independent and won a third term as New York mayor.

And in Michigan, Republicans triumphed in a special state Senate race that year. As I’ve noted, the victory of now-Sen. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) was a harbinger of the GOP tsunami in 2010, when the party won the governorship, a 9-5 advantage in Congress, a 63-47 majority in the House and a 26-12 supermajority in the Senate.

The result of the special state House race Tuesday in the 109th district to replace the late Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette) might not seem as dramatic. Democrats held an Upper Peninsula seat with a solid 56.9 percent Democratic base, per Inside Michigan Politics — one that’s been in their hands for more than a half-century. But it’s also a district that Trump won last year and the U.P. has been trending red since 2010.

Democrats were nervous, especially after Trump’s upset in Michigan a year ago. But despite Republicans’ best efforts — running Rich Rossway, a well-funded moderate who courted unions — Democrat Sara Cambensy won by 14 points.

The Dems’ enthusiasm is a great sign for 2018. That’s what they need if they want to flip the state House, which is split 63-47 in the GOP’s favor, and/or capture the big prize of the governor’s mansion. Either way, the Dems would regain a foothold in shaping the state’s agenda — and in the all-important 2021 redistricting process.

It’s significant that Cambensy won in spite deep divisions in the party. Republicans tried to exploit them, arguing the pro-choice Cambensy was too liberal for the district and pointing out that she’d primaried the popular Kivela last year. Nothing stuck.

The GOP attacks against Democrat Ralph Northam in the Virginia gubernatorial race also fell flat. Pundits speculated that menacing ads (which warned the Dem would let international MS-13 killers run wild in the state) would be the death knell for Northam. But he won the race handily.

Since Trump’s surprise victory last year, the media have been obsessed with white working-class voters who flipped to him. Democrats have been mired in debates about how to win those voters back, which has, at times, slighted women and people of color.

I’ve noted that a sect of Michigan Democrats has been focused on finding a white male gubernatorial candidate for months. They fervently believe that the only way for Dems to win back the governor’s mansion is with a “safe” nominee after Trump flipped Michigan last year.

The current field includes frontrunner former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) and Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, the former Detroit Health Department head who would be the nation’s first Muslim governor. There’s also businessman Shri Thanedar, who immigrated from India, and former executive Bill Cobbs, who’s African-American.

But Tuesday’s results don’t support the premise that Dems must adopt a defensive crouch and find the “Great White Male Hope,” starting with Cambensy’s victory in the U.P. She certainly wasn’t the safe choice for Democrats to nominate and yet she shattered expectations.

In Virginia, a trans journalist defeated the homophobic author of the “bathroom bill” in a state House race. The chamber also got its first Asian female and Latina members. And the boyfriend of a reporter killed on live TV defeated an NRA-backed candidate on a gun-control platform.

Charlotte, N.C., elected its first black female mayor and six other cities elected their first black mayors. Both of the new lieutenant governors in New Jersey and Virginia are African-American. An African-American woman beat a local New Jersey official who had posted a meme wondering if the Women’s March activists would be “over in time for them to cook dinner.”

And after enduring a campaign marked by “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our town!” fliers, Hoboken, N.J., elected its first Sikh mayor.

If you’re looking for a common thread, it would be that so many of these rising political stars are passionate about America as they see it — a beautiful, messy, diverse republic where anyone should be able to make it. Sure, it’s a rebuke of Trump, who’s fond of describing our nation as a dystopian hellscape. But it’s also a pretty appealing and uplifting message.

And even if you don’t buy the message, you can’t deny the candidates’ passion. That’s a quality that can’t be manufactured and wins races — which is exactly what Democrats need in 2018.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at Follow her on Twitter here.