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.