Michigan’s election aftermath: Status quo; Mitt who?


DETROIT — Michigan voters sent several strong messages in this week’s presidential election. They clearly didn’t regard Mitt Romney as any kind of a favorite son. They didn’t want all sorts of special interests messing with the state constitution and didn’t seem interested in changing things.

They don’t seem to mind divided government and weren’t in the mood to be brainwashed by a torrent of TV commercials.

After three consecutive elections that brought vast change, it was something of a victory for the status quo.

There was some disappointment for Democrats, who had strong hopes of winning Michigan’s northernmost congressional seat and an outside chance of winning two others.

Freshman U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek eked out a win over Democrat Gary McDowell in the 1st U.S. House District. In Michigan’s 11th U.S. House District, the bizarre last-minute meltdown and resignation of five-term GOP congressman Thaddeus McCotter left Republicans with nominee Kerry Bentivolio, an extreme Tea Party supporter with bizarre views, a spotty employment record, and a history of bankruptcy.

Yet Mr. Bentivolio managed to defeat his moderate Democratic opponent, despite charges from Mr. Bentivolio’s brother that he had undergone electroshock therapy for sniffing glue.

But Republicans suffered two humiliating statewide defeats. Mr. Romney failed to be competitive in Michigan, even losing the well-heeled suburban county in which he grew up. And Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow won a third term by a landslide against Pete Hoekstra, a former congressman who had been expected to be a strong candidate.

At the state level, it’s a different story. Republicans still will control all branches of government when the new Legislature convenes in January. Democrats gained five seats in the Michigan House, but Republicans still have a 59-51 majority.

Democrats elected one new Michigan Supreme Court justice, Bridget Mary McCormack. But voters also re-elected two Republicans, Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra. That leaves the GOP with a 4-3 edge on a supreme court that a University of Chicago study has called one of the most partisan in the nation.

The most significant result, however, may have been the rejection of ballot proposal mania. Michigan voters faced five proposed constitutional amendments, plus a referendum on a tough new emergency manager law.

Special-interest groups spent more then $144 million to get various proposals approved or defeated. In the end, voters said no to all of them by decisive margins.

Gov. Rick Snyder and the Michigan business community advocated keeping the emergency manager law in place, possibly because many expect that Detroit may at some point need to be run by the state.

Unions, however, opposed the law, because it gave emergency managers the right to break union contracts.

But voters narrowly turned it down — and decisively rejected all five proposed constitutional amendments.

One could make the argument that the two biggest losers of the night were not candidates, but United Auto Workers President Bob King and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel “Matty” Moroun. Each suffered a humiliating defeat.

Mr. King led a union drive to put in Michigan’s constitution an amendment that would protect collective bargaining. The unions spent millions of dollars to persuade voters to protect bargaining, while various business groups spent heavily to argue that such an amendment would be bad for the state.

When the ballots were counted, 58 percent of those who voted turned thumbs down on the unions.

Mr. Moroun, the 85-year-old billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge, linking Detroit with Canada, suffered an equally embarrassing setback. Mr. Moroun, his wife, and son spent more than $33 million to persuade voters to ratify a constitutional amendment that would have preserved his monopoly ownership of the only bridge between Port Huron, Mich., and Buffalo over which heavy freight can be transported to and from Canada.

The Michigan and Canadian governments signed an agreement in June to build the New International Trade Crossing bridge two miles south of the current bridge. Mr. Moroun’s amendment would have attempted to deny its construction.

He may, however, not be ready to give up.

When the votes were in, Moroun spokesman Mickey Blashfield charged that the bridge would be built over “unstable salt mine foundations” and hinted at new lawsuits.

Sandy Baruah, president of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, predicted more litigation lay ahead. He told Crain’s Detroit Business that delaying the new bridge “is a huge win” for the family because of the enormous profits the Moroun monopoly generates.

When the returns were final, it was clear that Michigan has become a state that is reliably Democratic in presidential and U.S. Senate elections, but which sends a mainly GOP delegation to the U.S. House.

In January, we’ll learn whether a slightly diminished GOP in Lansing will continue to attempt to rule as it largely has, or whether, with midterm elections approaching, there will be more of a spirit of compromise.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan. Contact him at: omblade@aol.com