Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 11, 2012

Parsing the election results


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---- — Michigan voters sent several strong messages in last week's presidential election.

They clearly don't regard Mitt Romney as any kind of a favorite son.

They don't want all sorts of special interests messing with the state constitution.

They don't seem interested in changing things very much.

They don't seem to mind divided government.

And they weren't in the mood to be brainwashed by a torrent of TV commercials.

It was, in short, after three straight elections that brought vast change every two years, something of a victory of the status quo.

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

But freshman U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek eked out a win over Democrat Gary McDowell. In Michigan's 11th District, the bizarre last-minute meltdown and resignation of five-term GOP congressman Thaddeus McCotter left Republicans with a nominee named Kerry Bentivolio, an extreme tea party supporter with bizarre views, a spotty employment record and history of bankruptcy.

Yet he managed to defeat his moderate Democratic opponent and win a seat in Congress, despite charges from Bentivolio's brother that he had undergone electroshock therapy for sniffing glue.

However, Republicans suffered two humiliating statewide defeats.

Mitt Romney utterly 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 originally had been expected to be a strong candidate.

Republicans have only won one U.S. Senate race in Michigan since 1972, and if U.S. Sen. Carl Levin runs again in 2014, they aren't likely to be strongly competitive then, either.

But at the state level, it's a different story. Republicans will still 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 did elect one new Michigan Supreme Court justice, Bridget Mary McCormack. But voters also re-elected two incumbent Republicans, Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra, leaving the GOP with a 4-3 edge on what a University of Chicago study has called one of the most partisan state supreme courts 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 in an attempt to get various proposals approved or defeated. In the end, voters said "no" to all of them by decisive margins.

The governor and the 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, bitterly opposed the law, since it gave emergency managers the right to break union contracts.

But the voters narrowly turned it down — and decisively rejected all five proposed constitutional amendments. Actually, you could make the argument that the two biggest losers of the night were not any candidates but United Auto Workers President Bob King and Ambassador Bridge owner Manuel "Matty" Moroun, who suffered humiliating defeats. King led a union drive to put an amendment protecting collective bargaining in the state constitution.

The unions spent millions in an attempt to persuade voters to protect bargaining, while various business groups spent heavily to argue that Proposal 2 would be bad for the state. When the votes were counted, 58 percent had turned thumbs down on the unions.

Matty Moroun, the 85-year-old billionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge, suffered an equally embarrassing setback.

Moroun, his wife and son spent more than $33 million in an effort to get voters to ratify a constitutional amendment that would have preserved his monopoly ownership of the only bridge between Port Huron and Buffalo, N.Y., that can transport heavy freight.

Gov. Rick Snyder, the Michigan business community and the Canadian government have argued that a new bridge is needed, especially since the 1929-era Ambassador Bridge was not designed for today's traffic.

The two governments signed an agreement in June to built a New International Trade Crossing bridge two miles south of the current bridge. Moroun's amendment would have attempted to prevent it from being built. He may, however, not be ready to give up.

When the votes were in, a Moroun spokesman, Mickey Blashfield, charged that the new 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, and told Crain's Detroit Business that even delaying the new bridge "is a huge win for them," because of the enormous profits their monopoly generates.

Voters also overwhelmingly rejected an amendment that would have required utilities to get 25 percent of their energy from renewable sources, another requiring home health care workers to unionize, and one that sought to prevent any tax increases.

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

For the next two years, the political landscape in Lansing will be just about what it has been — except that with a newly re-elected Democratic president, efforts to resist getting ready to comply with the President's health care reforms may cease.

Starting 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 the president re-elected and mid-term elections approaching, there will be more of a spirit of compromise.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.