Looking Ahead to 2018: Statewide Midterm Elections in the Trump Era

As we start this new year, preparations for the 2018 elections are already starting to take shape. It is too early to say what 2018 will bring us, and if 2016 taught us anything, it’s to assume nothing. President-Elect Donald Trump ran an unorthodox campaign that flew in the face of everything we know about how campaigns are supposed to be run, and he won. One can argue Hillary was just so unpopular, Democrats didn’t turn out, but regardless of how you choose to explain Democrats screwing it up, Trump is the benefactor and will be the next President.

As a 70-year-old, the President-Elect will not suddenly change his style or personality overnight: he will continue to follow his own rule book and defy conventional wisdom. Typically the party in power is on the defensive, which is not a stance Trump is familiar with. If his recent tweets are any clue he will remain on the offensive and attempt to set his own narrative, rather than allowing the opposition to define him.

In a typical midterm, the party in power typically loses seats at the federal and state levels. Could President Trump’s unorthodox method shift that conventional wisdom? It also remains to be seen what happens as the President-Elect’s ideology starts to become clearer. He is not a typical Republican and as that becomes more apparent to his most ardent supporters, will they still be there? Despite all of these theoretical unanswered questions, we do have a decent idea of what to expect in 2018.

The Obama Presidency has been very good for Michigan Republicans. Heading into the 2010 midterms, Democrats held the Governor’s office and the State House with a massive 67/43 majority, while Republicans narrowly held the Senate, 22/16. Now in 2017-18, Republicans hold all statewide constitutional offices, enjoy a 63/47 majority in the House, and a 27/11 supermajority in the Senate.

The last two midterm elections were great for Michigan Republicans, as were 1994 and 1998 under President Clinton. Democrats benefited in 2006 under George W. Bush, but the exception to the rule came in 2002, with the President enjoying national approval ratings north of 60 percent.

The top of the 2018 ballot is already starting to take shape, with the race for Governor starting to heat up. On the Republican side, the leading names are Lt. Gov Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette, while on the Democratic side the favorites are Congressman Dan Kildee and former Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer.

On the Republican side, one wonders how Donald Trump, the face of the GOP, will influence the primary. and how that dynamic may be a drag on the Republican nominee in the general election. When things looked grim for Trump after the Access Hollywood video, Schuette remained on board while Calley jumped ship with an “un-endorsement.” If there’s one certainty about Donald Trump, it’s that he values loyalty and holds grudges, which you may remember playing out as he publicly called out Gov. Rick Snyder at a rally in Grand Rapids. Democrats will be closely watching the Republican primary, hoping the fight over who can be more conservative (or more Trumpian) produces some choice quotes, as has happened in past statewide Republican primaries. Although Republicans have had success in past state elections, Democrats have two quality candidates, both proven fundraisers, and hard workers. The unpredictability of Trump and his presidency makes it hard to guess what will happen or his level of involvement will be – that is why this race is the toss-up.The other big state races of Attorney General and Secretary of State are months from taking shape.

The other 2018 statewide race is for US Senate as the formidable Debbie Stabenow runs for a fourth term. Although Republicans will make plenty of noise about seriously challenging Stabenow, this seems extremely unlikely. In the last four US Senate races here, Republicans have proven unsuccessful in finding a quality candidate, let alone one capable of taking down a popular incumbent.

What remains unknown is the long term effects of shifting demographic affiliations that were exposed and accelerated by the Trump-Clinton race. Suburban areas leaning more Democratic, and rural areas leaning towards Republicans had been happening beneath the surface prior to 2016, but the dramatic nature of this shift seen on November 8 took many pollsters and analysts by surprise.

Although these suddenly shifting demographics were partially responsible for the result in 2016, Democrats shouldn’t fret too much. Trends over the past 12 years suggest that suburban areas are moving towards Democrats slightly more quickly than rural areas are becoming more Republican; in part because these suburban areas are where the bulk of population growth has been concentrated. Meanwhile, rural areas of Michigan are growing older and losing population.

Over the coming weeks and months, there will be much more to say as things continue to develop. As the ground continues to shift, one needs to be able to adapt quickly in order to take advantage of new circumstances. With the unpredictability of the Trump era, it will be interesting to watch it all unfold and how the new Administration’s words and actions will impact things on the ground in Michigan. For now, look ahead to our analysis next week of how all of these dynamics affect the down ballot races for State House and State Senate.

About the Author | Brian Began is the Elections and Research Director at Grassroots Midwest.