Ukraine and Complications in Michigan’s 2022 Election
All events in International Relations have unintended consequences, including the results of elections. In recent weeks, we have had our eyes on Eastern Europe, as the Russian Federation launched the largest scale invasion of a sovereign European country since World War II. Beginning in 2014, Russia has annexed or recognized the independence of the separatist regions of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk. We gathered differing but expert opinions from the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and Michigan State University’s James Madison College, to provide insight as to how the events unfolding in Eastern Europe will affect the outcome in the November 2022 election here in Michigan.

Democrats in Michigan look to flip the House of Representatives and take a majority in the Michigan Senate for the first time since 1983. While the Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission created arguably the most competitive maps this state has seen in some time, Democrats face the traditional headwinds of the President’s first midterm election.

Scholars of International Relations from James Madison College at Michigan State University said that events like the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and the withdrawal of American troops of Afghanistan in August 2021 will harm Democrats’ chances to not only keep both the Senate and House of Representatives at the federal level, but also harm the prospects of down-ticket Democratic candidates – unless they distance themselves from the Biden administration. These academics referenced Governor Gretchen Whitmer as a prime example of someone who touted Biden in 2020, was a chair for his campaign and an important piece in his inaugural, and is facing reelection with a more than arm’s length distance from the federal executive.

Michigan State University scholars pointed to historically low approval ratings for President Joe Biden and Congress (41% approval rating, February 2022. Congress as a whole almost always has low approval ratings regardless of the view of a president) laying the foundation for another shift in power from the Democrats to the Republicans at the federal level, which is consistent with contemporary American politics in a president’s first midterm election, and Republicans maintaining control of the Michigan Legislature.

At the state level, Whitmer has an approval rating of 47.6% and a favorable rating among independent voters of 49.0% (January 2022). Whitmer, along with Attorney General Dana Nessel, and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson have been considered candidates that could be ousted by a Republican candidate since the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 elections.

Michigan State University scholars acknowledged the armed conflict in Ukraine has further acted as a catalyst to disrupt supply chains, causing normal goods to increase in cost, including gas.

The Republican controlled Michigan Legislature has proposed suspending gas taxes to help families afford soaring prices, and to increase economic strength and stability. In a letter to congressional leaders, Governors Whitmer (MI-D), Walz (MN-D), Wolf (PA-D), Polis (CO-D), Lujan Grisham (NM-D), and Evers (WI-D) wrote “money saved at the pump translates into dollars back in consumer’s pockets for groceries, childcare, rent, and more”. All but Governor Tom Wolf face reelection this fall.

Representatives Elissa Slotkin (MI-D) and Dan Kildee (MI-D) have cosponsored the Gas Prices Relief Act of 2022, which will suspend the $0.184 cents-per-gallon federal tax through the remainder of 2022. Governor Whitmer has come out in support of this initiative.

In a Bloomberg article published in February 2022, Michigan led the pack of U.S. states recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic. Michigan led the way with 8.2% economic health improvement, the number of employed Michiganders has risen faster than the U.S. average overall in the pandemic era, and it has become a hot place for investment through the state’s AA-rated bonds at 5.6% (income plus appreciation) that are outperforming other midwestern states such as Indiana, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Seven out of the top ten companies in Michigan on the stock market are among the top ten global leaders in their respective industries, such as General Motors (Detroit), Ford Motor Company (Dearborn), Dow Chemical (Midland), Rocket Mortgage (Detroit), Sun Communities Inc. (Southfield), and Domino’s Pizza (Ann Arbor). Likewise, Kalamazoo’s Stryker Corporation, the world’s third-largest medical devices creator, became Michigan’s biggest company by market capitalization (multiplying price of stock by total number of shares).

Despite Democrats’ touting low unemployment and healthy Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth under the Biden Administration and record economic recovery under Whitmer, high inflation rates (7.9% annual inflation rate, 2022) as a result of COVID-19 and further distress due to the crisis ongoing in Ukraine will cause a lot of voters that swing the election for either party to feel that the country, especially the economy (one of the largest issues voters have in mind when hitting the ballot box) is not in a better position than when they last voted in November 2020, thus giving the signal that the Republican Party will have a strong November.

Michigan State University scholars argued that when Americans vote this fall, they may not have Ukraine or Afghanistan on their mind at first or at all, but, the effects of both of those conflicts that are felt economically will lead to their ultimate decision.

Despite the resounding answer from academics of Michigan State University, others aren’t as convinced on the impending impact of the Biden Administration’s foreign policy apparent gaffes on the midterm elections. When asked about the ties between the Biden Administration’s approach to Afghanistan and Ukraine and the November elections in Michigan, Dr. Krisztina Fehervary, an associate professor at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, as well as offering sociocultural courses that complement majors in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan stated, “I have no clue how this will affect the election and…anyone who says they do is delusional”.

This skeptical sentiment was echoed by many authors and scholars last fall, many of whom doubted the voracity of the doomsayers who spelled disaster for the Democratic Party due to the fumbled Afghanistan withdrawal. In an August 2021 piece, author and analyst Nathan L. Gonzales of Rollcall pointed to exit polls that found that foreign policy wasn’t in the top four issues voters thought were the most important in the 2018 or 2020 elections. This apparent irrelevance of foreign policy when the voter reaches Election Day is a historical trend as well, with just 13% of voters calling it the most important issue in 2016, 13% in 2014, and 5% in 2012.

We won’t know for sure how the events unfolding around the globe such as the withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine will impact voters in November, but with foreign policy trending as a more important issue that has affected the cost of everyday goods and services that we all depend on, it is clear that both voters and politicians alike will have their eyes glued to the frontlines in Kyiv and Ukraine.