The midterms gave Democrats a lot to celebrate, but Michigan’s blue wave was in a class of its own. For the first time in 27 years, Democrats gained control of all three of the state’s top office—and for the first time ever, it was with an all-women ticket.
Michigan will soon welcome Gretchen Whitmer as governor, Jocelyn Benson as secretary of state and Dana Nessel as their attorney general. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow also won a third term this November, and Democratic nominee Megan Cavanagh won a coveted seat on the Michigan Supreme Court.
Cavanagh later recounted to the Detroit Free Press what it was like breaking the news to her 12- and 9-year-old daughters: “I told them, ‘Look at what women can do. Not just me. Look at what women did last night.’”
What women did in statewide elections was only the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to women flipping two U.S. House seats, Democrats will now make up half of Michigan’s 14 member congressional delegation. The number of Democratic women in the state Senate grew from one to eight, helping to end the Republicans’ “supermajority,” and, in the state House of Representatives, non-incumbent Democratic women gained a stunning 14 seats. Had it not been for 17 years of GOP gerrymandering, even more Democratic women would have been elected, and Republican control of the state legislature would have ended. Luckily, voters approved a proposal to end gerrymandering by creating an independent commission to determine district boundaries.
Like Democrats everywhere, Whitmer and the other members of the all-women ticket were the beneficiaries of an almost unprecedented voter turnout much of it generated by contempt for Donald Trump. All told, 4.3 million voters cast ballots this year—more than in any off-year election since 1962—and in Michigan most of them were from the Democratic strongholds of Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Ann Arbor and their adjacent suburbs. Those votes were pivotal: In Detroit, where voter turnout climbed by 10 percent, Nessel received 167,000 votes; without them, she would have lost her race for attorney general by 60,000 votes.
No one will know exactly who voted and why until the release of updated voter files, the digital databases that provide a bounty of information that raw election returns don’t. But Associated Press polling on Whitmer does offer some insights. Aside from having the advantage of being the anti-Trump, Whitmer scored points with her stance on health care, the single biggest concern of Michigan voters, education and infrastructure—particularly the state’s crumbling streets, an issue she came to own with her campaign mantra that she would “fix the damn roads.”
At the end of the day, what enabled Whitmer to win was that she had the ingredients of what political scientist Ruy Teixeira describes as “the formula for success in the Upper Midwest.” She carried white college grads, mobilized black and other non-white voters and didn’t get completely clobbered by white non-college-educated voters. But that wasn’t all that worked to her advantage: AP’s data shows Whitmer also had strong support among self-described independents and moderates, voters earning $50,000 a year or less and women. Many, many women. Six in 10 of them backed Whitmer.
“The Midwest has always been tough for women,” said political strategist Celinda Lake, who this year was an advisor to Nessel’s campaign for attorney general. Lake has pointed out that even as men have become accustomed to women serving in Congress and state legislatures, they continue to doubt their ability to hold executive office. In that sense, Lake believes the election of women to Michigan’s top positions “could be a major breakthrough for the state and the region filling the pipeline and normalizing the idea of women office holders.”
With barely a month remaining before Whitmer takes office, memories of her history-making election will soon give way to the work of rebuilding a state in such disrepair that many of its 10 million residents don’t even have safe drinking water. If she succeeds, many Michigan parents will tell their daughters what Justice-elect Megan Cavanagh told hers: Look at what women can do!