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What Democrats Could Learn from One Michigan Race

Anti-kook campaigning.
May 9, 2022
What Democrats Could Learn from One Michigan Race
Protesters attend a rally at the Michigan State Capitol building on November 04, 2020 in Lansing, Michigan. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Last Tuesday night, while the eyes of America’s political observers were on Ohio—where Donald Trump confirmed his control of the GOP when his favored candidate, J.D. Vance, came from far behind to win the GOP nomination for retiring Rob Portman’s Senate seat—a story was unfolding in Michigan that may actually be kind of a BFD: A Democrat won a special election to fill a vacancy in the state legislature in a district in which Trump bested Joe Biden by a 28 percent margin in 2020. The race could provide a blueprint for how Democrats can be successful this election year.

Carol Glanville, a little-known Democrat, managed to garner 53 percent of the vote against a Trump Republican who emerged from a crowded GOP primary and a scrappy write-in candidate favored by the remaining vestiges of the fabled “Republican establishment” which has been diminished to such an extent that the candidate was playing a Ralph Nader-esque spoiler role in reverse, helping the Democrat across the finish line. And all this went down in a district where Trump beat Biden 64 to 36 percent in 2020.

The planets had to align for the Dems to flip this seat in the Michigan House of Representatives—and align they did. The Republican candidate was a special blend of insanity and assholery named Robert “R.J.” Regan. He’s the dude who made national news when he proudly said on a streaming show, “Having three daughters, I tell my daughters, well, ‘If rape is inevitable, you should just lie back and enjoy it.’” He also notoriously uttered anti-Semitic slurs online, praised Putin while dissing Ukraine, posted pictures of Dr. Anthony Fauci next to a noose, and lots of other garden-variety QAnon quackery.

The Michigan GOP, not exactly a model of sane politics, distanced itself from Regan’s candidacy but stopped short of calling on him to end it or for voters to choose another candidate. So did the Kent County Republican Party, which has long been influenced by Betsy DeVos and her family. The DeVoses and other Grand Rapids GOP aristocracy helped fund the upstart candidacy of a write-in Republican who wasn’t pro-rape.

So virtually no money was spent on behalf of Regan in the special general election. Normally that still wouldn’t have mattered. This was a Trump +28 district, for cryin’ out loud.

The coup de grâce was delivered by a relentless and highly targeted ground game by the Michigan and local Democratic party organizations. Coupled with the candidate, Glanville, who eschewed hardcore ideology and focused on being normal, nice, and competent, the Dems played their hand perfectly. They focused on blocking and tackling fundamentals and let the GOP factions cannibalize each other. They also made sure their voters knew of how crazy, mean, and dangerous Regan was.

The result: a shocking Democratic victory—and one that might prove critical in the battle for control of the Michigan statehouse this fall. For the first time in thirty years, the districts in which congressional and state-legislature candidates will be running in the upcoming regular August primary and November general election will not have been gerrymandered by Lansing Republicans. The new Michigan district maps are the result of a nonpartisan citizens’ commission, which gives Democrats their best opportunity in decades to gain control of the Michigan Senate, House, or both. Glanville will now run for re-election as a Democrat in a new district that Biden won by more than a 10 percent margin rather than have  to oust a Republican incumbent in the same district. The special election win by the Democrats Tuesday night has inched the possibility of a Democratic speaker of the House in Michigan a little closer to future reality.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a  prophetic sign of an oncoming  Democratic tsunami in Michigan or anywhere else. And I’m sure as hell not advising that Dems pull out their maps and slide rules to start identifying opportunity districts in Trump +20 land. They should, however, look for GOP districts in the Goldilocks Zone where raging lunatics and MAGA assholes have emerged (or might emerge) from crowded Republican congressional and legislative primaries.

There will be very few candidates presenting as broad a target as R.J. Regan did, to be sure. He was a 10 on the cretin scale. But there are plenty of gently right-leaning seats  where candidates posting high kook-o-meter scores will win primaries. One such example comes from Ohio, where Qpilled loon J.R. Majewski won a primary in a district that Fivethirtyeight gives an R+6 partisan breakdown. That sounds like a fight that could be won.

So long as Democrats pay attention and continue to sell “normalcy,” they should have a chance to pick up more wins in scenarios like this across the country. I’m sure Carol Glanville would enjoy a few more Democrats going along with her to the Michigan State Capitol.

Jeff Timmer

Jeff Timmer is a political consultant. He was executive director of the Michigan Republican Party and is now an erstwhile GOPer. Twitter: @jefftimmer.