Just to recap: Right-to-work laws in the state that birthed the UAW and Teamsters; open carry of handguns in bars, schools, libraries and college dorms; an ongoing assault on a woman’s constitutional right to make healthcare decisions; two huge business tax cuts, at the expense of schools, police, fire and road services; proposed state takeovers of low-performing school districts, virtually obliterating local control; deregulation of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan healthcare monopoly; and a proposed ban on Sharia law.
Sounds more like Texas, Alabama or Mississippi, but this is Michigan in 2012.
How does a state that frequently favors Democrats for president, U.S. Congress and the state Legislature end up like this? Michigan has voted Democratic for president ever since 1992 and hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1994. But Republicans have effectively taken a state government that had split control for most of the post-World War II era to total GOP control.
The breathtaking deluge of Tea Party wish-list bills jammed through the Michigan Legislature in the last week culminates a 30-year effort by some of Michigan’s shrewdest politicians (led by former Gov. John Engler and aided by a cadre of very wealthy conservatives from across the nation) to transform Michigan’s representative democracy into a plutocracy, where wealth matters more than individual voters.
The political history lesson is a model for conservative activists everywhere, combining brilliant strategy with some very lucky timing to take over a state that is still populated by a slightly left-of-center electorate.
Step 1: Taking the state Senate
Michigan’s political transformation began Nov. 30, 1983. Democratic state Sen. David Serotkin was recalled by voters for supporting a temporary 1 percent hike in the state income tax. Combined with the recall eight days earlier of Democrat Philip Mastin, control of the Senate switched to Republicans. The new Senate majority leader was Engler, who is considered by many the most effective political tactician in modern state history. Due in large part to Engler’s political acumen, Republicans have held the Senate majority ever since.
The recall elections began a pattern of voting minorities trumping majority will through skillful tactics. Both Serotkin and Mastin were recalled by fewer than 27,000 votes just a year after being elected to their seats with more than 40,000 votes.
Step 2: Developing a unified policy agenda
Four years later, Engler led a group that created what became the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the largest state-based conservative think tank in the nation. Its other founders included some of the wealthiest individuals and largest corporations in the nation.
The center, which refuses to reveal its list of well-heeled contributors, provides research, consistent messaging and propaganda resources. It became a model for ALEC, the secretive national group that drafts conservative legislation for introduction by its allies in state legislatures.
Step 3: The Engler electoral coup
In 1990, Engler overcame a huge early deficit to defeat over-confident incumbent James Blanchard for governor by just 25,000 votes. After 20 years in the Legislature, Engler knew how to wield political power, and he wasn’t bashful about using it.
During his reign, the nation’s economy boomed and Michigan’s economy rode along. The Clinton economy allowed Engler to promote “political nirvana”: multiple tax cuts without cutting state services. This formula helped Republicans take control of the state House while maintaining its majority in the Senate.
Step 4: Gerrymandering, stage one
In 1990, as Engler’s third Senate term wound down, Republicans controlled the Governor’s Office, House and Senate. For the first time since the 1962 one-man, one-vote decision of the state Supreme Court, one party totally controlled the redrawing of legislative district lines in 2001. The maps heavily favored Republicans (surprise!). One year later, a virtual tie in total votes statewide produced a 62-48 Republican House and a 22-16 Republican Senate.
Step 5: Term limits
The phase-in of term limits made it increasingly more difficult for voters to know much about the ever-changing cast of political characters. This tipped the scales in favor of candidates who could buy tons of advertising (e.g., Rick “One Tough Nerd” Snyder).
Step 6: Gerrymandering, stage two
The 2010 recession brought a GOP tsunami magnified by gerrymandering, producing a super majority in the Senate (26-12) despite winning just 53 percent of the vote, and a 63-47 House majority. That electoral sweep set the stage for more redistricting, again with Republicans controlling the entire process. With advances in computer software, the new map significantly expanded the partisan advantage: Despite losing the popular vote for state House by 352,000 votes, Republicans maintained a 59-51 majority.
The end result: A permanent minority government
Republicans have become political alchemists, learning how to turn fewer votes into more control. And so a state that continues to favor moderate social and fiscal policies has taken a hard right turn in the Legislature.