What is the matter with Michigan?

What is the matter with Michigan?
© Hill Illustration

If you want to understand the diversity of the American electorate, head to Michigan. The political volatility of the entire nation is packed into that one single state, from the Indiana border to the Canada border, and from urban Detroit in the south to the remote Sault Saint Marie in the north.

There is something inherently complex about a state whose motto is, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” It may not have the ring of “live free or die” in New Hampshire or “thus always to tyrants” in Virginia, but it invokes introspection and could have been written by Henry David Thoreau. What do we see when we look about the pleasant peninsula?

Michigan state lawmaker Gary Eisen lost his committee posts this week after hinting he was part of a group that sought to disrupt the Electoral College vote. For an interview with a local Port Huron radio station, the Republican said, “There is going to be violence. There are going to be protests. They asked me if I was going to assist today. How could I not?” He was asked, “Can you assure me that this is going to be a safe day in Lansing and nobody is going to get hurt?” Eisen said, “No.” He claimed what he meant to say was that he intended to prevent the violence.


That clears it up. At least Eisen did not call for the kidnapping of Michigan Governor Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerMichigan to end remote work after reaching 55 percent vaccination rate Detroit police chief planning GOP gubernatorial run against Whitmer More than half of Michigan adults have had at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose MORE and the violent overthrow of the state. That plot was developed by a Michigan paramilitary group called the Wolverine Watchmen, which sounds more like a college male chorus than the lunatic extremist group with plans to blow up a bridge, abduct the governor, and take over the state. Had they been successful, I assume their first action would be to change the state motto to “no minorities allowed here.”

In the spring, a conservative group stormed the state capitol in Lansing to protest the coronavirus restrictions. At that point, over 41,000 cases and 3,800 deaths had been recorded across the state. Hundreds of protesters barged into the building, heavily armed but without any protective masks, spewing and shouting all of their grievances. Nothing says freedom like a resident with a swastika standing across the steps of the state capitol.

But Michigan is a swing state. Joe Biden carried it by almost three points, flipping a handful of counties. I will say this for Michigan. It has not voted for the losing candidate in an election for president since 2004. Or has it? Last month, the Wayne County Board of Canvassers, up to that point not exactly a household name, managed to hold the entire nation on edge.

The Republicans on the board initially opposed certifying the results in Wayne County, creating a deadlock celebrated by President TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Overnight Health Care: FDA authorizes Pfizer vaccine for adolescents | Biden administration reverses limits on LGBTQ health protections Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal MORE in a tweet where he wrote, “Having courage is a beautiful thing.” Meanwhile, the Republicans had second thoughts and then joined the Democrats to confirm the tally. But then they had third thoughts and signed affidavits saying they wanted to take back their votes certifying the results. While Michigan is a swing state, these Republicans bring on new meaning.

Michigan is a swing state in the conventional sense. Democrats Gary Peters and Elissa Slotkin held onto their seats in the Senate and House. Slotkin, who flipped a ruby red district in 2018, won again in what had been believed to be one of the most competitive House contests in the country. Republicans did win a House seat in another district. But that victory was complex, just like everything else with Michigan politics.

The district had been represented by Justin Amash, a Republican turned libertarian and a critic of Trump. Only in Michigan can a Republican pick up a seat by not beating a Democrat. “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” Just remember to wear a neck brace to avoid injury.

Steve Israel represented New York in the House over eight terms and was chairman with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can follow his updates @RepSteveIsrael.