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May 2023

Who would have thought that the state Republican Party, known since its 1854 founding in Jackson, Michigan as representing moderate conservatives opposing slavery and supporting individual liberties, would find itself in its current state where recently chosen state party leaders are now talking about having to recreate the political organization. 

They will have to do so in the face of the loss of votes from suburban women, independents and more moderate members, as well as a growing base of youth voters who are not buying into what the GOP has been selling of late. 

The more recent story of the Michigan GOP is about a political party that refused to listen to its seasoned leaders or elders, if you will, decades ago, hurtling itself on a path of self destruction that could take another decade or more before the party can resurrect itself. 

The tale begins with Brooks Patterson, the long-time Republican Oakland County Executive. Like him or not, he saw the shifting of the political winds in this county well over a decade before his passing in 2019.

The public perception of Patterson that developed over his many years as both county prosecutor and then at the helm as county executive was that of an often glib commentator, one that at times lacked a filter, but an astute visionary who surrounded himself with a top notch team of government managers who developed a strong position for Oakland County that allowed it to weather economic downturns and prosper greatly when the economy cooperates.

Overlooked by many was Patterson's innate ability to anticipate changes in the political landscape that might challenge the Republican grip on the county.

Patterson was after all one of the first to raise a cautionary flag when the Tea Party started in 2010 to get a foothold in the county. Long before that, Patterson pushed the concept of the “big tent” for the county GOP to keep the local party from fracturing as warring divisions within the ranks reared their heads. Hence, his warning as early as 2004 that the Republicans were starting to lose the women's vote due to extreme positions that local, state and national party members were taking on issues of the day. Then along came QAnon and Donald Trump. A further turn to the hard-right and the party was lost. 

Few in the Republican party in Michigan listened back then. Today, at the state level, those who have taken control of the GOP apparatus remain tone deaf.   

It came as no surprise that county political Red/Blue demographics have changed dramatically since Oakland voters elected their first county executive back in the 1970s. Oakland is an attractive place in which to live so part of the political change was due to migration from neighboring counties – persons who were drawn to the place that was considered the driving force or center of all things good in the state. Some say change in more recent years may well have been hastened by Patterson's own programs, like Automation Alley, which helped draw a younger, and more diverse workforce, often college educated. Newcomers arriving here had political leanings of a different persuasion.

Fast forward to 2020 – the hardened conservative positions on personal issues have driven more moderate and independent voters from the GOP, without doubt. One just need look at the turmoil gripping the Michigan party following the election that year. Infighting among the conservative factions themselves. An ongoing attempted takeover by evangelicals or Christian nationalists and election deniers. A rejection of traditional Republicans within the organization, including the donor class that helped underwrite the state party machinery and elections of the past. A monolith – hardly welcoming to all.

But the GOP has problems beyond just the loss of votes from suburban women and the moderate class – it is already losing the battle over youth votes – from the 18-29 years old set. This doesn't portend well even in Oakland where the new Republican party leadership is making a valiant effort to attract and energize a young set of voters through its youth wing.

Most political pollsters agree that the group collectively known as the “youth vote” often cast ballots the least out of all voting groups. But as a general rule of late, youth vote turnout is the highest it has been in several decades. Turnout took a noticeable increase in the 2018 election when 31 percent of this group showed at the polls. The group's turnout declined a bit in the 2022, according to the Tisch College of Civic Life of Tufts University. But in Michigan 37 percent of this group turned out, far outpacing the national average. 

Studies there show that nationally 67 percent of the youth vote backed Democrats in 2018. Similar numbers in other studies have shown that 62 percent of this voting group in Michigan favored Democrats in the last couple of elections.

Granted, those who follow the nitty gritty of politics know that as a general rule younger voters may skew more liberal and then become more conservative as they age. But that may also be changing.

The non-partisan Center for American Progress notes that current youth groups are more diverse than those of the past so some of the past trends may not hold. And that independent institute projects that the youth vote turnout will continue to increase in coming years, making it an even more potent factor in election outcomes.

Bottom line, according to a number of studies, the youth vote in 2022 basically cancelled out the votes of those over 65 years of age, thereby blocking any gains the GOP had sought from older voters.  

In terms of what concerns members of the youth voting group, inflation ranks at the top of the list, followed closely by the abortion issue, gun violence, environmental concerns and loss of personal freedoms, including for those part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Michigan GOP leaders should – but probably won't – take note that members of the youth vote group are particularly turned off by extreme positions on many of these issues.

All of this points to a tougher time for Michigan GOP leaders as they set out to improve the party's fortune at the polling places in the coming years. Any hope a revival can take place in time for the 2024 elections is simply wishful thinking, unless the newly chosen party leaders tack toward the middle on critical issues. Fat chance.

David Hohendorf



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