Why a Michigan Democratic Political Dynasty Just Fell

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No one was excited about this contest,” he says. “These two members worked together. Everybody in Oakland County would have much preferred having both members in Congress. But it was like the movie ‘Highlander’: ‘There can be only one.’”

The race had attracted national money in part because of Levin’s nuanced views on Israel — he’s supportive of the Jewish state, but sometimes bucks its American lobby, sponsoring a bill in 2021 restricting the country’s ability to use U.S. foreign aid in the West Bank, and routinely speaking up in support of the rights of Palestinians. And much of the coverage of the race has followed predictable lines — that the millions of dollars the American Israel Public Affairs Committee spent on behalf of Stevens were decisive, or that this was some sort of Bernie-versus-Hillary-style matchup. (The Levin camp certainly sees it that way: In a statement to POLITICO, spokesperson Jenny Byer said that “the outcome of this race … was clearly driven by the 5-to-1 disparity in outside, dark money spending leaving voters inundated with mail and ads in favor of our opponent.”)

But the full scope of what happened in the race is both more complex and more straightforward.

Oakland County, Mich., is ground zero for a shift reshaping suburban politics throughout the nation, as affluent onetime Republican strongholds have shifted from red to purple to blue. The race illustrates the changing nature of the Democratic coalition nationally, but also how important and hard it is to predict local dynamics, even as politics becomes more nationalized.

Rather than a national-style ideological fight, it was a race in which the two candidates agreed on almost all the issues.

“I don’t think it was a massive rejection of Andy or what he stands for,” says Woodward, who endorsed Stevens last week.

Organized labor was split between the two campaigns: Many locals backed Stevens, while Levin, who spent decades as a labor organizer, had the bulk of union support, including many of the largest national and statewide organizations (SEIU, CWA, AFT Michigan, etc.). Groups favoring abortion rights were split; Planned Parenthood Action Fund even took the odd step of a dual endorsement of both candidates. Oakland County leaders were torn, too: Both Levin and Stevens are enormously popular among party activists and elected officials.

Instead, the race turned on a few key points: new district lines that gave Stevens a substantial advantage, a misreading of the new suburban Democratic electorate by the Levin camp, a decades-long trend in Oakland Democrats’ preference to elect women and the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs — which, in eliminating the guaranteed right to abortion, supercharged that gender dynamic.

The Stevens-Levin collision was initially set by a map.

Following the 2020 Census, Michigan lost a seat in Congress, and for the first time, the task of drawing new district maps was entrusted to a nonpartisan commission — one that was forbidden from taking the location of incumbents into account. The three final proposed maps drafted by the commission were named after trees: Apple, Birch and Chestnut.

Democratic members of Michigan’s congressional delegation were nearly unanimous in preferring the Birch map — which, among its benefits, could have avoided a Stevens-Levin primary by creating a likely Democratic seat incorporating Levin’s southeast Oakland base and a large swath of Macomb County — and discussed publicly endorsing the map and urging the commission to adopt it, according to multiple sources with firsthand knowledge of the conversations.

But there was one notable holdout: Rep. Brenda Lawrence, the former mayor of Southfield, whose district encompasses parts of southern Oakland County and roughly half of Detroit, and the lone Black member of the Michigan delegation. According to people with firsthand knowledge, Lawrence disliked the way the Birch map cut majority-Black Southfield off from Detroit and instead lumped it in with Oakland’s rural westernmost reaches.

“Brenda’s biggest issue [with the Birch map] was always Southfield: ‘You’re screwing over Black voters,’” according to one participant in these conversations, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “While that was a valid criticism, a lot of people saw through the veneer of that — if it was a more competitive district, it would be a tougher election for her.”

Lawrence preferred to keep Southfield grouped into a majority Black district anchored in Detroit, as in the Chestnut map. As a result, the delegation did not throw its weight behind any of the options being weighed by the redistricting commission.

It’s not clear that endorsing any one of the maps would have made a difference — “The notion that the Democratic delegation could dictate to the nonpartisan commission what to do is foolhardy,” one top party official told me — but the end result of the process was the adoption of the Chestnut plan, which grouped major portions of Levin’s and Stevens’ seats together, adding portions of Lawrence’s district while keeping Southfield in a majority Black district with the west side of Detroit.

Lawrence got the map she preferred — then opted not to seek reelection. (The congresswoman’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this article.)

A further irony blossomed on Tuesday night: The Chestnut map has resulted in a general election field where neither Detroit-based seat is likely to elect a Black member of Congress come 2023. Rep. Rashida Tlaib swapped districts to run in the new Southfield-Detroit-Dearborn seat, opening up the 13th district’s Democratic nomination, which was won by Indian American businessman and state Rep. Shri Thanedar. (Indeed, it’s quite possible that the only Black member from Michigan in the next Congress will be a Republican representing a new toss-up district in heavily white suburban Macomb: John James.)

Levin and Stevens opted to run in the new, safely Democratic 11th district in Oakland County, a new seat that was carved from three existing seats: Stevens’, Levin’s and Lawrence’s. But it was not an equal fight: Slightly more than 40 percent of Stevens’ old district was in the new 11th, compared to roughly one-fourth of Levin’s old district. The remainder was drawn from Lawrence’s seat.

Stevens had an advantage from the beginning. And early on, when Lawrence opted to endorse her over Levin, it gave Stevens a tremendous boost among Black voters in the new 11th — voters who overwhelming backed Stevens on Tuesday. (She beat Levin in every precinct in Pontiac, the largest concentration of Black voters in the new seat.)

“Once the die was cast with the lines, there was never going to be a good outcome,” says Amy Chapman, who directed Michigan for Barack Obama in 2008, lives in the district and personally supported Levin.

“You’ve got generational dynamics, you’ve got gender dynamics, and then it’s a math problem,” says Woodward. “I get that it’s incredibly sexy to focus on all these national resources and kind of play what out AIPAC’s [role] was. But I think the fundamentals in this race did not change.”

On the afternoon of Tuesday, Dec. 28, the redistricting commission adopted the Chestnut map. Within two hours, both Levin and Stevens announced they’d run in the 11th district. The primary battle was underway.

By mid-January, David Victor, the former president of AIPAC, wrote to Jewish donors in the district in support of Stevens. The primary, he wrote, “presents a rare opportunity to defeat arguably the most corrosive member of Congress to the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

It was an odd way to refer to Levin, who is not only a practicing Jew, but a former president of his synagogue and the scion of the most successful Jewish political family in Michigan history. But those facts are precisely why some of Israel’s more aggressive supporters in American politics were so outraged by, for instance, his abiding friendship with Tlaib and his empathetic defenses of Ilhan Omar’s statements repeating antisemitic tropes about Israel. (“We all have a lot of learning to do,” Levin has said.) Coupled with Levin’s stance on Israel, he had a target on his back. (“AIPAC can’t stand the idea that I am the strongest Jewish voice in Congress standing for … human rights for the Palestinian people,” he told MSNBC’s Mehdi Hassan last week.)

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