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Commentary

Is this what a post-Citizens United world looks like?

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The elections were two weeks ago today, although it somehow seems longer. Yesterday, I spent a little time with Lon Johnson, the chair of the Michigan Democratic Party. He’s been getting a lot of criticism about what happened.

Johnson is a statistics-crunching data freak, a man who plays politics largely by the numbers. He pinned the party’s hopes this year on turnout, on getting Democrats to the polls.

His operation identified nearly a million Democratic-leaning voters who sat out the election four years ago. They were targeted by his team, urged to vote, and sent absentee ballot applications.

The weekend before the vote, he was convinced that Mark Schauer was going to win the governor’s race. But in the end, his candidate fell short by a little more than four points. Democrats lost ground in the Legislature, which few thought they would do.

Most shockingly, despite all his efforts, turnout was even lower than it was four years ago. So I asked, as you might expect – what happened?  He told me

“At the risk of sounding self-serving, we just don’t know yet.”

It will be some weeks before the secretary of state’s office releases information about exactly who voted.

Conventional wisdom right after the election was that Johnson’s operation had failed miserably, that despite all his efforts, he hadn’t moved reluctant Democrats to turn out.

There are, however, reasons to doubt that analysis. Experts often look at the votes cast in state education races as an indicator of base party strength. Normally, the party whose candidate is elected governor or president picks up all those seats.

But this time, Democrats won seven out of eight, and nearly swept the board. This could indicate more Democrats voted than  first thought, but that some just weren’t sold on Mark Schauer.

True, it also could mean that ticket-splitting Republicans passed up these races. But while Democrats lost ground in the gerrymandered Legislature, more total votes were cast for them than for Republicans in both Congressional and state House races.

The candidate who got the most statewide votes was not the governor, but Democrat Gary Peters, who won the U.S. Senate race in a landslide. Appearances aren’t always what they seem.

After Barry Goldwater lost the presidency in a landslide 50 years ago, experts virtually all agreed that conservatism was dead.

“If the Republican Party wants to commit political suicide,” one said, “they’ll nominate Ronald Reagan.”

Lon Johnson said something else far more interesting, however: “What we need to figure out is what a political party should be in a post-Citizens United world,” a world in which there are no limits on what big corporations can spend to influence elections.

That’s also a world where term limits mean there are no long-term state officeholders with their own power bases and institutional memories. That may make the jobs of party chairmen like Johnson both harder and more necessary than ever.  

My guess is that in a year in which a Republican tide swept through the nation, Lon Johnson’s team kept his party’s losses in Michigan lower than they might have been.

But we’ll have to wait for both the numbers, and the future, to tell.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at michiganradio.org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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