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Democrats Get Feisty in a Deep Purple State

Michigan, as we know, is perhaps the ultimate purple state. Our executive branch, for now, seems firmly in the hands of Democrats, even as both houses of the legislature stay depressingly red.

The state had, until this year, been obscenely gerrymandered, but thanks to a statewide referendum in 2020, all redistricting is now in the hands of a nonpartisan committee. So the electoral map has been redrawn, presumably more fairly, but we’ll see.

Statewide referendums will be an especially big deal this year. Two of the proposals on the ballot would amend the state constitution — one to enshrine voting rights, the other to codify reproductive rights, especially abortion. These proposals are huge crowd-pleasers, and Democrats are hoping for long coat-tails.

Democratic candidates are also blessed with an astonishing array of opponents  who are over-the-top crazy. When Mitch McConnell whines about “candidate quality” on the GOP side, these are the clowns he’s talking about. But even so, with polls so unreliable and anxiety running so high, we can’t take anything for granted.

In that spirit, I got curious about the marketing and advertising side of Michigan campaigns. I looked at all the political TV commercials that ran on one news show in the Detroit area last week — about eight spots in all, a good snapshot — to see if I could generalize about the messaging that’s out there. Especially from Democrats.

This is local money being spent on local races, and there seems to be real conviction behind the media buys. The hope is that local newscasts can reach people who don’t pay much attention to politics, people who might not yet realize that they’re Democrats.

As for Republicans, it must be said — because it’s never said in their ads — that virtually every one of their candidates, up and down the ballot, is an election denier. Their primaries featured one clown after another, each trying to outdo the other as the Trumpy-est steal-stopper in Michigan. Now they’re all having a hard time walking back the crazy.

So their commercials don’t talk about election fraud. They don’t talk about much of anything, actually, least of all the things they’re supposedly passionate about, like abortion bans, book purges, race-baiting, and open carry for the unborn.

Their ads exist only to attack, and they attack with dogged consistency, but without any adherence to reality. They incessantly harp on “runaway inflation,” “skyrocketing gas prices,” and how Democrats want to raise your taxes and spend money on useless shit like roads and jobs. The word ‘socialism’ appears regularly, but never the word ‘Republican.’

This is not a surprise. Michigan Republicans have long shied away from identifying themselves as such. They want voters to know their names, but not much else — least of all their actual positions on anything. Voter ignorance and gullibility are their key assets.

But I was surprised to find that a lot of Democrats are likewise avoiding the word ‘Democrat.’ This is probably a good move in toss-up races, where much of the population might think ‘Democrat’ is a four-letter word. So these candidates are downplaying the brand and letting their ideas do the talking. Republicans don’t do ideas.

So mostly what I saw was Democrats finally putting out good, strong advertising. They’re running deft attack ads that hammer Republicans, mostly about abortion, but also about the GOP assault on healthcare, public education, and democracy.

The best attack ad I saw shines a spotlight on Kristina Karamo — a nutjob among nutjobs — the Republican running for state Attorney General. The spot is all soundbites of Karamo in her own words, self-destructing in public:

The Democratic party has been completely taken over by a satanic agenda.

Child sacrifice is a very satanic practice and that’s precisely what abortion is.

The reason I got involved in politics was to fight against abortion

This person wants to run the Michigan justice system. She wants to replace Dana Nessel, our kickass AG, who is currently pursuing a wide range of election-related cases, under a panorama of criminal statutes. I doubt Karamo would be interested.

But the Democrats aren’t just going negative. They’re also showcasing their own candidates, who are speaking up for the Biden domestic agenda, and what that agenda means for Michigan. Which is a lot. When you talk about things like infrastructure and electric vehicle technology, you get Michiganders where they live.

These commercials have real teeth — deft messaging, strategically deployed — and they position their candidates as the welcome antidote to crazy. Democrats are running on soundness of mind, even as Republicans run on their usual bullshit.

But this year Republicans are also running on fumes. The big money has dried up, and their war chest is anemic compared to the Democrats’. Most of the go-to donors have apparently closed their wallets. There doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for undermining the electoral system.

Speaking of which, the award for best political commercial on the five o’clock news goes to a spot that addresses that very subject. It isn’t for a candidate, it’s for the afore-mentioned proposal to put a strong set of voting rights into the state constitution.

The ad is a simple series of one-liners delivered by plain folks. Each plain folk gives a reason to vote ‘Yes’ on the proposal. But they do it using the same vernacular — the same code words — as the election deniers.

They speak of “safe and secure elections,” of “enhancing election integrity,” of “making sure only eligible citizens vote.”

These are the very things deniers say they want. How can they vote against it?

But the brilliance isn’t just in turning the deniers’ own words against them. It’s in the way the spot could easily be mis-read by the weaker minds among them, turning their No vote into a Yes. This spot manages, uniquely, to speak the language of both sides at once. Which is quite a trick.

While this commercial doesn’t promote Democrats, Democrats are indeed behind it, just as they’re behind the referendum itself. Voters who get energized by the referendum will surely vote for Democrats while they’re at it. Unanimously.

And it’s hardly a coincidence that Republicans — having gone all-in on candidates who are barely toilet-trained — are being outspent, out-messaged, and outsmarted.

None of which means Democrats will win, or the legislature will flip, or democracy will survive. But it does mean that Democrats finally seem to get that being in the majority will never be enough. Especially in a state this purple.

They’re finally acting like the underdog — feisty, clever, refreshingly ruthless.

If I can sum it up in a little rhyme, Democrats are running on their humanity, their sanity, and their contempt for inanity.

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