Politico

Why a Michigan Democratic Political Dynasty Just Fell


ROYAL OAK, Mich. — If you pay attention to national political media (and you likely do, seeing as you’re reading this on POLITICO), there’s a decent chance you’ve encountered a capital-t Take on Tuesday’s epic incumbent-versus-incumbent primary that saw Rep. Haley Stevens trounce Rep. Andy Levin for the Democratic nomination in Michigan’s new, safely blue 11th district.

Levin wasn’t just any incumbent. He was metro Detroit political royalty, a two-term congressman who succeeded his 18-term father, Sander, and whose uncle, Carl, was the longest serving U.S. senator in the state’s history. Now, come 2023, there will be no Levin in Congress for the first time in 44 years. (Full disclosure: I grew up in Macomb County, a few miles north of Sander Levin’s House district, and more than a decade ago worked as his speechwriter while he was chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee.)

To pundits on the left in particular, the unseating of Levin has deep national meaning. His family built its reputation as voices for the working and middle class, and his loss is being framed as a victory for “right-wing donors propping up [conservative] Democrats in favor of maintaining the status quo.” Or as a win for the powerful pro-Israel lobby that backed his opponent, or as proof that the Democratic Party’s failure to back Levin reveals that its true goal is to push “our nation’s politics to the right,” with Stevens in Washington to “do the bidding of the corporations and the rich.” And so on.

But on the ground in Oakland County, the reality is quite different.

“I know that in the national media, it’s like this big ideological thing — that it was this fight between the pragmatic wing and the liberal wing of the party. That’s not what this fight was,” says Dave Woodward, who heads the Oakland County Commission and has longstanding friendships with both candidates.


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.)


AIPAC invested massive sums of outside money to oust Levin — its super PAC reportedly spent at least $4.2 million in the race. But its attacks on Levin seem to have resonated less with the Oakland Democrats I spoke with than the ads his defenders at a more progressive Jewish political group, the J Street Action Fund, ran in response. They attacked Stevens for having AIPAC’s support and suggested that she was siding with Jan. 6 insurrectionists and Republican House members who tried to overturn the 2020 election.

In reality, Stevens supported the impeachment of Donald Trump over his actions on Jan. 6. She has never flirted with election denialism. And the suggestion from Levin’s allies that she had done so backfired, escalating frustration among Michigan Democrats over the aggressiveness of Levin’s campaign message, according to multiple party insiders, and prompting at least one senior leader in the local party to personally tell him to tone it down.

“It’s not helpful [to the party], and frankly, it doesn’t really register,” one Democratic insider and elected official told me ahead of election day. “All it does is just put a target on the back of a lot of Democrats.”

“Framing her as an insurrectionist? Come on,” says an aide to another member of Congress, describing the private reaction among the Michigan delegation. “That was a step too far.”

It prompted Woodward himself to endorse Stevens — an unusual step, considering his friendship with both candidates and the fact that the primary election was only five days away. “The attempt to link her to insurrectionists just went too far for me — and far enough for me to put my own reputation on the line,” he says.

Same with Mari Manoogian, a second-term state representative who flipped a Republican state House seat in Oakland’s wealthy Birmingham area in 2018. She considers both Levin and Stevens friends and stayed out of the race until its closing days, when the attacks on Stevens by Levin allies drove her to endorse the congresswoman. “I couldn’t take the negativity anymore,” she says.

National money shaped local tactics as well: The Levin campaign ran a locally driven ground game, knocking on more than 70,000 doors during the primary, while Stevens’ allies flooded the airwaves (and the internet) with pricey ads. One Levin canvasser going door-to-door in Pontiac reported seeing two kids in a driveway playing with Barbies; they instantly recognized Stevens on a piece of campaign lit as “the lady from TV,” having seen ads for her on YouTube.

“I have to believe that if the spending was on our side 5-to-1, we could’ve won,” Byer, Levin’s communications director, told me.

That may be true. But campaigns are about more than ads and money. And some Democrats were confounded by Levin’s message in the closing months of the campaign, when he leaned hard into Squad-style politics, eager for an Ed Markey-esque transformation into a lefty online icon. Meme accounts sprouted up on Twitter that awkwardly tried to force that rebranding (“we need an American Girl doll to canvass for Andy Levin,” read one; “Little Miss Judge you for not donating to Andy Levin yet,” read another).

Levin himself invited Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to campaign for him in Pontiac in the closing days of the election. The visit came too late to really matter: of the 117,651 votes cast, almost 70,000 came via absentee ballots, which were sent to voters 45 days before the election. Though the tally of in-person votes was relatively close — among those ballots, Stevens bested Levin, 55 percent to 45 percent — Stevens carried 64 percent of absentee ballots.

Actual campaign mechanics aside, the Sanders visit was also a fundamental misreading of the electorate in the Oakland County district, which, while increasingly Democratic, includes some of the wealthiest communities in the state.

“This is not Bernie country,” says one Oakland Democratic insider who’s friends with both Levin and Stevens. “If I was looking to design a rally to turn off voters in Oakland County, I would probably have Bernie Sanders and Rashida Tlaib in Pontiac the Saturday before the election. Doing that was just clear political malpractice. … That, to me, is an incredible failure to understand your district.”

In response to questions for this article, which included the above quotation, Byer, the Levin campaign’s communications director, said that “the Stevens supporters in this story seem set on alienating Congressman Levin’s loyal supporters and many moments in this campaign that meant a lot to them. It’s unfortunate.”

That supposed failure to understand the new district, whether real or simply perceived, mystified Democratic officials, who saw a much clearer electoral path available to Levin that the candidate didn’t take.

“Andy is intimately involved in the $15 minimum wage push. You wouldn’t know that because Andy never talks about it!” says the Oakland Dem insider. “This is kind of the thing: Like, we know the Squad Andy Levin … but there’s another side to him which is very appealing and very electable in this district, and he hasn’t gone there at all. … He focuses on things that are not important to the district. No one in the district cares about the unionization of [Capitol] Hill staffers.”

People who know Levin say the fights he chose to pick were born of sincerity, not political expedience. “What he said and what he did — that is him,” says Chapman, who has known him for decades. Which meant that if he didn’t embrace Squad-style politics, he’d be pretending to be someone he wasn’t.

But for some Jewish Democrats I spoke with, that was precisely the problem. And as Levin embraced the left, he alienated a crucial part of the Levin family’s electoral coalition.


“For most of the district and most of the Jewish community, a two-state solution is the desired outcome,” says one prominent Jewish Oakland Democrat who was undecided between Stevens and Levin when I spoke with them before the election. “They don’t disagree with Andy on that. And what’s difficult to understand for the community is that he provides cover for people who many folks in the community view as antisemitic — like, this sort of whitewashing of their antisemitism. That is what gets people really riled up. And the prime example is Ilhan Omar. … Andy refuses to condemn what she says as ‘antisemitic’ — not her; the speech. And that has really frustrated people.”

With Levin’s political coalition damaged and the district’s makeup presenting an uphill battle, it was all the more difficult for him to upend a trend that long predated his race against Stevens and which worked substantially in her favor: the popularity of Democratic women candidates in Oakland County.

For three decades, Oakland County’s politics have shifted ever more firmly into the Democratic column. Once, it was the locus of Republican power in the state — the home base of the Romney family. But it’s now more vote-rich for Democrats than the city of Detroit.

There are several reasons for that transformation — educational attainment becoming a predictor of partisan behavior, Oakland becoming more diverse with large influxes of Black and Asian residents and the shifting postures of the two major parties on cultural issues.

But there’s another factor in Democrats’ successes: Nominating women in critical, tipping-point races.

In 2008, Republicans controlled all of Oakland’s major countywide posts. That year, Democrats elected Jessica Cooper as prosecutor. Four years later, they elected Lisa Brown as county clerk. In 2018, longtime Republican seats in the state Senate and House were flipped by Mallory McMorrow and Manoogian, respectively. That same year, Democrats gained the majority on the county commission on the backs of Democratic women like Gwen Markham winning in formerly GOP territory, and they flipped two Republican U.S. House seats in Oakland, as Stevens ousted David Trott and Elissa Slotkin ousted Mike Bishop. Women make up almost the entirety of Oakland County’s Democratic delegation to the state House and Senate.

“It has been part of the winning formula,” says Woodward. “It is a motivating factor — and rightly so — that Oakland County women voters are reacting to and showing up and … electing these Democratic majorities.”

“The female factor is for real,” says Chapman.

All of which primed Stevens to be a more appealing candidate than Levin to many voters in the district — an advantage that grew substantially once the Supreme Court issued its decision in Dobbs, overturning Roe v. Wade and igniting outrage among the women of Oakland (and across the country).

There was no doubt about Levin’s pro-choice bona fides. He even had the endorsement of NARAL. But to many Democrats, the question became about who they felt was in a better position to lead on abortion rights: Stevens, a 39-year-old millennial woman, or Levin, a 61-year-old man?


It was a contrast Stevens leaned into. At a May debate at Oakland University, after Levin suggested that he’d been more active in the fight for reproductive rights than his opponent, Stevens wound up and delivered a punch that was either a haymaker or below the belt, depending on who you ask: “Was that the sound of another 60-something-year-old white man telling me how to talk about choice?” Stevens asked rhetorically.

In the weeks leading up to Dobbs, Levin had taken to Twitter to post about his return to the practice of yoga, which he took up decades ago to help cope with back pain while working as a labor organizer. In his regular “#AsanasWithAndy” posts, he’d offer (figurative) snapshots of what was on his mind, paired with (literal) snapshots of whatever yoga pose he was trying at the moment.

All of which explains how a very earnest, heartfelt tweet by Levin the afternoon after the Dobbs decision came down ran into the buzzsaw of anger cutting through the online left at the exact same moment in time.

“In a moment of wildly conflicting emotions, of intense anger over horrifying Supreme Court decisions (with more to come) mixed with gratitude that I was just able to help pass the first meaningful gun reform in three decades, I turn inward, at least for a moment,” Levin tweeted. “#AsanasWithAndy.” It was accompanied by two photos of Levin in his office, barefoot, holding a prasarita padottanasana, or wide-legged forward fold.

The backlash — most of it mean or snarky, some of it lapsing into outright nastiness and cruelty — began almost immediately, earning more than 2,000 retweets before a staff member deleted the message.

To some Democratic insiders in Oakland, the tweet was a sign of something more troubling: a lack of messaging discipline roughly a month out from the election.

“I think it started to unravel for him the moment that he posted that picture of himself in a yoga pose the afternoon that Dobbs went down,” says the aforementioned Oakland Democratic insider. “The worst part was that the pose he picked appeared to be that of a man sticking his head up his own ass. That was probably not the message he wanted to send.”

In the days and weeks that followed, Levin seemed unburdened, free from others’ buttoned-down expectations for him. He threw himself into the role of activist congressman with gusto. On Tuesday, July 19, he was among 17 members of Congress arrested for blocking traffic outside the Capitol as part of a nonviolent demonstration in support of abortion rights. Notably, he was the only congressman arrested — every other member arrested, including Squad members Omar, Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, was a woman. The next day, July 20, Levin was again arrested outside of the Capitol, this time in support of picketing Senate cafeteria workers.

The Roe protest quickly found its way to his campaign mailers, advertising him as the “ONLY MAN” arrested at the Supreme Court.

Here, too, Oakland Democrats interviewed for this article saw a misfire. Voters agreed with Levin’s stance on abortion, but “they still like their quiet, peaceful, nice suburbs,” says the party insider. “There’s a level of social disorder [to getting arrested] that is anathema to voters. Going to the courthouse and holding up signs that say ‘Black Lives Matter’ is perfectly acceptable in this district; civil disobedience that leads to arrests may be something that people are less comfortable with. … These are things that you have to know as the congressperson.”

Meanwhile, Stevens went on the air with an ad touting herself as “Oakland County’s congresswoman.” “Women know,” she said, looking straight into the camera. “We know how to take care of ourselves and our families without right-wing politicians getting involved.” She talked about codifying Roe and protecting Planned Parenthood. It was a message targeted squarely at suburban women. And it worked.

The math, the district lines and the broader climate of the election was simply too much for Levin to overcome. On Tuesday, Stevens won with nearly 60 percent of the vote, handing the Levin dynasty its first-ever loss in a congressional race.

On election night, Levin’s supporters gathered at the Crofoot, a concert venue and event space in downtown Pontiac. After the race was called for Stevens — earlier in the night than most expected — Levin took the stage and addressed his dejected supporters. Ever the mensch, he waved off his backers when they booed Stevens’ name in his concession speech. “I want to ask all of you to join me in committing to support her,” he said.

A few miles south, at the Townsend Hotel in ritzy downtown Birmingham, Stevens spoke to her jovial supporters. “My friends, it’s not a mystery why we beat the odds,” she said. “We stayed in Congress because we listened. I listened.” Her speech never mentioned Levin, never congratulated him on a race well fought, never thanked him for his service to Oakland County or for his support in the coming general election. The crowd partied on.

But as the reality of the result sank in, the congresswoman’s supporters were mostly happy to have the race behind them.

“I’m bummed,” state Rep. Manoogian, a Stevens supporter, told me on Thursday over drinks at Birmingham’s Daxton Hotel. Bummed that Stevens’ win had to mean Levin’s loss. Bummed that the coverage of the primary — and the ad campaigns themselves — exaggerated the differences between two Democrats and dragged them into toxic national arguments Oakland County wasn’t trying to have. Bummed that Oakland wouldn’t also have Levin working on its behalf in Congress. “It sort of diminishes Haley’s win.”

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