Conservative activists just launched recall campaigns against five Democratic members of the closely divided Michigan House, though they face steep challenges in qualifying for the ballot. But don't expect complacency from Democrats, who haven't forgotten that Republicans successfully used recalls to wrest away control of the state Senate in 1984—and then held it for the next four decades.
The targeted Democrats are Reps. Betsy Coffia, Jennifer Conlin, Jaime Churches, Sharon MacDonell, and Reggie Miller—five women who were all elected for the first time last year and helped power their party to shocking upset that resulted in a 56-54 majority. Except for MacDonnell, who sits in bluer turf, all represent swingy districts and all won by single digits last year. The most marginal is Church's 27th District in the southern Detroit suburbs, which voted for Donald Trump by a 51-47 margin, while the rest backed Joe Biden to varying degrees.
Petitions filed with the secretary of state's office state that organizers are seeking to recall the lawmakers in question for their votes in favor of a bill expanding hate crimes that is still pending in the Senate and a new red flag law that allows courts to remove firearms from the possession of those who might pose a danger to themselves or others, but the potential partisan ramifications are unmistakable. However, supporters would need to gather a daunting number of signatures, equal to 25% of the vote in last year's election for governor in each district, in order to actually force a recall.
2022 in fact saw Michigan set an all-time record for midterm turnout, with almost 4.5 million votes cast in the race between Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her Republican opponent, Tudor Dixon. While the figures will vary by district, on average, that would mean more than 11,000 valid signatures would be necessary to prompt a single recall. And the actual number they'd need to collect would, in practice, be higher, since signatures are subject to review and invariably a sizable proportion are rejected.
(Put another way, if Republicans were trying to recall Whitmer, they'd need in excess of 1.1 million signatures; by contrast, when advocates placed an amendment on last year's ballot to enshrine abortion rights into the state constitution, they submitted a record-smashing 750,000 signatures when only 425,000 were needed.)
In addition, Michigan Republicans are almost broke: The Detroit News recently reported that the party, which has been riven by bitter fighting—both figurative and literal—has just $93,000 in the bank, a sum one former executive director said "means they're functionally bankrupt." Even party chair Kristina Karamo appeared to recognize the problem. "Yes, we know we need a lot more money," she told a closed-door gathering of party leaders earlier this month, according to audio obtained by the News.
Karamo's organization also appears to have said nothing about the recall petitions, which Bridge Michigan says were all filed "by local Republican activists or past candidates" who'd previously run against the targeted incumbents. ("It wasn't immediately clear whether any specific group was behind the recall efforts," the Detroit Free Press observed.) The state Democratic Party, by contrast, pledged to "fully support and defend" its members, who would all be up again for a second two-year term next year.
Almost forty years ago, Republicans succeeded in recalling two Democratic senators due to anger over the passage of an income tax hike, allowing them to retake the upper chamber for the first time in a decade. Thanks to ceaseless gerrymandering in the ensuing years, the GOP held the Senate continuously until last year, when elections were held for the first time using maps drafted by the state's newly created independent redistricting commission. Republicans have also dominated the House most of the time since 1994, losing it in 2022 for the first time since 2008. As a consequence, Democrats won complete control over state government in the November midterms for the first time since those Senate recalls.
Since then, only one legislative recall has ever been successful, a 2011 effort to oust Republican state Rep. Paul Scott that was heavily backed by teachers' unions. Afterward, Republicans passed a new law to make recalls more difficult, most notably by shrinking the signature-gathering period by a third. It also barred recalls altogether for officials serving two-year terms during the first and last six months of their term, which explains the timing of these latest petitions.
The next date to watch is Aug. 1, when the state Board of Canvassers, which is responsible for reviewing recall petitions, is next set to meet. If they're given the go-ahead, proponents would then have just 60 days to obtain a sufficient number of signatures to trigger recalls.
This piece has been updated to include remarks from Michigan Republican Party chair Kristina Karamo.