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Michigan Democrats picking sides in Levin-Stevens primary

After ruling overturned abortion rights, no sign of enthusiasm gap

For special education teacher DeBorah Foster, a personal connection to former Sen. Carl Levin is one of the reasons she's supporting his nephew, Rep. Andy Levin, in the 11th District Democratic primary against Rep. Haley Stevens.
For special education teacher DeBorah Foster, a personal connection to former Sen. Carl Levin is one of the reasons she's supporting his nephew, Rep. Andy Levin, in the 11th District Democratic primary against Rep. Haley Stevens. (Paul M. Krawzak/CQ Roll Call)

FARMINGTON, Mich. — Retired teacher Sandy Boland lists abortion rights and the environment as her top issues and says she has “marched for everything,” including in the Women’s March in 2017, which protested Donald Trump’s election as president.

In the upcoming primary for Michigan’s 11th District, she’ll have to choose between two incumbent Democrats. While she says she likes two-term Rep. Andy Levin, she’s likely sticking with the one she supported before, two-term Rep. Haley Stevens.

“I hate to say this, but I go woman first,” said Boland, 77, of Farmington, Mich. 

Levin, however, can draw on a genetic advantage of his own: a family legacy in Congress reaching back to 1978, when his uncle, Carl Levin, won the first of six terms in the Senate. In 1982, Carl Levin’s brother, Sander M. Levin, won a House seat that he held until he retired and was succeeded by son Andy Levin in 2019.

“I’ve always supported the Levins because they’re a good family, they’re good people and they’ve done a lot for the community, and their record speaks for itself,” said DeBorah Foster, 65, a special education teacher at Ferndale High School.

Foster credited Carl Levin with, after hearing her choir sing, arranging for the group to perform at the White House in 2013, when Barack Obama was president. But other voters without a similar personal connection also voiced an allegiance to the dynasty.

Levin, 61, and Stevens, 39, are facing each other in the Aug. 2 Democratic primary after Michigan lost one of its 14 seats to reapportionment. The new 11th District, northwest of Detroit, draws about 30 percent of its population from retiring Rep. Brenda Lawrence’s 14th District, 45 percent from Stevens’ old 11th District and 25 percent from Levin’s old 9th District, according to data compiled by Daily Kos Elections. It backed Joe Biden over Trump by 19 percentage points in 2020, according to Dave’s Redistricting, and the race in November is rated Solid Democratic by Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

Interviews with voters in Farmington, which was part of Stevens’ old district, and in Royal Oak, which was in Levin’s, found people loyal to each incumbent, but some had seized on aspects of the candidates’ records to make their pick. 

Stevens has a reputation for being more moderate and friendly to business than Levin, a proponent of “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions and wean the U.S. off fossil fuels. A CQ Roll Call analysis found that they voted alike in the House 97 percent of the time and had identical records of supporting Trump’s position on contested votes just 9 percent of the time in 2019 and 2020.

One issue where they split was on the United States-Mexico-Canada trade agreement in 2019, which replaced the North American Free Trade Agreement. Levin opposed it, saying the pact provided “no meaningful way for workers in Mexico to improve their working conditions and bargain collectively, and so there is no incentive for American companies to stop outsourcing.” Stevens applauded the agreement, saying she voted for it because it “positions Michigan’s 11th District to compete globally and succeed.”

In another difference, Levin voted for an amendment offered by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., in 2021 to cut the fiscal 2022 national defense authorization by 10 percent. Stevens opposed the cut, which the House rejected by a vote of 86-332.

“I’m sticking with Haley Stevens,” said Gordon Lawless, 58, a Farmington physician. “Her focus seems to be on economic issues.” He said while that is “not crucial to me … it’s something that works in the general election.” 

Former casino union steward Steve Weinberg, 74, of Farmington, said he was “kind of” leaning toward Stevens.

“I like what she did when the auto manufacturers were having their problems, working with Obama,” he said. Stevens has touted, including in a recent television ad, her role as chief of staff of an auto task force formed by Obama with the aim of rescuing Chrysler and General Motors during the 2008-09 financial crisis.

Steve Weinberg of Farmington, Mich., cited work Stevens did to help the auto industry as a reason for supporting her over Levin in the primary. (Paul M. Krawzak/CQ Roll Call)

Susanne Sims, a U.S. history teacher at Berkley High School, was torn between the two but was leaning toward Levin. 

“I feel as if he’s willing to take more aggressive action than Haley Stevens is at this point,” said Sims, 40. For example, she noted that Levin advocates expanding the Supreme Court, a goal embraced by some who would like to dilute the conservative influence on the court. Levin favors broad changes to the court, including imposing term limits on justices.  

Energized by court

More than the member-vs.-member primary, interviewees said they were motivated to vote this year by the Supreme Court’s recent decision that struck down the right to an abortion through the overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade precedent. For some, it was a bigger motivator than the economic issues Republicans believe will power a wave election for them in November.

Loading four bags of groceries into her car, Susan Lekander said she had spent $126 for items that would have cost her about $40 a year ago. But for Lekander, 66, of Berkley, inflation is “not just a Democrat or Biden problem,” and she’s more motivated by the court’s action. 

“I’m old enough that I have friends that were seeking abortion when it was illegal and almost died,” she said. “I think it’s a tragedy that it is overturned after 50 years.” 

She was undecided about the Stevens-Levin contest, and so was Cody Rabach, 24, of Royal Oak. 

But like Lekander, Rabach said the Supreme Court ruling was “huge” for him. 

“I don’t know how much a representative from the 11th District can handle that,” he said. “But that’s pretty shocking, especially with my girlfriend and … a lot of people that are my age who really value their female rights.” 

In part because of abortion, the “enthusiasm gap” that made headlines earlier this year — an NBC News poll in January found that Republicans who were very interested in the midterms exceeded Democrats 61 percent to 47 percent — was not apparent in the district, which lies in the state’s second-most populous county north of Detroit.

“I’m not sensing any despair,” said Democrat Patricia Paruch, a former mayor and now city commissioner of Royal Oak, who backs Levin. “In fact, it’s exactly the opposite.” Paruch said Democrats running for office “are recruiting people who have never really been active before because they’re just concerned about a lot of things,” including the Supreme Court decision.

The issue has special importance in Michigan because of the potential that a 1931 Michigan law will go back into effect and prohibit abortion except to save the life of the mother. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who is seeking reelection this year, filed a lawsuit asking the state Supreme Court to recognize a right to an abortion under the state constitution, and a state judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of the 1931 law. 

Abortion rights groups on Monday turned in more than 753,000 signatures — almost twice as many as are required and a record number, they said — for a November ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to make abortion a right.

Levin and Stevens both support abortion rights. Both were among more than 200 Democratic co-sponsors of legislation that would bar states from outlawing abortion. The bill passed the House in September 2021 before falling short in a Senate cloture vote in February. The Planned Parenthood Action Fund has issued a dual endorsement of Levin and Stevens in the 2022 elections. 

Among voters in the district, there is little indication that the abortion issue favors one candidate over the other. But both Stevens and Levin are emphasizing it in their campaign ads, with the hope that it will gain traction as the primary race intensifies.

Brandon Lewis, 41, a property manager in Royal Oak, said he leaned toward Levin, and that “women’s reproductive rights [are] what’s foremost in my mind. I don’t like what just happened.”

Clinton Stanley, 64, of Farmington Hills, also prioritizes access to abortion but said he leaned toward Stevens. Like some others, the former city of Detroit employee said his mind is not made up. “It’s going to be a tough choice,” he said.

Ryan Kelly contributed to this report.

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