The GOP bet big on tax cuts for the rich. They got historic labor victories instead ⋆

Last year, Republicans appeared to be riding high.

The economy was shaky, as were President Joe Biden’s poll numbers, and everyone was sick of COVID.

We were primed for an epic red wave in the midterm elections, most pundits proclaimed. 

The only problem was the voters didn’t agree. In 2022, Democrats built on their U.S. Senate majority, won key governorships and narrowly lost the House.

Meanwhile in Michigan, voters resoundingly reelected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the rest of the Democratic ticket, and handed her the first Democratic Legislature since Ronald Reagan was president. They also approved abortion rights and voting rights measures by strong margins.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shows off her mittens featuring Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas during the Michigan Inauguration on Jan. 1, 2023. | Andrew Roth/

That was a blow for Republicans, who were jazzed about ramming through book bans and a Florida-style “Don’t Say Gay” law that their gubernatorial nominee, Tudor Dixon, couldn’t stop talking about. (It was kinda weird).

But it was particularly bad news for GOP donors who thought they’d be rewarded with the ultimate prize: a big tax cut. 

Before the election, Republicans in charge of the Legislature broke out an old chestnut, a $2.5 billion tax cut plan, with about 70% of the spoils going to the richest 20%. Surely voters would be outraged that Whitmer vetoed a scheme that would have saved middle-class families an average of $92 a year and would vote straight-ticket GOP in the fall. 

Dixon went even further, announcing a plan to phase out the personal income tax until it’s eliminated, modeling states like Texas. That would be a windfall for billionaires, like, say, the DeVos family who backed the actress-turned-right-wing commentator during a crowded GOP primary.

The income tax is one of the main ways the state keeps the lights on, so axing $14.5 billion from Michigan’s $82 billion budget would probably mean deep cuts people would feel, like schools and state parks shutting down and fewer police on patrol.

For Republicans, this is a win-win. First, you get a fat tax cut, then you cut government to the bone. And ideally, this cycle propels you through the next election, as voters grumble that government doesn’t work (because you made sure that it doesn’t!). Genius.

But alas, that dream died on election night with Dixon’s embarrassing 11-point loss (along with her backup plan of a Fox News contract). 

That also put the kibosh on another big DeVos priority — killing public schools, which former President Donald Trump endorsed by appointing matriarch Betsy DeVos as his secretary of education. The family had bankrolled a Michigan voucher proposal — which appeared to violate the state constitution, but rules are for little people — they expected Republicans to rubber stamp. But the 2022 election crushed that plan, too.

In the end, it was a classic case of GOP powerbrokers getting high on their own supply. They convinced themselves that voters were still livid about COVID lockdowns (that had ended a year and a half before the election) and would undoubtedly punish Whitmer. And they figured Dixon’s Moms for Liberty-style campaign would present a clear contrast to Whitmer’s “tyranny” (a.k.a. trying to save lives during the terrifying early days of the pandemic).

Arrogantly betting the house on an unknown gubernatorial nominee with zero political experience — just because she could deliver zingers on TV and seemed pliant enough to push through whatever policies they wanted — proved to be a complete disaster. Tudor Dixon’s double-digit loss at the top of the ticket helped usher in the once-unthinkable: a Democratic House and Senate.

In reality, the assault-rifle-toting hoards that stormed Michigan’s Capitol in spring 2020 were always in the minority, but too many Republicans swore the public had been forever traumatized by mask requirements at Meijer. 

They blithely ignored polling that showed voters were more concerned about attacks on democracy, like the Jan. 6, 2022, pro-Trump insurrection, and Roe v. Wade being overturned in June 2022. Both issues boosted Democrats, especially with Republicans running a slate of election deniers who opposed abortion without exceptions — crystallized by Dixon declaring abortion shouldn’t be an option for a 14-year-old rape victim because there’s “healing through the baby.”

Arrogantly betting the house on an unknown gubernatorial nominee with zero political experience — just because she could deliver zingers on TV and seemed pliant enough to push through whatever policies they wanted — proved to be a complete disaster. Dixon’s double-digit loss at the top of the ticket helped usher in the once-unthinkable: a Democratic House and Senate.

And so, Republicans slunk into 2023 in an unfamiliar position, without any power to block a progressive agenda. To make matters worse for them, the Democratic governor had spent 14 years in the Legislature and actually knew how to get things done.

Despite hectoring from business executives and conservative columnists, Whitmer and Democrats proceeded to knock out big-ticket items on the party’s wish list this year with relatively few hiccups — adding non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people, rolling back abortion restrictions, passing gun control measures and enacting clean energy standards.

But two policies in particular stung for the Republican elite. The first was tax relief — not for billionaires, but for seniors and working-class families. Whitmer signed legislation scrapping most of GOP former Gov. Rick Snyder’s much-ballyhooed tax plan by phasing out the pension tax and boosting the Earned Income Tax Credit from 6 to 30%, resulting in rebate checks for 700,000 families.

And the second was killing Right to Work, the crown jewel of decades of right-wing policy in Michigan. You might remember that Snyder signed the law in 2012, despite the vociferous protest of roughly 12,000 people on the Capitol lawn (and having famously promised that it wasn’t on his agenda).

But big-money donors like the DeVoses had made RTW their top priority in that lame duck session, as it’s been found to drive down wages and membership in unions — a key Democratic constituency. 

Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visits Detroit Edison Public School Academy, Sept. 20, 2019 | Allison Donahue

And perhaps even more importantly, it sent a clear message of conservative hegemony in the state where the UAW was born and helped solidify the GOP strategy of viciously punching down that Trump would soon take to the extreme with anti-immigrant policies and open yearning for political violence.

So the fact that Whitmer — who had led the charge against RTW’s passage as Senate minority leader — was able to throttle the policy a mere decade after passage was a bitter pill for Republicans to swallow. She also signed several other pieces of pro-union legislation, most notably restoring prevailing wage.

On top of that, organized labor won a series of smashing victories in Michigan and across the country last year at UPS, Kaiser Permanente, major Las Vegas resort companies and the Detroit casinos. 

But hands down, the sweetest triumph was for the long-suffering UAW over the Detroit Three automakers, due in no small part to more aggressive tactics from new President Shawn Fain

The fact that Biden became the first modern president to walk a picket line during his September trip to Michigan will be a boost to winning the state this year (and stands in sharp contrast to Trump, who gave a stump speech at a non-union Macomb County plant).

It would be naïve to think Republican donors will just give up after a string of losses; bullies rarely do. Indeed, they’ve already signaled they’ll pull out all the stops to ensure the GOP retakes the White House this year. But Michigan presents a shining example of how to beat them at their own game.

authored by Susan J. Demas
First published at

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