11th Congressional District race is a story of Oakland County’s changing politics

Democratic incumbent Haley Stevens seeks re-election against her Republican challenger and political newcomer Mark Ambrose.

Haley Stevens Mark Ambrose

Michigan’s new 11th Congressional District is entirely within Oakland County.

The Democratic primary race for that seat featured two incumbent members of Congress. Congresswoman Haley Stevens came out the winner.

Stevens is now expected to easily win the general election. And that’s an indication of how much Oakland County politics have changed in recent years.

“I’m a Democrat. It’s really simple.”

In the Democratic primary, redistricting forced Congresswoman Haley Stevens and Congressman Andy Levin to compete for the same seat.

It was a hard-fought and sometimes contentious primary. But in the end, Stevens won by a substantial margin. She addressed her supporters at Birmingham’s Townsend Hotel shortly after the polls closed that night.

“We made some history, when we sent the first woman to ever represent Michigan’s 11th district to Congress,” Stevens said, referring to the old 11th district that she currently represents. “We sent the first Millennial to Congress.”

The 39-year-old Stevens often invokes her Millennial identity on the campaign trail. But despite her relative youth, she has a lot of political experience.

Stevens was first elected to Congress in 2018. Before that, she was a leader on President Obama’s Auto Rescue Task Force.

Stevens’ core policy positions are largely in line with the Democratic Party mainstream. She champions abortion rights, advocates preserving and expanding the Affordable Care Act, and supports banning assault-style weapons.

And she wears her party affiliation with pride. “I’m a Democrat,” she said. “And it’s really simple. My friends, who we are…we are the party of the people.”

A Republican newcomer

In next week’s general election, Stevens is facing Republican and political newcomer Mark Ambrose. Both are Oakland County natives, but the similarities pretty much end there.

Ambrose is a West Point graduate who spent most of his career in the finance industry. He opposes abortion rights, but believes states should ultimately decide the issue. He’s against additional gun control laws. And he firmly supports former President Donald Trump.

Ambrose did not respond to a Michigan Radio interview request. But in an interview with the Oakland County Times, he cited inflation and the economy as top concerns.

“Those are some things I have a pretty good grasp of, and it won’t be easy, but I do understand how we can dial that back and bring inflation back in check,” Ambrose said.

Ambrose said in that interview that he served at the Southern Border with the U.S. Army Reserve. There, he saw firsthand the results of what he calls the Biden Administration’s “open-border policy.”

But Ambrose isn’t an anti-immigration hardliner. “I am a full supporter of legal immigration, perhaps even expanded immigration,” he said. “But we need to know who’s coming in. We need to be responsible about that.”

Ambrose’s views on immigration may be sincerely-held. But they may also reflect pragmatic politics in a county that has seen a remarkable political transformation in the past several decades.

From deep red to solid blue

“It’s really been, I would say, a 30-year process of going from the state’s most reliable big-vote Republican county, to becoming a very big Democratic county,” Zach Gorchow said of Oakland County. He runs the Lansing-based political news service Gongwer, but he grew up in Troy.

Gorchow said that transformation started in the 1990s. It sped up in the 2000s with some big demographic changes. First, the county saw an influx of mostly Black residents leaving Detroit. Cities like Troy and Novi also became hotspots for immigrants from Asia.

Both of those groups tend to vote for Democrats. But Gorchow said something else changed too—the Republican Party. Traditional Oakland County Republicans tended to be fiscally conservative, but less hard-right on key social issues.

Gorchow said the transformation was pretty much complete by the 2016 election. “These voters who used to vote Republican are now voting Democratic,” he said. “They don’t like Donald Trump.”

Now, Gorchow thinks this election should be a “lay-up” for Stevens. “There is just not enough Republican territory in there for a Republican to have a chance,” he said. But he added that her campaign has another goal–to make sure Democrats show up and vote the rest of the ballot on Election Day.

Stevens knows that. She even talked about it in her primary night victory speech.

“This state has got a governor to reelect. This state has an Attorney General to reelect. This state has a Secretary of State to reelect,” Stevens said then, urging her supporters to keep up the momentum going into November. “Democracy is on the line.”

For now, that measure of success appears much less a given than whether Stevens will return to Congress.

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