Michigan Political Parties: Democratic Party

The Democratic Party dominated Michigan politics from the 1830s until the rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s. Michigan's first state governor, Stevens T. Mason, was a Democrat, along with seven of the next nine governors.

Beginning with the election of Republican governor Kinsley Bingham in 1854, the Democrats became a distinct minority party in Michigan. Between 1855 and 1932, Democrats held the governor's office for only eight years. Democrats held a majority in both houses of the Legislature for only two of those years, and there were ten years between 1905 and 1927 in which there were no Democrats serving in the Legislature.

During the era of Franklin Roosevelt Democratic fortunes improved, with three Democratic governors serving a single two-year term each between 1933 and 1945, and with Democrats in control of the legislature during three two-year terms.

G. Mennen Williams, Neil Staebler, and others transformed the Michigan Democratic Party in the late 1940s, building a party that could compete consistently with the Republicans. Williams was elected to six terms as governor (serving twelve years), and Republican majorities in the legislature were significantly reduced during his tenure. The Democrats were finally able to gain control of the Legislature in the 1964 election, when reapportionment had reduced the number of rural districts and Lyndon Johnson's landslide helped Democratic candidates nationwide.

Since 1964, the two parties have been rather evenly matched in the legislature, with Democratic majorities in both houses for five terms, Republican majorities in both houses for five terms, and split control for the other ten terms. The Democrats have been less successful in gubernatorial elections, electing a Democrat only three times in the last twelve elections.

The Bentley Historical Library holds the records of the Democratic Party of Michigan, as well as the papers of many prominent Democrats.

One group of collections documents the associates of Frank Murphy, Democratic governor in 1937 and 1938, U.S. Attorney General, and U.S. Supreme Court justice. In addition to Murphy's papers, the library holds the papers of Eleanor Bumgardner, Josephine Gomon, George Murphy, Lawrence Rubin, and others, and the Frank Murphy oral history project.

A second group of collections documents the career of G. Mennen Williams and the revitalization of the Democratic Party in the 1940s and 1950s. In addition to Williams's papers, the library holds the papers of Helen Berthelot, Tom Downs, Adelaide Hart, Neil Staebler, and others, and the G. Mennen Williams and Nancy Quirk Williams oral history project.

See the separate listings of the papers of Michigan governors, U.S. senators, and members of Congress.

Democratic Party of Michigan web site.