Ten days ago, Rep. Haley Stevens held a 27 percentage point lead over opponent Rep. Andy Levin in the Democratic primary to represent Michigan’s newly drawn deep-blue 11th Congressional District.
In the poll conducted by Target Insyght from July 18-20, Stevens led Levin 58% to 31% among likely Democratic primary voters. But the ground has shifted in the race’s final days, with Levin narrowing the gap considerably, according to Ed Sarpolus, founder and executive director of the firm behind the poll.
“The race is much tighter,” Sarpolus told the Washington Examiner. “She’s leading — but not by much.”
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Sarpolus, whose firm has published some of the only public surveys in the multimillion-dollar Democrat-on-Democrat race, has slashed his estimates of a Stevens win.
Instead of a massive 27-point gap, Stevens now holds a 7- to 12-point advantage, the Lansing-based pollster said. His latest estimate gives Stevens a 53%-54% chance of winning the primary, compared to 42%-46% for Levin.
The late shift is the result of a still-significant number of undecided voters (16%) and a low return rate on absentee ballots, due in part to the absence of prominent top-of-the-ticket races, Sarpolus said.
Racial gerrymandering has also stifled enthusiasm. “We have a lot of black voters who are really de-motivated,” he added.
Both candidates have campaigned heavily across the new district, which includes southeastern Oakland County, which Levin represents currently, and western Oakland County, where strategists said Stevens’s red-to-blue bona fides — she was originally elected to a Republican-held House seat in 2018 — give her an advantage.
But it is in the majority-black city of Pontiac, held by outgoing Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D), where the race could be won or lost.
“The war for this whole district is going to go down in Oakland County and Pontiac amongst African Americans. Whoever wins the share of the African American vote wins the whole race,” said one local Democratic elected official.
Sarpolus said the last poll published July 21 “was taken at a time when there was a boost of energy and ads” for Stevens, who has benefited from massive super PAC spending on her behalf. One group, the United Democracy Project, a super PAC launched by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, has spent close to $4 million to boost her campaign.
In part, the race has come to be viewed as a test of AIPAC’s influence in electoral politics in which Israel is not a campaign’s focus. Advertisements paid for by UDP showcase Stevens’s role in the Obama administration auto rescue and her support for abortion rights. None mention Israel.
In the lead-up to the Aug. 2 primary day, Levin has hit back at the “dark money” aiding his opponent and assailed UDP’s Republican megadonors.
He has also drawn his progressive firepower to the district, hosting rallies with Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Hollywood actress and climate activist Jane Fonda.
The nephew of the late Democratic Sen. Carl Levin and the son of former Democratic Rep. Sandy Levin, whom he succeeded on his retirement in 2018, Andy Levin has long ties to his home district of southeast Oakland County and is expected to do well there.
Stevens holds an advantage in more conservative western Oakland County, as well as Troy, where there is a large Indian population with young families, Sarpolus said.
“You put that all together, it gives her the advantage with all the money that’s going up,” he said.
But it is black voters who could prove crucial in determining who comes out ahead on Tuesday.
“In a very close race, it’ll be key,” Sarpolus said, explaining that the group makes up a higher percentage of the primary vote.
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An early endorsement by Lawrence, the four-term congresswoman whose current seat comprises about a third of the new district and includes Pontiac, Oakland County’s government seat, helped establish Stevens among voters in the area. Stevens has also been endorsed by the Congressional Black Caucus, boosting her in the race.
Lawrence’s support may put her over the edge. The two campaigned extensively together, and when the Washington Examiner joined Stevens on the campaign trail in July, Stevens was quick to mention Lawrence’s name.
“The most important voter to her is the African American woman in the city of Pontiac,” said the local Democratic official. “If you remember the Biden race, African American women were moderate or tastemakers. … If she can capture a share of African American women voters, I think she probably wins.”