A Look at Michigan

Posted March 15, 2004 at 6:28pm

This is the second of a two-part series on the future of Michigan politics, focusing on the Democrats.

Democrats’ fortunes are not likely to turn in Michigan before the next redistricting, says Bill Ballenger, editor of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics.

If one’s looking at Congress, that’s not so bad, he says. Democrats control both Senate seats but went from holding a majority of House seats to see Republicans gain a nine-to-six advantage in the delegation after the 2000 round of redistricting.

On the state level, their story is much more grim. [IMGCAP(1)]

They recaptured the governorship for the first time in 12 years in 2002 but took no other statewide office, save the lieutenant governorship, which is elected in tandem with the governor. Republicans control the state Legislature — and they control the House by their widest margin in 50 years — and the state Supreme Court.

Democrats don’t even have a chance to make gains in the state Senate until 2006 as the entire chamber does not come up for re-election until then.

Considering the GOP’s dominance at the state level, Democrats do all right in federal elections, Ballenger said.

“In state government, Republicans have it all, but in presidential and Senate [races], Democrats carry the day,” he said.

Michigan has pulled the lever for Democratic candidates in the past three presidential elections, and with the exception of one-term Sen. Spence Abraham (R), the current Energy secretary who was elected in the Republican sweep of 1994 and defeated in 2000, they’ve had a firm grip on both Senate seats for decades.

Ballenger attributes this anomaly to Michigan’s system by which most state officeholders are elected in nonpresidential years.

“It’s a different turnout, different candidates and … the Democrats have chosen some pretty poor” statewide

candidates, he said — noting the choice of Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s lawyer, Geoffrey Fieger, for 1998’s gubernatorial race, he said.

But if Republicans have hopes of winning House seats currently held by Democrats when some aging Members retire, they best think again, Ballenger said.

Five of the Democrats’ six seats are solidly Democratic and would still send a D to Congress, even in an open-seat situation, he said.

Only the vast 1st district, held by Rep. Bart Stupak, is in any real danger of falling into GOP hands, should Stupak, who is only 52, retire, he said.

The district that spans the entire Upper Peninsula down the northeastern portion of the Lower Peninsula has grown more Republican. In 2000, it went 52 percent for President Bush.

“It is the only district that, if he left, there would be a battle royale in both parties to succeed him,” Ballenger said. “He’ll have it as long as he wants it.”

He added that the district’s vast expanse makes mounting a credible challenge to an incumbent next to impossible.

While Republicans may be salivating over the ages of some Democrats, such as Rep. John Dingell, the dean of the delegation, who is 77, or Reps. John Conyers and Dale Kildee, who are both 74, or Rep. Sander Levin, who is 72, their seats are not likely to fall into GOP hands upon retirement, Ballenger predicted.

“They are in heavily Democratic districts,” he said. “It’s not as if there are not prominent Democrats waiting in the wings. … The question is when are these guys gonna leave?”

Rumors that Dingell would hang it up have circulated for 10 years, Ballenger said.

“Kildee and Conyers and even Levin, you’d have to carry them out [from Congress] by their feet,” he said.

Since no one knows exactly when their seats will become available, it’s hard to handicap future races. Michigan’s term limits on state lawmakers further complicate any prognosticating. Someone might be the heir apparent now but if he or she has to wait a few years without an office to hold, the turn for Congress could be lost.

Even so, the Democrats have a strong farm team, Ballenger said.

Some are not so much up-and-comers as they are candidates who already have come up, and gone back down, the ranks.

For instance, in Kildee’s district, former Rep. Jim Barcia (D) now serves as a state Senator and would be a natural to succeed Kildee, Ballenger said.

Barcia, who served 10 years in the House, opted to return to the state Legislature rather than face Kildee when they were thrown into the same district after 2000’s redistricting.

Lt. Gov. John Cherry (D) also hails from the Flint-based 5th district and could be a future candidate, as could his sister, state Sen. Deborah Cherry.

“There’s a cast of thousands,” Ballenger said.

In Conyers’ 14th district, which now includes a hefty slice of Detroit’s Downriver suburbs in addition to roughly half of the city, several Democratic state lawmakers spring to mind, Ballenger said.

State Sen. Ray Basham would be a top contender, he said.

In the 15th district, former Rep. Lynn Rivers of Ann Arbor lost to Dingell in the 2002 Democratic primary after the remap put them both into the same district.

She could be a contender there again, as could Dingell’s wife, Deborah, or son, Chris, now a Wayne County Circuit Court judge.

State Sen. Buzz Thomas (D) would be another strong possibility.

If Sander Levin were to retire, a number of top-flight Democrats would emerge in the 12th district, Ballenger said.

Among them would be state Sen. Gilda Jacobs and state Sen. Michael Switalski.

The only chance Democrats have this year at picking up a seat is a “tremendous long shot,” Ballenger said.

The 7th district is open, thanks to the retirement of Rep. Nick Smith (R).

The district went 51 percent for Bush in 2000 and Democrats would have to field a phenomenal candidate, or Republicans would have to bruise each other so badly in the primary so as to mortally wound the eventual nominee, in order for Democrats to win, he said.

So far, only one Democrat, teacher’s aide Jason Seagraves, is seeking the seat. There are six Republicans thus far: Smith’s son Brad Smith, two state Representatives, two ex-state Representatives and one former state Senator.