By Zachary Gorchow
Executive Editor and Publisher
Posted: April 21, 2016 4:49 PM
It is the question on everyone’s minds in and around the Capitol: Can Democrats gain the necessary nine seats in the November election to take control of the Michigan House of Representatives?
Control would mean the chance to stop six years of unfettered Republican control of state government. It would put Democrats in charge of committees to initiate all manner of investigations into the administration of Governor Rick Snyder. It would make Democrats relevant again in Lansing, which other than a couple of notable exceptions, they have not been since Mr. Snyder succeeded former Governor Jennifer Granholm in 2011 and their once mighty 67-43 House majority blew away in the Republican landslide of 2010.
It seems virtually certain that Democrats will gain seats. Republicans have a 63-46 majority with one vacancy in a reliably Democratic seat, so think of it as a 63-47 majority with Democrats needing nine to get to 56.
Why is it certain? Several reasons.
Number one, it is a presidential election year, and in the term limits era, Democrats have never lost seats in a presidential election year, averaging a 4.5-seat gain per election. They gained five in 2004, nine in 2008 and four in 2012. The one exception was 2000, when no seats changed hands amid close races for president and U.S. Senate at the top of the ticket, all the competitive seats taking place in districts with incumbents seeking re-election amid a booming economy and a set of highly skilled, well-funded Republican incumbents having scared off top-tier Democratic challengers.
Number two, a slew of seats in competitive areas have no incumbent running this year because of term limits, and such situations afford a much better opportunity for flipping a seat than ousting an incumbent.
Number three, some of these seats plainly already should be in Democratic hands because of their partisan leaning, but were won by Republicans because of a major edge in candidate quality over the Democratic candidate at the time. This time, in several of those seats, Democrats appear to have recruited top-shelf candidates.
Number four, the Republican pick-up opportunities are slim. They could make a play in the 52nd District held by departing Rep. Gretchen Driskell (D-Saline), but in a presidential year, that seems like a big hurdle. Republicans have raised the possibility of going after Rep. Tom Cochran (D-Mason) in the 67th District, but he has racked up big wins in the past, or Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids) in the 76th District, but if they could not oust her in the Republican wave of 2014 after pouring money into an opponent, taking her out this year seems like a long shot. It appears after a major effort to oust Rep. Henry Yanez (D-Sterling Heights) in 2014, he faces a less onerous re-election battle this year.
So Democrats are positioned to gain seats.
But nine? Or even eight? Eight would get Democrats to a 55-55 shared power situation, and there’s no question that would be a massive victory for them, presuming a similar agreement on how to run the House as occurred in 1993-94.
It’s a big hill to climb.
Even assuming the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, blows out either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz, can she top the 57.4 percent that then-Sen. Barack Obama won against John McCain in 2008 in this state? Democrats gained nine House seats that year, though they also had less low-hanging fruit to grab since they already were at 58.
Looking at the map, at this early stage, it is fair to say the Democrats are strong favorites to win the 23rd District now held by term limited Rep. Patrick Somerville (R-New Boston). It’s a Democratic seat and one of those the party let slip away thanks to Mr. Somerville’s retail political talent and a series of weak Democratic candidates as well as a botched move in 2012 to pull out of the race.
And Democrats appear the clear favorite in the 108th where Rep. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) is out because of term limits. Democrats scored a blockbuster candidate recruit in Dickinson County Sheriff Scott Celello.
Democrats think Jim Haadsma of Battle Creek, a Calhoun County commissioner, is likely to beat Rep. John Bizon (R-Battle Creek) in the 62nd District. This is a Democratic seat that Democrats lost in 2014 after a primary resulted in a weak candidate for the general election, but with the presidential year, provided that Mr. Haadsma proves himself a strong candidate, this is a seat the Democrats probably should win, though ousting an incumbent can never be taken for granted.
Even giving the Democrats those three seats, they still need another six.
The next best opportunity appears the 91st District, which Republicans have not won in a presidential year since 2004. It’s Hughes-Lamonte III as Rep. Holly Hughes (R-White River Township) tries to fend off former Rep. Collene Lamonte (D-Montague). Ms. Lamonte ousted Ms. Hughes in 2012, and Ms. Hughes returned the favor in 2014. Both were incredibly close races, and this will be a coin flip again.
Democrats also are hoping that former Rep. Theresa Abed (D-Grand Ledge) can avenge her 2014 loss to now-Rep. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) in the 71st District. Eaton County is trending Democratic in presidential years, and Democrats think Mr. Barrett has a voting record too conservative for the district, but he has an appealing profile and will be tough to beat.
There are the two open seats in Macomb County where both parties have highly touted recruits. Those look like coin flip races, and probably heavily dependent on what happens at the top of the ticket.
Tom Redmond (D-Lambertville) is waging a rematch against now-Rep. Jason Sheppard (R-Temperance) in the 56th, but rematches featuring a candidate who has yet to win a seat are tough for the nonincumbent.
Democrats are well-positioned in the 99th District where Bryan Mielke, a Union Township trustee who narrowly lost in 2014 to House Speaker Kevin Cotter (R-Mount Pleasant), is back now that Mr. Cotter cannot run again because of term limits. That’s a time-tested formula for victory in the term limits era, but the 99th district has been in Republican hands since the 1930s and is like Lucy pulling away the football from Charlie Brown for the Democrats. They have tried many times to win it and come away empty-handed each time.
There’s the 101st and 106th Districts, both open seats with a history of close races, but given the poor Democratic track record of winning House seats north of U.S. 10 in recent years, those are going to be tough battles.
That’s eight coin-flip type seats, and to keep outright control of the House, Republicans have to win four of them. The Democrats need six.
If, for example, Mr. Barrett and Mr. Sheppard win re-election, and Republicans keep the 101st and 106th Districts, then Republicans will do no worse than 56 seats. It’s not difficult to envision those four seats going to the GOP.
There are four seats where Democrats, at least for now, appear to have come up short in candidate recruitment (the 39th District in western Oakland County, the 41st District in Troy/Clawson, the 57th District in Lenawee County and the 64th District in Jackson County). The Democrats have credible candidates who could take advantage of a wave or Republican misstep, but none of them is giving Republicans the sweats.
November 8 should be a good night for the House Democrats, but so much has to go right for them and wrong for Republicans for it to be good enough for 56.