By Zachary Gorchow
Executive Editor and Publisher
Posted: May 4, 2016 12:09 PM
Donald Trump is now the presumptive Republican nominee for president, and it is safe to say any Republican candidate for the Michigan House in a competitive area is sweating what the candidacy of Mr. Trump, who just yesterday said something about Ted Cruz’s father having a link to the assassination of President Kennedy (wait, what?), means for their prospects in November.
The short answer: bad. Very, very bad.
No, it’s not impossible to overcome a tsunami in a competitive Michigan House race when the top of the ticket implodes. Continuing with a parallel I drew in February between Mr. Trump and the disastrous 1998 Democratic candidate for governor, Geoffrey Fieger, Democrat Doug Spade’s House victory in 1998 stands as an example. Mr. Fieger drew 36.7 percent of the vote in Lenawee County, but Mr. Spade, whose district basically mirrored the county lines, pulled 50.4 percent. So it can be done. But Democrats overall lost six seats in the House that year amid the Engler landslide and their House majority.
Mr. Trump is going to hurt his Republican ballot mates. The questions are how much and will his presence damage some House Republican candidates who otherwise would have won without too much difficulty.
There is one race that stands out as the obvious case study on the Trump factor. That’s the 61st House District in southwest Kalamazoo County.
Ever since this district became anchored by Portage starting in the 1982 elections, Republicans have never lost it. There was a close call in 2008 when President Barack Obama won the state in a landslide. And Democrats smelled an opportunity in 2014 with no incumbent running. They poured money into it, and the Republican candidate, now-Rep. Brandt Iden (R-Oshtemo Township), committed an unforced error, but ultimately Mr. Iden won, 48 percent to 42 percent over Democrat John Fisher with a Libertarian candidate taking a stronger than usual 10 percent.
Going into this cycle, Democrats had the positive of a presidential cycle to boost turnout, but not much else to help them in the seat. Mr. Iden won in 2014 after having the proverbial kitchen sink thrown at him, and for all the effort Democrats put into the race, Mr. Fisher pulled a lousy 42 percent of the vote.
But not only has Mr. Iden endorsed Mr. Trump, he was elected to serve as a delegate for Mr. Trump at the Republican National Convention. Democrats can now tie Mr. Iden to every wild and crazy thing Mr. Trump has said in the past 11 months and will say for the next six. They will do that with every Republican candidate, but while others can take steps to distance themselves, Mr. Iden cannot.
There’s another reason why Mr. Iden’s embrace of Mr. Trump could be problematic. While Mr. Trump won the Michigan Republican presidential primary, he actually finished third within the confines of the 61st District. Within the district, Ohio Governor John Kasich took 30.8 percent of the vote to 27.3 percent for Mr. Cruz and 25.2 percent for Mr. Trump. How that will play out is hard to say, but it could, emphasis on could, suggest a larger than usual number of Republican voters in this district dispirited about Mr. Trump’s nomination who decide to sit out the election or are disappointed with Mr. Iden for aligning himself with Mr. Trump.
Voters in the district have shown a willingness to split their tickets. Republican Larry DeShazor overcame Mr. Obama’s win in 2008, and in 2012, then-Rep. and now-Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage) ran almost 10 percentage points ahead of Mitt Romney in the district even as Mr. Obama narrowly carried the seat over Mr. Romney.
All things being equal, Mr. Iden should be on his way to an easy win for a second term. And if Mr. Trump turns out not to be widely toxic to the Republican ticket, then the surest sign would be an easy win for Mr. Iden.
All things in this district, this year, are not equal. If the Democratic dream of Mr. Trump taking the Republican ticket down in flames with him is to become reality, then logically smoke will be visible November 8 from the communities of Portage and Oshtemo, Prairie Ronde, Schoolcraft and Texas townships that make up the 61st District.