The Gongwer Blog

Dems’ Task To Flip Legislature Daunting

By Zachary Gorchow
Executive Editor and Publisher
Posted: May 22, 2018 4:43 PM

Democrats are increasingly dreaming big about what they could achieve in the 2018 election, thinking they could gain the nine seats needed to win control of the House. There’s even a dreamer or two out there thinking they might even flip control of the Senate, which has been in Republican control since 1984.

All this talk of a “blue wave” and a Democratic takeover of state government is based on two major factors. One, President Donald Trump has energized Democrats who want to hand him a huge defeat in November, and the president’s party historically fares poorly in mid-term elections. Two, typically after eight years of one party holding the governor’s office, the ensuing open seat election is a change election, and in this case that means Democrats have the change argument following two terms of Governor Rick Snyder.

Let’s be clear from the top, though, before diving more deeply into the state of play for partisan control of the Legislature: It would take a political earthquake, tsunami, EF-5 tornado, Category 5 hurricane, pick your phenomenon, to flip control of the Senate. Democrats need nine seats for outright control, and only twice in state history have Democrats ever swung that many seats in one election – 1932 with the landslide led by Franklin Roosevelt and 1964 in the landslide topped by President Lyndon Johnson.

Neither party has ever come close to flipping nine seats in one Senate election since the 1963 Constitution moved Senate elections to four-year terms occurring in mid-term election years. Additionally, Senate Republicans have an overwhelming advantage in money, capable candidates in most key districts and would have to suffer a disaster without precedent in Michigan politics to lose control.

Democrats, however, if a wave materializes, could make significant gains in the Senate to dig out of their deep hole, a 27-10 Republican majority with one vacancy in a reliably Democratic seat, and position themselves for a legitimate run at control in 2022.

As of today, Democrats, based on candidate and/or national political dynamics, look like favorites to pick up three Senate seats now in Republican hands:

  • There’s the 10th District in Macomb County, where Democrats have Rep. Henry Yanez (D-Sterling Heights), a firefighter with a history of winning tough races, while Republicans have several B- and C-team candidates. It’s not a lock by any means – this is still a district in Republican-tilting and pro-Trump Macomb County territory. But Mr. Yanez is well-positioned against a cast of unknowns.
  • The 29th District in Grand Rapids and some suburbs has drawn two top candidates in Rep. Chris Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids Township) and Rep. Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids), and both parties will spend a fortune to win it. But on paper, the dynamics favor Ms. Brinks. She represents the part of the city of Grand Rapids where Mr. Afendoulis needs to run adequately to win, and Mr. Trump ran well below the Republican base in this district, putting some serious headwinds in Mr. Afendoulis’ face.
  • The 38th District is in jeopardy of flipping to Democrats because of the bipartisan popularity of Rep. Scott Dianda (D-Calumet), who won re-election in a rout two years ago even as Mr. Trump romped to victory in the western Upper Peninsula. Former Rep. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) is a great candidate for the GOP, but as long as Mr. Dianda wins big on his home turf and the big Democratic vote in Marquette shows up, geographically, there’s not enough votes for Mr. McBroom to overcome those dynamics.

There’s two other Senate seats that look like coin flips – the 20th District where Sen. Margaret O’Brien (R-Portage) and Democratic former Rep. Sean McCann of Kalamazoo are set for a rematch of their 2014 thriller narrowly won by Ms. O’Brien and the 34th District in the Muskegon area. Both parties have primaries to sort out first there.

If Democrats won all five of these seats – which would be a major achievement – they would still be facing a 22-16 Republican majority in the Senate. To actually win control, they would need to flip seats in Republican-tilting territory and/or oust incumbents. In most of these districts, Democrats have scored good to very good candidates, but as long as Sen. Marty Knollenberg (R-Troy), Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth) and Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) win re-election, majority is effectively out of reach for the Democrats. And while each has hurdles to re-election, each as of today looks like a good bet to win.

Moving to the House, just about everything that’s transpired so far this cycle has looked good for the Democrats with one major exception – money. House Republicans have swamped their Democratic counterparts in funds raised so far, though Democrats have said they have raised more than they have at this point in past cycles as the minority caucus.

Democrats got some breaks with three House Republicans in key seats opting to run for the Senate instead of re-election. If Rep. John Bizon (R-Battle Creek), Rep. Tom Barrett (R-Potterville) and Rep. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) had run for re-election, probably none of them face a serious challenge from the Democrats.

Another factor that has moved in Democrats’ favor is that Republicans did not recruit strong candidates in several seats they would have been expected to contest seriously after the 2016 elections. I count five such seats where Democrats won’t have to play the kind of defense I would have expected – Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Brownstown Township) in the 23rd District, the open Yanez seat in the 25th District, the open Rep. Pam Faris (D-Clio) seat in the 48th District, Rep. Tim Sneller (D-Burton) in the 50th District and Rep. Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Township) in the 52nd District. Mr. Trump’s problems in Grand Rapids also might remove the open Brinks seat in the 76th District from contention, but it’s too early to go there yet.

So with the exception of the open Dianda seat in the 110th District, Democrats will mostly be able to play offense.

To get the nine seats they need for majority, Democrats would need to win all the 50-50 seats – the Bizon seat in Battle Creek and environs, the Barrett seat in the western suburbs of Lansing, the 91st District in the Muskegon suburbs and the open VanderWall seat. From there, they would need to win at least two of the three open Oakland County seats where Mr. Trump figures to be a millstone for the Republican candidates and then oust three Republican incumbents – Rep. Joe Bellino of Monroe, Rep. Brandt Iden of Oshtemo Township and Rep. Beau LaFave of Iron Mountain.

There are other possibilities for Democrats to spring a surprise. Democrats have intriguing candidates in the 19th District in Livonia and the 38th District in southwest Oakland County, but those candidates first need to win their primaries and those are historically GOP districts that seem at least a couple cycles away from truly becoming up for grabs. There’s the 99th District, centered in Isabella County, perpetually pulling the football away from Democrats like Lucy Van Pelt to Charlie Brown. Democrats have a quality candidate in the 51st District in southern Genesee and northwest Oakland counties, but that area has become ruby red.

All this is to say that as of today, Democrats look like a good bet to gain seats in both legislative houses. But to actually win majority in the House, it will have to replicate what happened in 2006 when the depth of the Democratic wave flipped seats in unexpected places like northwest Wayne County and the Thumb. The Senate? It would be a wave without precedent.

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