Nate Smith-Tyge (@smithtyge) & Nick Krieger (@nckrieger):
One-party control of Michigan state government has been toxic. It has lead to corruption, incompetence, and a cover-up that poisoned an entire city. It has put in place a right-to-work law and undermined the right to collectively bargain. It has demonized public school teachers and chipped away at the protections of teacher tenure, all the while allowing the proliferation of unaccountable for-profit charters and cyber schools. It has brought multi-billion dollar tax shifts from large corporations to seniors and students, which have resulted in little of the promised job growth but plenty of budget chaos. It has taken away local control in African-American communities through the process of emergency management. It has allowed the creation of massive debt by emergency managers in the Detroit Public Schools—unaccountable state-appointed receivers who have overseen doomed-to-fail “rescue” plans for the district (which also have sweeping implications for public schools across the state). It has enabled voter suppression through the elimination of straight-party voting. It has unfairly rigged the rules of the game by way of illegal partisan gerrymandering. And it has prevented meaningful state judicial review of any of these actions.
There are exactly two ways in which one-party control of Michigan state government can be stopped this November: Democrats must (1) take back the Michigan Supreme Court or (2) take back the Michigan House of Representatives (there are no statewide executive officer or State Senate elections this year).
Sadly, certain so-called “Democrats” are working behind the scenes to help elect the two Republican-appointed Michigan Supreme Court justices who will be on the ballot this fall. Unless this changes, it will be very difficult for the Democrats to take back either of these two Supreme Court seats. As a consequence, the Democrats’ best hope to stop one-party rule in this state is to take back the Michigan House of Representatives.
Republicans presently control the Michigan House of Representatives 63-46, with one vacancy. (One seat is vacant due to the resignation of Derek Miller, a Democrat who was appointed to serve as Macomb County Treasurer; however, the numbers strongly suggest that this seat will remain Democratic following the special election.)
Of the 3,026,423 Michigan voters who cast a ballot for the office of state representative in the 2014 general election, 1,541,018 of them (50.9 percent) voted for the Democratic candidate. Yet of the 110 state representatives who were elected that year, only 47 (43 percent) were Democrats. These skewed results are attributable to partisan gerrymandering, the process by which the party in control manipulates electoral maps and district boundaries in order to achieve partisan political advantage.
Because the Democrats control only 47 out of 110 seats in the Michigan House of Representatives, they will need to win back nine seats this fall in order to achieve a majority, take control of the chamber, and end one-party rule in Michigan.
Here are the seats where Democrats have the best chances to make gains:
NINE CLOSEST DISTRICTS:
In 2014, there were nine districts—the same number needed for Democrats to regain control of the Michigan House in November 2016—where the Democratic candidate for state representative lost by fewer than 2,000 votes. In fact, in six of these nine districts, the Democratic candidate lost by fewer than 1,000 votes. Here they are:
23rd State House District — Wayne Co. (part)
Pat Somerville (R) 16,060
David Haener (D) 14,754
2014 GOP margin of victory: 1,306 votes
Estimated 2016 Dem Base: 54%
Somerville cannot run again due to term limits, leaving a wide-open contest to succeed him in this 54% base Democratic downriver/southeastern Wayne County district. Three Republicans and four Democrats have filed to run in 2016. Democrat Sherry Berecz, the Brownstown Township Clerk, is the favorite of Lansing Democrats; they will make sure she works hard in the primary after their favored candidate in the 2014 primary (Brownstown Supervisor Andy Linko) was outworked by a little known opponent named David Haener.
39th State House District — Oakland Co. (part)
Klint Kesto (R) 16,740
Sandy Colvin (D) 15,300
2014 GOP margin of victory: 1,440 votes
Estimated 2016 Dem Base: 50%
Kesto is running for his third and final term in the Michigan House of Representatives. Kesto of Walled Lake will face off against Democrat Mike Stack a Wolverine Lake Village Council member in November.
56th State House District — Monroe Co. (part)
Jason Sheppard (R) 13,596
Tom Redmond (D) 12,726
R. Al Bain (UST) 697
2014 GOP margin of victory: 870 votes
Estimated 2016 Dem Base: 49%
This year’s race will be a rematch between Sheppard and Redmond, both of Lambertville. Redmond is a former police officer and retired Monroe County Sheriff’s Department sergeant.
61st State House District — Kalamazoo Co. (part)
Brandt Iden (R) 16,016
John Fisher (D) 14,148
Michael Stampfler (L) 2,941
2014 GOP margin of victory: 1,868 votes
Estimated 2016 Dem Base: 49%
This year’s race will be a rematch between Iden and Fisher, both of Portage. You may recall that during the 2014 campaign, the Michigan Republican Party sent out an unsavory mailer directing voters to call Fisher’s ailing 91-year-old mother at a Portage-area nursing home. Fisher is a pastor in the United Methodist Church.
62nd State House District — Calhoun Co. (part)
John Bizon (R) 11,875
Andy Helmboldt (D) 11,336
2014 GOP margin of victory: 539 votes
Estimated 2016 Dem Base: 52%
This year, Bizon will face off against Democrat Jim Haadsma, an attorney and member of the Calhoun County Board of Commissioners. This seat was held by Democrat Kate Segal by comfortable margins from 2008-2012, and was also held by former Democratic candidate for governor Mark Schauer before redistricting.
71st State House District — Eaton Co. (part)
Tom Barrett (R) 17,760
Theresa Abed (D) 17,612
2014 GOP margin of victory: 148 votes
Estimated 2016 Dem Base: 50-51%
In this very competitive Eaton County district, the 2016 race will be a rematch between current Republican State Representative Tom Barrett and former Democratic State Representative Theresa Abed.
91st State House District — Muskegon Co. (part)
Holly Hughes (R) 12,734
Collene Lamonte (D) 12,681
Alan Jager (I) 1,959
2014 GOP margin of victory: 53 votes
Estimated 2016 Dem Base: 50%
This seat has flipped back and forth between current Republican State Representative Holly Hughes and former Democratic State Representative Collene Lamonte since 2012. The 2016 race will be yet another rematch between Hughes and Lamonte.
99th State House District — Isabella Co. (part), Midland Co. (part)
Kevin Cotter (R) 11,347
Bryan Mielke (D) 10,676
2014 GOP margin of victory: 671 votes
Estimated 2016 Dem Base: 50%
Cotter is term limited, but Mielke is running again. In November, Mielke will face off against the winner of a two-way Republican primary. Isabella County, thanks in large part to CMU students, faculty, and staff, as well as members of the Saginaw Band of Chippewa Indians, is fast becoming a Democratic stronghold. The Republican-drawn district map, which includes parts of Midland County, is the only factor making this a competitive seat for the GOP.
101st State House District — Mason Co., Manistee Co., Benzie Co., Leelanau Co.
Ray Franz (R) 18,639
Tom Stobie (D) 18,319
2014 GOP margin of victory: 320 votes
Estimated 2016 Dem Base: 47-48%
Franz cannot seek reelection due to term limits, and Stobie has declined to run this year. In November, former Democratic State Representative Dan Scripps of Northport will face off against the winner of a three-way Republican primary. (FtM note: This is Nick’s home district, and seat where he ran as the Democratic candidate in 2000 and 2002).
If you add up the GOP margins of victory in each of these districts, you will discover that only 7,215 votes, spread across nine districts, gave the Republicans a majority in the Michigan House of Representatives in the 2014 election. That means that only 0.24 percent of the total statewide vote for the office of state representative determined control of the chamber in the last election.
TEN OTHER DISTRICTS TO WATCH:
Aside from the nine closest State House districts listed above, there are several other districts that may be competitive in the 2016 election, including a few districts in which the current Republican state representative cannot run again as a result of term limits. These districts include:
20th State House District — Wayne Co. (part)
Although the 20th is not generally included on lists of highly competitive seats, it was represented by Democrat Marc Corriveau from 2006-2010, and certain areas in the southern portion of the district (Canton Twp.) have been trending Democratic in recent years. Current Republican State Representative Kurt Heise is term limited. Colleen Pobur, a Plymouth City Commissioner and former member of the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, is running in a two-way Democratic primary against former Wayne County Commissioner and frequent circuit court candidate John J. Sullivan. Five Republicans initially filed for the seat, but two have withdrawn. (FtM note: This is Nate’s home district, and seat he sought for the Democrats in 2014, finishing with 40% of the vote).
30th State House District — Macomb Co. (part)
In this district, which encompasses the western half of the City of Sterling Heights, Republican State Representative Jeff Farrington beat his Democratic challenger by only 2,199 votes in 2014. Farrington cannot run again due to term limits. Farrington’s wife is running in this year’s four-way Republican primary; the son of late Sterling Heights Mayor Richard Notte is running in a two-way Democratic primary. If Notte wins the primary, expect Democrats to put resources into the 30th.
41st State House District — Oakland Co. (part)
In 2014, Republican State Representative Martin Howrylak of Troy beat his Democratic challenger, Mary Kerwin, by 3,782 votes. In 2012 Howrylak beat Kerwin by only 427 votes, so this district is much more competitive in Presidential years. Howrylak has a Republican primary challenger in August 2016; but assuming that Howrylak wins the GOP primary, he will face Democrat Cyndi Peltonen in November. Peltonen, a teacher and former school board member from Clawson, was a Democratic candidate for the Michigan Senate in 2014.
57th State House District — Lenawee Co. (part)
Although Republican State Representative Nancy Jenkins beat her Democratic challenger by 4,489 votes in 2014, Jenkins cannot run again because of term limits. Pharmacist and former Tecumseh Mayor Harvey Schmidt is running as a Democrat this year. In November, he will face off against the winner of a three-way Republican primary. The voters of Lenawee County have been known to elect Democrats in the past (Doug and Dudley Spade).
64th State House District — Jackson Co. (part)
In this district that includes the City of Jackson, as well as much of central and western Jackson County, current Republican State Representative Earl Poleski cannot run again due to term limits. In November 2014, Poleski defeated his Democratic challenger, Brenda Pilgrim, by a wide margin. However, this district has gone Democratic in the past, and with incumbent Poleski leaving office the Democratic numbers should rebound a bit. Ron Brooks, a pastor in the United Methodist Church, will face Peter Bormuth in a two-way Democratic primary. Three Republicans, including the brother of former State Representative Martin Griffin (who was elected as a Democrat, just like their father Michael who held the seat for almost 30 years - Thanksgiving must be interesting at the Griffin household), have filed for the seat.
85th State House District — Shiawassee Co.
Republican State Representative Ben Glardon beat his Democratic challenger by 3,167 votes in 2014. Glardon is term limited, leaving a wide-open contest in this once-competitive Shiawassee County district. Democrats are bullish on Shiawassee County Commissioner John Horvath’s chances in the 85th, even though he faces three fellow Democrats in the primary. Republicans also have a four-way primary, but Dems have a chance to return this seat to their caucus for the first time since Democratic State Representative Clark Harder was termed out in 1998.
97th State House District —Osceola Co. (part), Clare Co., Gladwin Co., Arenac Co.
While the 2014 numbers from this district don’t exactly look promising for Democrats, the voters in this part of the state have sent Democratic state representatives to Lansing in the past. Current Republican State Representative Joel Johnson is not seeking reelection due to term limits. Five Republicans and two Democrats are running to succeed him.
104th State House District — Grand Traverse Co.
In 2014, Republican Larry Inman defeated Democrat Betsy Coffia by 2,077 votes, the closest this district has been since 1992 when Gerri Greene almost defeated Michelle McManus. Inman is running again, but has a Tea Party primary challenger. Coffia is also running again, with a primary challenger of her own. Coffia is a determined campaigner and refuses PAC donations while running a “people powered campaign.” Assuming that Inman and Coffia win their respective primaries, this race will be a rematch—but 2016 is a presidential election year, and will have a higher Democratic turnout.
106th State House District — Cheboygan Co. (part), Presque Isle Co., Alpena Co., Alcona Co., Iosco Co.
Republican State Representative Peter Pettalia defeated his Democratic challenger, Robert Kennedy, by 3,392 votes in 2014. Pettalia is now term limited, and Kennedy is running again. Much like in the 23rd District, Kennedy upset the party’s favored candidate in the 2014 primary. This time around Democrat Erin Kieliszewski, a teacher and the wife of Alpena County Sheriff Steven Kieliszewski is the Dem Caucus’ supported candidate – expect her to get the same message as Sherry Berecz in the 23rd and work hard in the primary. In November, the Democratic nominee will face the winner of a four-way Republican primary.
108th State House District — Dickinson Co., Menominee Co., Delta Co.
Republican State Representative Ed McBroom is term limited. Dickinson County Sheriff Scott Celello and former school board member Dana Dziedzic are both running as Democrats. The winner of the Democratic primary will face off against one of three Republican candidates in the fall.
Of course, efforts to take back the Michigan House of Representatives will also require not losing control of any of the 46 seats that are currently held by Democrats (plus the Democratic-leaning vacant seat in Macomb County). In particular, Democrats will have to make sure they hold the seats in these competitive districts:
21st State House District - Wayne Co. (part)
This district has gone for Dems since 2006 and incumbent Kristy Pagan had a strong showing in 2014 to win her first-term in the legislature representing Belleville, and parts of VanBuren and Canton townships. Pagan emerged from a closely fought primary in 2014 to succeed Dian Slavens, who unsuccessfully challenged Patrick Colbeck for the 7th Senate District after being termed out of the House. This seat is probably the safest of the five Dem hold seats and in addition to her determined campaigining Pagan will be boosted by a few factors: Canton, the population center of the district, is trending Democratic and Dems are running a full slate for township offices (including Slavens who is seeking the township Treasurer position and 2012 Congressional candidate and former Canton Trustee Dr. Syed Taj who is seeking the open Supervisor position). Additionally, it appears that Pagan might be unopposed as the Republican that filed to run against her, Derek Moss, is a federal employee in violation of the Hatch Act. In a hope to avoid charges under the Hatch Act, he has indicated he will withdraw from the race. It is unclear if Republicans will be able to replace Moss on the ballot (other than by a primary write-in effort) as violating the Hatch Act is not covered under the candidate replacement laws in Michigan.
25th State House District — Macomb Co. (part)
This seat, presently held by second-term Democratic State Representative Henry Yanez, encompasses the eastern half of the City of Sterling Heights and part of the City of Warren. Yanez is running for his third and final term in the Michigan House, but has primary opposition from Democrat Jacqueline Sproles. Assuming that Yanez wins the Democratic primary, he will face the winner of a two-way GOP primary.
52nd State House District — Washtenaw Co. (part)
Democratic State Representative Gretchen Driskell currently holds this seat, which covers western and portions of northern Washtenaw County. Driskell is not seeking reelection to the Michigan House of Representatives because she is running for Congress against Tim Walberg in the 7th Congressional District. There will be a two-way Democratic primary between Barbara Ryan-Fuller, a Washtenaw County Road Commissioner and founder of MI-List, and Donna Lasinski, an author and small business owner. The Democratic primary winner will face off against Republican Randy Clark, a South Lyon School Board member, in November.
67th State House District — Ingham Co. (part)
Second-term Democratic State Representative Tom Cochran currently holds this seat, which covers a portion of the City of Lansing as well as central and southern Ingham County. Two Republicans are running for the seat, and Cochran has a primary opponent of his own.
76th State House District — Kent Co. (part)
Second-term Democratic State Representative Winnie Brinks holds this seat, which snakes through portions of southern, central, and northern Grand Rapids. In November, Brinks will face off against the winner of a two-way Republican primary.
EVEN MORE DISTRICTS TO WATCH:
In general Democrats did a pretty good job of recruiting candidates for the 2016 cycle. All 110 districts will have a contested election - something that doesn't always happen. Strong candidate recruitment means that some districts could come the Dems way if 2016 turns into a wave year (think Mike Huckleberry in 2008). First on this list is the 38th District that is based in Novi and currently represented by Kathy Crawford. Dems scored a solid candidate in South Lyon School Board Vice-President Amy McCusker, who is also an experience campaign staffer. In the 51st District Republican incumbent Joseph Graves faces two primary challengers and then must contend with Holly Village Council Member and Dem candidate Ryan Bladzik in the general election. In the 100th District Oceana County Road Commissioner and 2014 Senate candidate Cathy Forbes gives the Dems a solid candidate in an open seat. And in the 103rd District two Republicans and four Democrats are seeking an open seat that until 2010 had long been an Ogemaw County-based Democratic seat (Tom Alley through the Sheltrown brothers).
THE 2016 POLITICAL LANDSCAPE:
Winning nine seats is no easy task, but recent years have shown that 15-20 seat swings can occur in the Michigan House (e.g., 2010). Democrats need to do well in the nine closest seats and pick up one or two seats in the next group (and of course hold their current 47 seats) to gain the majority. Going 7 for 9 in the first category is a tall order, but possible in a Presidential year given that voter turnout will be a huge factor in many of these districts. Democrats will also have a favorable electorate given the low approval ratings for both Governor Rick Snyder and current legislative Republicans. If the Democrats can turn the state house races into a referendum on Snyder’s performance, they will have a clear advantage.
Of course there are also complicating factors. No one really knows what to make of the Trump candidacy and how that will affect down-ballot races. It is certainly possible that Snyder’s failures, coupled with constant reminders of the Flint water crisis, could “trump” any top-of-the-ticket draw that would otherwise exist this November. And if Trump’s campaign implodes (as many expect to happen at some point), then a Democratic wave could be in the making.
Republicans also benefit from the elimination of straight-party voting. Democrats are traditionally more susceptible to voter falloff, but it is not known how much this phenomenon will affect the state house races. Former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Mark Brewer and others have filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court challenging the elimination of straight-party voting, but it is unclear whether the suit will succeed. Democratic Party leadership is planning for an election without straight-party voting, and says it will conduct a vigorous voter-education effort to ensure Democratic that Michigan voters complete their ballots.
*Editor’s Note: As we enter the 2016 campaign season, Fix the Mitten will begin looking at campaigns and candidates throughout the state. We will continue our policy-based articles, but hope that readers enjoy these new campaign-related pieces as well.