Despite Trump effect, Michigan's GOP House seats look safe (for now)

WASHINGTON -  If the polls are right and Donald Trump is about to get thumped in Michigan, what impact will it have on the state’s congressional races?

As it looks right now — not much.

Even as Trump’s fortunes have worsened in the state — as of Oct. 18, the Real Clear Politics average of polls had Democrat Hillary Clinton leading by 11 percentage points — there’s been little indication that it’s driving down support for Michigan’s nine GOP members of the U.S. House to a point where they should be worried.

That’s partly due to demographics and partly due to congressional district lines set by Republicans in Lansing to protect potentially vulnerable members. But it also has something to do with people tending to give better marks to their own congressperson than they do to Congress as a whole, which has lousy approval ratings.

Some questions remain, such as what could happen if historically high disapproval ratings for both Clinton and Trump drive down turnout for congressional races? But, as it stands, few if any pundits are predicting much change in the makeup of the state delegation.

“Could it affect it? Yes, but I don’t necessarily think it’s happening,” said former state Republican Party chairman and consultant Saul Anuzis. “It’s critical to continue efforts to get out the vote, however, and make sure candidates are getting out their vote.”

Anuzis acknowledged — as did some other consultants — that if Clinton’s lead is much larger than 10 percentage points on Election Day, Nov. 8, it could hurt some Republicans. But he and others figure that many Republicans currently weighing whether they can support Trump in light of his controversies will come home to the GOP in the end, closing that gap. In the meantime, they say Trump has attracted lots of new voters as well.

Competitive races

Republicans have held nine of the state’s 14 congressional seats since 2012. And if Democrats are going to cut into that lead, their best chances are to do so in a presidential election year when Democratic turnout tends to be higher than in mid-term elections, and in districts where they are seen as having at least a chance of catching up.

Districts like that, however, are few — especially after the 2011 redistricting when Republicans in Lansing redrew two previously competitive districts, the 1st in northern Michigan and the 7th in south-central Michigan, to be more GOP friendly. Since the 2012 election, both have remained with the GOP.

This year, U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, is stepping down after three 2-year terms, opening what may be the most competitive race in Michigan with former state Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson facing a political newcomer, Republican retired Marine Gen. Jack Bergman in the 1st District. Millions in outside money from both parties has been flowing into the district to try to influence the outcome.

But the 1st is still seen as more GOP friendly than it used to be before redistricting. And, if anything, it may be among Trump’s most voter-rich areas: It is largely white and has a somewhat higher percentage of people with no more than a high school diploma or less, demographics he tends to do well with.

It is a similar scenario in the 7th District, where U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, is now seeking his fourth consecutive term and fifth 2-year term overall. He is battling former Saline Mayor Gretchen Driskell, a Democratic state representative who has raised plenty of money — nearly matching the $2.1 million raised by Walberg this election cycle, a prodigious feat considering his incumbency.

At this late stage in the election, however, the political handicapping reports in Washington — both the Cook Political Report and the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report — see it as leaning Walberg’s way. And with more than $1 million in cash on hand as of Sept. 30, the incumbent has the resources necessary to make up the difference.

Driskell has put Walberg on the defensive, raising questions about Walberg’s past votes in favor of free-trade agreements, which have come under fire this election cycle as both Clinton and Trump have attacked them. But Walberg has maintained that he is  opposed to a Pacific Rim trade deal proposed by President Barack Obama, even if he voted — as did practically all of Michigan’s Republican members of the House — to support fast-track authority allowing for an up-or-down vote on that deal.

Ultimately, the district’s demographics may set the tone: While Mitt Romney took the district by a relatively slim 51%-48% margin over Obama in 2012, Walberg — a conservative minister — performed far better than that in both that election and in 2014. Like the 1st District, more than 90% of the population in the 7th is white and it has a higher-than-average percentage of voters with a high school diploma or less education, again voters Trump has done well with in polls.

"People started with high hopes (of defeating Walberg), but Trump is performing better in the district than Democrats expected," said Nathan Gonzales, the editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. "I think Democrats' dislike for Tim Walberg sometimes overshadows the Republican nature of the district."

Longer odds

There’s something of a split in opinion as to whether Michigan’s 8th Congressional District — represented by U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, and comprised of Ingham, Livingston and northern Oakland County — is in play or not this election. The Cook report has moved it to “Likely Republican” from “Solid Republican,” though the Rothenberg/Gonzales sheet does not have it as competitive.

It’s probably easy to see why the split: Bishop’s Democratic opponent, political newcomer Suzanna Shkreli of Clarkston, has raised more than $400,000 in short order after taking over as the nominee following “Little House on the Prairie” actress Melissa Gilbert’s departure from the race. She also has been going after Bishop and his support of Trump, particularly in the wake of the release of a 2005 video where Trump brags about kissing and groping women without their consent. Bishop denounced the comments but let his endorsement stand, and he now says he won’t talk about Trump.

There also are questions about how Trump might play in the 8th, a district that is considered only marginally Republican-leaning and includes much of Lansing and East Lansing. Romney won the district 51%-48% in 2012. But unlike the 7th District, it is somewhat more racially diverse and has a higher proportion — more than 70% — of the adult population over age 25 with at least some college experience.

Congressional allies in Washington say Shkreli, an assistant Macomb County prosecutor, is in striking distance of Bishop, though they haven’t pumped significant money into the race. Bishop’s campaign, meanwhile, argues that he is comfortably ahead.

The smart money is most likely on Bishop, given that the former state Senate majority leader is not only well-known in the district, but that Shkreli is virtually unknown. The incumbent also has raised more than $2 million this cycle and as of Sept. 30, had nearly $900,000 left compared to about $150,000 for Shkreli.

If there were to be a Democratic wave coming out to support Clinton while Republicans stayed home to protest Trump, this is a district where it could be felt. But, for now, there’s little evidence of such a wave in the making.

The other races

There seem to be few if any other spots on Michigan’s congressional map where the balance of power is likely to change.

The state’s five Democratic members of the U.S. House — U.S. Reps. John Conyers of Detroit, Debbie Dingell of Dearborn, Dan Kildee of Flint Township, Brenda Lawrence of Southfield and Sander Levin of Royal Oak — all are in districts with huge percentages of Democratic voters. It’s highly unlikely they would have any problem getting re-elected, especially without high-profile (and well-funded) opponents.

The same can be said of several strong Republican-leaning districts currently represented by U.S. Reps. Justin Amash of Cascade Township, Bill Huizenga of Zeeland and John Moolenaar of Midland.

That only leaves a handful of congressional races worth mentioning, all represented by Republicans and likely to remain so, though for different reasons.

In Michigan’s 10th Congressional District, stretching from Macomb and St. Clair counties up through the Thumb, businessman Paul Mitchell — who has put $3.6 million of his own money into this, his second congressional race — is the Republican nominee to replace U.S. Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, who is stepping down to run for Macomb County public works commissioner.

Mitchell faces former state Rep.  Frank Accavitti Jr. of Eastpointe. But given that this is one of the most securely Republican districts in the state, Mitchell’s election seems almost certain.

In the 11th District, U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, is running for only his second term and could have potentially been in some trouble with Trump as the nominee — seeing as how this district is more diverse and has more people with college education than many.

But there’s been little indication that the Democratic nominee, Dr. Anil Kumar, has made any significant inroads to date. Former U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio of Milford also is running as an independent, but doesn’t appear to have impacted the race so far. Still, this could potentially be a race to keep an eye on if Trump’s numbers continue to fall.

Finally, out in the 6th District in southwestern Michigan, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, is again facing Democrat Paul Clements, a political science professor at Western Michigan University who Upton beat handily, 56%-40%, in 2014.

All things being equal, the 6th is only marginally Republican leaning. And, in 2012, Romney barely edged out Obama with slightly more than 50% of the vote. But the genial Upton has represented this area since 1987 and, as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, he’s the highest-ranking Republican in Michigan’s congressional delegation. He's also thought to be particularly responsive to constituent requests.

It also probably doesn’t hurt that Upton, unlike every other Republican in the delegation other than Amash, has pointedly refused to endorse Trump.

Detroit Free Press


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