If you’re in Michigan and waiting to see whether a Democratic wave is building — or not — in this year’s congressional elections, keep an eye on two Oakland County-based districts: those currently held by U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, and U.S. Rep. Dave Trott, R-Birmingham, who is retiring.
Michigan's 8th and 11th districts, reliably Republican, for the most part, for more than a decade, are not typically considered fertile ground for Democratic challenges. But because of several factors — strong candidates and fund-raising and a suburban electorate that may be looking for change — these districts could be bellwethers of Democratic chances this year to take back the U.S. House of Representatives.
“They’re barometers,” said Michigan political analyst Bill Ballenger of The Ballenger Report. “If Bishop and the Republican nominee in the 11th find themselves in a nail-biter, then it’s going to turn out that way across the country. You’re going to see a big blue wave.”
To take back the U.S. House — which Democrats last controlled before the 2010 Republican wave election during then-President Barack Obama’s first term — Democrats must flip 24 seats currently or most recently held by Republicans.
Beating Bishop in the 8th and whoever becomes the Republican nominee to replace Trott in the 11th isn’t necessarily required to achieve that goal — there are closer contests in California, Florida and elsewhere and a spate of Republican retirements have Democrats bullish in districts across the U.S.
But a surge in support for Democratic candidates nationwide, as some experts are predicting, would likely show itself in the 8th and 11th, too, in the months to come in terms of polling, fund-raising and interest, and, ultimately among the voters on Election Day.
These races are considered among 25 bellwether races being watched by the USA TODAY Network as it tries to detect whether a wave is coming. Said Geoffrey Skelley of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, which helped develop the list of races, “Those two together might offer signs about what’s to come.”
There is also no guarantee of any wave being felt at all in Michigan, however: Bernie Porn, the pollster for EPIC-MRA in Lansing, said it’s “too early to tell whether the wave is going to infect Michigan” and that, so far, evidence of such a trend is lacking. Susan Demas, editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, said while President Donald Trump’s unpopularity gives Democrats hope, Republican state legislators have done “a very favorable job” of drawing district lines to protect their party in the state.
“Even if Democrats win the House, they may come up empty here,” she said.
But Democrats have some wind at their backs as well. History dictates they should be able to compete for seats in the midterm elections with an unpopular president of the opposite party in office. Also, Oakland County supported Hillary Clinton over Trump in 2016.
And while Trump won in both congressional districts, he did so with margins in the single digits, far less than those he built in rural areas or in districts usually thought of as politically competitive in Michigan such as the 1st Up North and the 7th in south-central Michigan, where Trump won in double digits.
Democrats have also been encouraged by the enthusiasm they are seeing in suburban-based districts, driven by more affluent, college-educated voters. Both the 8th — which runs from northern Oakland County west through Livingston County to Lansing — and the 11th — which includes western and southern Oakland and stretches south into Wayne County — qualify as suburban districts.
“Democrats are certainly in a good position,” said David Dulio, who chairs Oakland University’s political science department. “Things are teed up for (them). (But) they still have to execute. They still have to have the right message.”
Is Bishop's district vulnerable?
In the 8th — which Bishop, a well-known former Republican leader in the state Senate, has been representing since 2015 — two Democrats have filed to run: Chris Smith, a pro-labor professor of public policy and law at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, and Elissa Slotkin of Holly, who held Defense Department appointments and worked in diplomatic and intelligence agency postings for both Obama and former President George W. Bush, also doing three tours in Iraq as a CIA analyst.
Slotkin, in particular, has been generating buzz in Democratic circles, outraising Bishop in each of the last two fund-raising quarters, while also saying she won’t take corporate funding. She also has been attempting to strike a bipartisan balance, saying at one point that if former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers — a Republican from Howell who held the seat before Bishop and chaired the Intelligence Committee — was still in the seat, she likely wouldn’t have run.
Bishop won’t be easy to defeat: He has long-standing ties to a district that most analysts consider solidly Republican. Passage of the recent tax bill is likely to mean larger paychecks for many workers. And Bishop’s incumbency should make it easier for him to raise money.
House Speaker Paul Ryan’s leadership committee has opened a field office in the district to help. And while Trump only won there 51%-44%, Bishop trounced his Democratic opponent, 56%-39% in 2016.
“Oakland County has certainly trended from solid red to purple,” said Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett, a Republican. “(But) we’re still pretty solidly trending Republican (in this district).”
Ed Leafdale, 66, of Rochester Hills said he doesn’t follow politics too closely but as a former city worker he said he thinks he has a feel for people in the area. Bishop, he said, still has his support.
“I don’t believe it will be tough for him,” he said. A Republican, Leafdale added that Bishop may have to “work for his votes,” but that he’ll be aided by a strong economy and Trump’s actions to rein in the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea.
Some other people who supported Bishop in the past, however, aren’t so sure.
Cheryl Gandhi, a 51-year-old analyst who lives in Mason, said she considers herself a conservative and “far from a Democrat” but is considering voting for Slotkin after listening to her at a gathering at someone’s home last summer. She said while others at the house seemed to bash conservatives, “everything she said was non-negative toward Republicans, toward conservatives.”
Gandhi said she didn’t have anything against Bishop but that Slotkin impressed her enough with her demeanor that she’s strongly considering voting for her. “She might be a better candidate,” she said.
Peggy Williams, a 54-year-old caterer in Ortonville and political independent, said she remains a staunch support of Trump’s — and of the strong America she believes he stands for — but said that she feels Bishop hasn’t lived up to promises to improve education or expectations that he would or could do more to promote the rights of women and minorities.
She said after talking with a neighbor about Slotkin, she’s thinking of supporting her.
“I just started to find out via her website what she represents. … She wants women’s rights and minorities’ rights to be right up there where the rest of the population is,” she said. “That’s important to me.”
Race for Trott's seat wide open
If the race in the 8th District at this moment looks to be largely a contest between Bishop and Slotkin — which could change if Smith’s prospects in and around East Lansing catch on — the race for Trott’s open seat in the 11th District is wide-open.
After Trott’s abrupt announcement last September that he wouldn’t run for a third two-year term in 2018, the race quickly won newfound attention from political handicappers — with the Cook Political Report and the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia both declaring it a toss-up, even though Trott won re-election easily in 2016.
The district, however, is a strictly suburban district anchored both in Oakland County’s tonier suburbs and more blue-collar — and sometimes Democrat-leaning — areas of western Wayne County. Trump beat Clinton in the district in 2016 — but with less than half the vote, 49.7%-45.3%.
“It’s going to be a free-for-all,” Dulio said.
It certainly has the makings of one: Already, the race has attracted 11 candidates across the two major parties, with the possibility of more coming.
The Republican field includes a former member of the Washington delegation — U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio of Milford, the so-called “accidental” congressman who won after former Rep. Thad McCotter quit amid a scandal over re-election petition signatures. Bentivolio was roundly defeated by Trott two years later.
But it also includes businesswoman Lena Epstein, who helped run Trump’s Michigan campaign and has poured more than $900,000 of her own money into the race; former state Rep. A. Rocky Raczkowski of Troy; former state Rep. Kurt Heise of Plymouth Township; state Rep. Klint Kesto of Commerce Township and businesswoman Kristine Bonds, the daughter of legendary Detroit broadcaster Bill Bonds.
“I don’t think there is a favorite. If all you need is 25% or 30% (to win the nomination) and with so many people in the race, it’s a crapshoot," said state Sen. Marty Knollenberg, R-Troy.
In many past elections, whoever won that field in the upcoming Aug. 7 primary would automatically be installed as the favorite. But with so many candidates — and a potentially strong slate of Democrats to pick from — there is the possibility of a mismatch with the electorate, if anti-Republican fervor builds as Democrats are hoping it will.
“I think if you look at top-tier seats nationally, there are easier lifts for the Democrats than the 11th but if there is a wave, this is one that should certainly be in play,” said Dumas.
Certainly, many of the Democratic candidates appear ready to run — including Haley Stevens, a former chief of staff to Obama’s auto task force that propped up General Motors and Chrysler through bankruptcy; state Rep. Tim Greimel of Auburn Hills, who brings legislative experience, and Fayrouz Saad, a former Homeland Security staffer who also served as Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan’s director of immigrant affairs.
Two other entrepreneurs — Dan Haberman, who helped to lead the movement to ban smoking in most public establishments in Michigan, and Suneel Gupta, who is the brother of CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and who raised more than half a million in the last three months of the year — round out the Democratic field.
While Democrats may think they have a shot for the open seat, Jeff Sakwa, a deputy state Republican Party chairman, said they are missing a key point: The 11th is the home district of Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and she’ll do what it takes to make sure it remains represented by the GOP.
“She’s not going to lose that district — it’s not going to happen,” he said. “We are a Republican district and we will have the money and the resources.”
Contact Todd Spangler: 703-854-8947 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tsspangler.