Political pendulum in Michigan swings away from the Democrats

Michigan Democrats lack a high-profile candidate to succeed the state's term-limited governor, Jennifer Granholm.
Michigan Democrats lack a high-profile candidate to succeed the state's term-limited governor, Jennifer Granholm. (Al Goldis/associated Press)
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By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 12, 2010

What's the matter with Michigan?

The Wolverine State shifted heavily toward Democrats over the past decade -- Sen. Debbie Stabenow unseated a Republican incumbent in 2000, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm was elected two years later, a victory that turned her into something of a national celebrity. Sen. John F. Kerry carried Michigan by three percentage points in 2004 in his unsuccessful presidential bid, and four years later Sen. Barack Obama won it by 16 points on the way to the White House.

Of late, however, the pendulum appears to be swinging back quickly to Republicans -- the latest example being Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak's retirement last week from a district covering the state's north that Obama barely won two years ago and will be at the top of GOP wish lists this fall. (In the wake of Stupak's announcement, political handicapper Charlie Cook moved the race from "solid Democrat" to "tossup.")

Stupak's 1st District joins the 7th and the 9th, won in 2008 by Democratic Reps. Mark Schauer and Gary Peters, respectively, among Michigan seats likely to draw national attention this fall. Democratic strategists also hint that they are on the verge of landing a solid candidate for the open-seat race in the 3rd District, a recruiting coup that would allow them to play some offense in the state.

Up the ballot, Democrats have struggled mightily to find a top-tier candidate to replace the term-limited (and no longer popular) Granholm. Her lieutenant governor, John Cherry, left the race in January after national Democrats made it clear that they thought he had little chance to hold the seat. Recruitment efforts by the White House to persuade wealthy businesswoman Denise Ilitch, the daughter of the owner of the Detroit Red Wings and Detroit Tigers, proved fruitless -- leaving a pair of Democrats, state House Speaker Andy Dillon and Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, in the race. Independent polling suggests both men trail the likeliest Republican nominees.

The reversal of Democrats' political fortunes in the state is due in large part to the faltering economy, according to observers on both sides of the aisle. In February, Michigan's unemployment rate was above 14 percent -- the highest in the country.

"Michigan, more than most, has felt the pain and hasn't had any relief from our Democratic governor or Obama to date," said Saul Anuzis, a former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.

While the political shift in Michigan is particularly striking, the struggling economies of other Midwestern states, including Ohio and Illinois, where unemployment rates are around 11 percent, are also jeopardizing Democratic officeholders in areas where the party has made significant gains in recent years.

Those electoral difficulties heading into the midterm elections have some Democratic operatives fretting about what it will all mean for Obama when he stands for reelection in 2012. "I look at all these states like Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania through the prism of the 2012 Obama reelection," said one senior Democratic strategist who has done work in the Wolverine State. "These are run-ups for that race."

Mark Brewer, chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, insisted that there had been no "reversal of fortune" for his party. "What you are seeing is what Michigan has always been -- a competitive two-party state," he said.

Republicans to watch

With the Southern Republican Leadership Conference -- the first major candidate cattle call of the 2012 presidential race -- now in the rear-view mirror, it's worth taking a look at the most influential leaders in the GOP as we move toward the midterm elections. Here's our top five (well, six):

5. Tim Pawlenty: Movement doesn't equal momentum, but the Minnesota governor seems to be everywhere these days. At the moment, "Tpaw" resembles no one so much as Mitt Romney circa 2006 -- a candidate who, on paper, appears to be doing everything right but remains unproven on the stump.

4. John Cornyn/Pete Sessions: As the midterms draw ever closer -- thrilled! -- Cornyn, the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and Sessions, the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, become increasingly important players in the party. With a national playing field that looks to favor Republicans and with history on their side, the two Texans should be able to pick up seats and bolster their reputations in the process.

3. Sarah Palin: There simply is no bigger figure in the Republican Party right now than Palin. Where she goes, crowds and enthusiasm follow. But there is a difference between enthusiasm and influence. And at the moment, Palin still has only the most spartan of political operations to try to harness her huge following.

2. Mitt Romney: Unlike in 2008, the former Massachusetts governor is picking his spots -- declining to endorse in the New York 23rd District special election and skipping the SRLC. His advisers' goal is to keep him above the fray and establish him as the adult in the race. By and large, that strategy appears to be working, thanks in no small part to the fact that Romney has, by far, the largest and most sophisticated political operation among the candidates looking at a run for president.

1. Haley Barbour: Barbour, as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, will have a chance to influence races all over the country this fall -- building up his fundraising contacts and further adding to his long list of loyalists within the party. Will Barbour run for president in 2012? Who knows? But he is clearly thinking more seriously about the idea these days.

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