GOP Slide in Mich. Hews to Economy

Democrats Say They Expect to Gain

Former president Bill Clinton praised Sen. Barack Obama's economic plan in a speech to supporters at Grove Patterson Academy in Toledo. Clinton also reminded the crowd of the importance of Ohio's role in determining the outcome of the election. Video by Francine Uenuma/
By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 1, 2008

JACKSON, Mich. -- Almost everything seems to be on the wane in the self-proclaimed birthplace of the Republican Party.

Jackson County, population of about 150,000, is on pace for about 1,400 foreclosures this year. Unemployment hovers around 11 percent. Talk of the collapse of one of the Big Three automakers permeates local conversation. One of the area's biggest employers, a giant GM plant that builds increasingly unpopular sport-utility vehicles, has become a symbol of the direction people think things are headed.

With all that has gone wrong, the prospects of Democrat Mark Schauer have gone up. The state senator declared last week that his campaign was going "as good as I could have imagined," and Democrats are hopeful of capturing a House seat that's been in GOP hands for decades.

"What the nation is experiencing now is what Michigan has been experiencing the last eight years," said Schauer, 47, who is running neck and neck in his bid to unseat Rep. Tim Walberg (R).

Schauer hopes to be one of several Rust Belt Democrats to take advantage of resentment about the economy. Party leaders are eyeing more than a dozen seats held by House Republicans across the Midwest, a down-on-its-luck region that could provide a huge chunk of the roughly 30 seats that are expected to flip to Democrats.

It's a dramatic turnaround for what was once fertile ground for Republicans. After the 1998 midterm elections, Republicans held six of the eight governor's mansions in the Midwestern states whose universities are part of the Big 10 Conference. They held nine of the 16 Senate seats in the region. The House had just elected as speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), a former high school wrestling coach.

After Tuesday's election, Republicans are expected to hold one or two governorships in those same eight states, which are likely to send four or five Republicans to the Senate. The Midwesterner who now leads the House Republicans, Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), is fighting for his position.

The sagging manufacturing-based economy has played a central role in almost every successful Democratic campaign, particularly in Michigan. A private economist recently labeled the state's loss of 497,000 jobs this decade as an "unprecedented, Depression level" shedding of 10.5 percent of its total workforce.

The state is facing such tough times that one embattled GOP incumbent, Rep. Joe Knollenberg, is not suffering politically for his support of the controversial $700 billion rescue plan, in large part because voters think the auto industry needs a similar boost. That's a departure from most races in most other states, where support for the rescue plan is weighing down those who backed it.

"We've been through so many rough spots here, I don't think most people blame Joe," said Dennis G. Cowan, chairman of the Republican Party of Oakland County.

Instead, Michigan Democrats are finding success in blaming President Bush for the state's economic woes.

"I would like to think of myself as a Republican at heart," said Travis Beard, 31, co-founder of Worry Free, a landscaping company with 27 employees. But Beard's company is struggling from a heavy influx of competition, mostly, he said, from laid-off white-collar workers trying to make ends meet. Beard used to charge from $14 to $15 per square foot of lawn maintenance, but he has slashed his prices to $10 per square foot to stay competitive.

"I'm ready for change. I'm ready for the gas prices to drop," Beard said at the Royal Oak Chamber of Commerce's awards dinner in Detroit's northern suburbs. He expects to vote for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for president and is not sure what he will decide about Knollenberg's race.

That Knollenberg, 74, an eight-term veteran, is fighting for votes from the local Chamber is a sign of the tough political times. "They're putting the blame on Bush, and they're connecting me to Bush," he said after the awards dinner at Red Run Golf Club.

Knollenberg faces other challenges, too. After working with the entire state delegation to secure funding for a $25 billion loan guarantee to help automakers make the transition to building fuel-efficient cars, the credit crisis hit and put the industry in an even more dire situation.

Then Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) folded his presidential campaign in Michigan, deciding that the economic woes there made victory impossible. The National Republican Congressional Committee also abandoned plans for an ad campaign on Knollenberg's behalf.

Knollenberg is not used to such tough fights -- his campaign war chest still inexplicably had more than $1.5 million as of mid-October -- and is doing almost all the campaign work on his own. His 69-year-old wife, Sandie, has been going door to door five hours a day.

His opponent, former state senator Gary Peters, is running a high-tech voter turnout program with the help of Obama's campaign, an operation that Democratic leaders have identified as one of the nation's best. A couple of dozen volunteers make 5,000 calls a day from numbers listed on bar-encoded sheets so contact data can be maintained. Last weekend, volunteers dropped off 85,000 door-hangers with Peters's image, a strategy that will be repeated this weekend at the other 85,000 homes in the district.

Peters also is focusing intensely on tough economic times that have hit even wealthy Oakland County, which has lost 75,000 jobs this decade. "Most people are coming to the conclusion that the policies of the past have failed us," he said in an interview. "It all ties in with the insecurity people are feeling."

Walberg and Knollenberg's battles underscore the difficulty for Republicans. Walberg, 57, is a first-term representative from the GOP's conservative wing -- he is opposed to abortion rights, government spending and regulation. Knollenberg is a classic country-club Republican whose seat on the Appropriations Committee has allowed him to seed his district with tens of millions a year.

In Jackson, Schauer works out of the county's Democratic Party headquarters on Mechanic Street across the street from Dicker & Deal Cash Center, a pawnshop promising "instant cash" for DVDs, shotguns and bows and arrows. Not far from here, the first convention of the Republican Party was held in 1854.

When he won his state Senate seat in 2002, Schauer became the first Democrat to represent portions of Jackson County since 1899. Mapping out his campaign a year ago, Schauer assumed the Republican presidential nominee would carry the district, just as Bush did by more than eight percentage points in 2004. Instead, his internal polling shows Obama leading McCain by as many as nine points.

"It is truly kitchen-table economics," Schauer said. "We've got to stop the hemorrhaging."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company