April 9, 2009 at 1:00 am

Auto aid may reshape Michigan politics

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Washington -- With millions of livelihoods on the line, the battle to rescue GM and Chrysler could reshape Michigan's political landscape, cementing Democratic control or reversing years of GOP losses.

Political pros from both parties say the outcome of the auto crisis likely will ripple into the 2010 elections and beyond, and each side is positioning itself with voters even as General Motors Corp., Chrysler LLC and dozens of smaller suppliers fight to survive.

At stake next year is the governor's office and control of the Legislature. That control is vital because lawmakers elected in 2010 will draw district lines for Congress and the Legislature following the 2010 census.

"If by November of 2010, we don't see presidential leadership that has led to the stability of the domestic auto industry, you've got to think some number of voters are going to blame Obama," said Craig Ruff, an analyst with Public Sector Consultants.

Some of President Barack Obama's fellow Democrats have been even tougher on the industry. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Friday the Bush administration should have pushed GM into bankruptcy in December.

Michigan Democrats say they have won in Michigan by convincing voters they understand their economic worries, and that Republicans -- especially those in Washington who continue to bash the carmakers and their workers -- have little credibility with voters on the economy.

Republicans and independent analysts have seen danger before for Michigan Democrats -- most notably in 2006, when the GOP hoped to unseat Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow -- only to watch a remarkable decade-long stretch of victories. Starting with the defeat of GOP Sen. Spence Abraham in 1998, Democrats have captured races from the top to the bottom of the ticket, culminating last year in a presidential blowout, taking two Republican-held congressional seats, adding to their state House majority by nine seats and ousting a state Supreme Court justice.

Those victories came even as the state's economy deteriorated -- a condition Democrats were able to blame in large part on Washington, and especially the administration of President George W. Bush.

"They don't have President Bush to kick around anymore," said John Yob, a GOP consultant who worked for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "They're responsible for what happens in this economy."

Even before Obama had finished announcing that he had rejected the automakers' rebuilding plans and that they faced bankruptcy without deeper restructuring, Republicans signaled that they would make the administration's involvement a political issue.

"They now become accountable for achieving success," said Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township. "Accountable for the jobs, accountable for the livelihoods of the families ... and accountable for the survival of American manufacturing."

Of course, saving the companies would likely add to Obama's substantial popularity in Michigan -- two-thirds of state voters have a favorable impression of him, according to a recent poll by Lansing's EPIC-MRA.

And Republicans have thought before that they could hammer Obama and fellow Democrats on the auto issue. During much of the 2008 campaign, the GOP thought it had an opening -- and some Democrats saw a vulnerability -- when Obama ran ads in other states touting his tough talk to the domestic carmakers in a 2007 speech.

While the race in Michigan was close through the summer, Obama eventually won the state by 16 percentage points.

"It's likely to boil down to same thing: Who do you believe has your interest at heart? Who do you believe is fighting for you?" said a Democratic consultant with extensive experience in Michigan. The consultant, who spoke on condition of anonymity, pointed to the administration's appointment of Ed Montgomery, a former Labor Department official with family ties to Michigan. The consultant said the naming of Montgomery, who will head economic recovery efforts in auto communities, demonstrates that the administration understands its political future depends on reassuring battered Michigan voters.

Miller