Lansing — Michigan Democrats hoping to win back control of the state House this fall argue one of their best weapons could be atop the Republican ticket: presidential nominee Donald Trump.
In a Detroit News-WDIV poll, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton widened her lead to a 9-percentage-point advantage over Trump. More than 60 percent of likely voters said the New York businessman is not qualified to be commander in chief.
Last week’s survey results suggest Trump could be a drag on down-ballot Republicans if he does not rebound by November, fueling optimism among Democrats they can pick up the nine state House seats needed for their first true majority since the GOP wave of 2010 gave Republicans total control of state government.
The latest poll numbers and voter qualms about Trump bode “very well” for the Democrats’ state House candidates, said Rep. Adam Zemke, co-chair of the House Democrat campaign team.
But Republicans argue they are fielding strong candidates, while the Democrats didn’t get some of their leading recruits into the general election. The party also has a good legislative record to defend in a state with a low unemployment rate not seen in 15 years, they say.
“Democrats, even from the filing deadline earlier this year, either couldn’t get their top choices to run or couldn’t get their top choices out of the primary,” said state Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, who chairs the House Republican Campaign Committee.
Term limits and one death mean voters will fill 42 open House seats in November, but almost half of those are highly unlikely to change because of the partisan make-up of the districts. It leaves about 22 seats in play – almost all of them currently held by Republicans – and Democrats are targeting at least six GOP incumbents, including Oakland County Rep. Klint Kesto of Commerce Township.
“I’d certainly be nervous at this point,” said Brian Began of the Grassroots Midwest political consulting firm in Lansing, who previously worked for House Republicans and helped draw new district lines in the wake of the 2010 Census.
“In a presidential year, (Republicans) are going to lose four to five seats, just because of openings and the way the state is. Now if you have someone at the top of the ticket that’s going to pull bad numbers ... it could be a lot worse than you even expected.”
Republicans enjoy a 63-46 majority in the House, where one Democratic seat is temporarily vacant due to the death of Rep. Julie Plawecki of Dearborn Heights. A GOP loss of eight seats would mean the Republicans and Democrats would share control of the chamber with 55 members each — a situation that last occurred in 1993-94.
Any Trump factor could be magnified if Michigan voters still have a straight-ticket option this fall, Began said.
The Republican-led state Legislature in December voted to end straight-ticket voting, but a federal judge recently put the new ban on hold, saying it would lead to longer lines and disproportionately affect minority voters.
In passing the law, GOP legislators said banning straight-ticket voting would encourage voters to research candidates and choose individuals. They also argued that Michigan joined 40 other states that do not have the practice and were outlawing an outdated practice from the days of big party bosses.
But state Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren, mocked the move at the time as the “Donald-Trump-is-going-to-be-your-nominee-and-you’re-terrified” bill.
The state is appealing the straight-ticket ruling.
“That’s a big, looming problem right now” for Republicans, Began said. “You get straight-ticket voting and yeah, Republicans could lose eight or nine seats with Trump polling as bad as he is.”
Unpacking the primaries
While Trump has three months to turn his numbers around in Michigan, Republican leaders say the quality of state House candidates will ultimately be the biggest factor in deciding the majority. Both parties claimed momentum coming out of the Aug. 2 primary.
Republicans were encouraged by the results in northern Michigan’s 106th District, a potential swing seat where heavily recruited Democrat Erin Kieliszewski lost to repeat candidate Robert Kennedy. Kennedy was defeated by outgoing GOP Rep. Pete Pettalia by 10 percentage points in 2014 and this fall will take on Cheboygan County Board of Commissioners Vice Chair Sue Allor.
But Democrats argue they now have a realistic opportunity to pick up the 20th District seat in Wayne County after tea party Republican Jeff Noble of Plymouth narrowly defeated the establishment favorite.
Noble will face Democrat Colleen Pobur, a Plymouth city commissioner who worked on the Michigan Liquor Control Commission as an appointee of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The winner will replace term-limited Republican Rep. Kurt Heise in the GOP-leaning district.
“That’s not a district to support a tea partier,” Zemke said, “and I think there’s a pretty universally shared sentiment that the Trump factor is going to be extremely negative for Republicans there.”
Democrats were also pleased with the results in Macomb County’s 30th District, where Republican Diana Farrington of Utica narrowly won her primary by 54 votes in a quest to replace her husband, term-limited Rep. Jeff Farrington.
This fall she’ll face Democrat Michael Notte, the son of the late Sterling Heights Mayor Richard Notte, who won 77 percent of his primary vote.
“I think there was a sentiment around Lansing at least that Diana Farrington and Mike Notte was going to be this battle of two big names,” said Zemke. “Well, I think we saw in that primary that Diana Farrington’s name isn’t very big.”
Taking on incumbents
Clinton is narrowly leading in the traditional Republican strongholds of west and southwest Michigan, a trend that suggests even some “safe” GOP state House seats could become more competitive this fall.
Trump trails Clinton in almost every part of the state except for Macomb County, northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula, according to The News-WDIV poll.
Nesbitt, who spoke with The News before the new polling data was released, suggested Trump also could fare well in places like Downriver and Monroe County.
Those are the areas that “will make a majority or not,” Nesbitt said, pointing out that most Michigan voters feel the nation is headed in the wrong direction, which could hurt Clinton as she looks to succeed Democratic President Barack Obama. About 57 percent of likely Michigan voters said the nation is on the wrong track, according to the poll.
“People are really tired of what they’ve been seeing in Washington, D.C.,” Nesbitt said, contrasting the sentiment with the work of a state government controlled by Republicans since 2011.“We’ve been passing budgets on time, returning jobs and reducing regulations to get Michigan on track.”
The survey also showed more likely voters, 48 percent, felt the state was on the wrong track. About 38 percent said the state is on the right track.
Republicans argue Monroe businessman Joseph Bellino Jr. could give incumbent Democratic Rep. Bill LaVoy a real challenge in the 17th District, and Nesbitt noted the party has fielded a large number of female candidates who could do well across the state.
For Democrats, they again plan to challenge Kesto, who will face Wolverine Lake Village Councilman Michael Stack in the general election. Democrats are also hoping to flip seats held by incumbent GOP Reps. John Bizon of Battle Creek, Jason Sheppard of Lambertville, Brandt Iden of Kalamazoo, Tom Barrett of Potterville and Holly Hughes of Montague.