Oakland County becomes epicenter of fight to control Michigan House

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Oakland County is an unlikely setting for a Democratic coup, but the onetime Republican stronghold is part of the Democrats' plans to seize the Michigan House in the Nov. 6 election. 

Mallory McMorrow, Democrat, running for Michigan Senate District 13, left, and Marty Knollenberg, Republican, running for Michigan Senate District 13.

A flurry of state legislative races in Oakland are neck and neck, with political analysts expecting several seats to switch from Republican to Democratic.

Democrats were buoyed by their showing in the August primary, when their party's candidates received more votes than Republican ones in three House districts now represented by Republicans.

To regain control of the House, where Republicans have a 63-46 majority, Democrats need to pick up nine seats.

“Republicans will lose seats. The question is whether they lose enough to lose control,” said Steve Mitchell, a Republican pollster in East Lansing.

The Michigan Senate is a different story. Democrats are expected to pick up a few seats there, but not enough to threaten the 27-11 majority now enjoyed by Republicans.

If the Dems take control of the state House, the person they may thank isn’t in Michigan and isn’t a Democrat.

They hope displeasure with President Donald Trump will turn voters toward the Democratic candidates. He had a 56 percent disapproval rate in a Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Detroit News-WDIV poll. 

The presidency often is a factor during midterm elections, said David Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University.

Republicans won so many state races in 2010 that they controlled more state Legislatures than they had in 82 years, he said.

“Midterm elections are generally bad for the president at all levels (of government),” Dulio said. 

Oakland County was never that crazy about Trump in the first place, analysts said. It was one of eight counties in Michigan to support Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Oakland Republicans are more moderate than conservative, analysts said. Also, demographics are changing, with more Democrats moving into the county, especially its southern precincts.

Democrats galvanized

Democratic voters in Oakland County already seem galvanized by the midterm elections.

In the Aug. 7 primary, Democratic candidates in three state Senate races received more or nearly as many votes as their Republican counterparts in GOP-leaning districts.

Another factor in the legislative races will be the top of the ticket, said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic strategist from Lansing.

If Attorney General Bill Schuette, the Republican gubernatorial candidate, and John James, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, do well in the election, they will draw support to legislative candidates in their party, Hemond said.

But a Sept. 30-Oct. 2 Detroit News-WDIV polling showed Schuette trailing Democrat Gretchen Whitmer by 12 percentage points and James lagging U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow by 18 percentage points. The survey had a margin of error of plus-minus 4 percentage points.

“Right now the top of the ticket is dragging house Republicans down," Hemond said.

Flipping a few seats in Oakland County is one thing. But can Democrats flip enough to capture control of the state House?

It’s a tall order, analysts said.

Republican advantages

The Republican candidates will be helped by the robust economy, political observers said.

Republicans also caught a break when a Democrat candidate in a competitive race was accused of embezzling $100,000 or more from the campaign account of another Democrat.

The candidate, Jennifer Suidan, is being charged by the county prosecutor's office with embezzlement from the campaign funds of Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner. Suidan, 34, of Wolverine Lake, could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison if found guilty.

The total amount of missing funds is about $150,000, according to sheriff's deputies who investigated.

Suidan, who was unopposed in the Democratic primary in House District 39, received nearly as many votes as all four of the Republican candidates. Once buoyed by the showing, Democratic Party leaders have called for Suidan to drop out of the race.

“I don’t see them (Republicans) losing nine seats, but there are still six weeks to go. That’s an eternity in elections,” Mitchell said.

Mari Manoogian, Democrat, running for Michigan House District 40, left, and David Wolkinson, Democrat running for Michigan House District 40.

No one has any idea what Trump might do between now and the election, and his actions could affect the results, he said.

A prime example of an Oakland legislative seat that could change from Republican to Democrat is House District 40, a traditional GOP stronghold that covers Birmingham and Bloomfield.

The November race pits Democrat Mari Manoogian against Republican David Wolkinson.

In the primary, the two Democratic candidates received 16,733 votes compared with 11,687 votes won by the six Republicans.

Manoogian, 26, of Birmingham, a former U.S. State Department worker, said her top priorities are improving K-12 education and making higher education more affordable.

She said she liked her chances of winning but discounted Trump as a factor in the race.

“When my team and I speak with voters, we talk about kitchen table issues, not the president,” Manoogian said.

Asked if the economy could help Republican candidates, she said Michigan residents are still struggling to pay for things such as car insurance and the elderly are facing skyrocketing costs of health care.

Wolkinson, 37, a Birmingham lawyer who was an official with the Michigan Republican Party, said he needed more time to respond to questions about the race.

Competitive Senate contests

As for the state Senate, one of the most competitive races in Oakland County is Senate District 13. The Republican incumbent, state Sen. Marty Knollenberg of Troy, is being challenged by Mallory McMorrow.

In the primary, Knollenberg received 27,210 votes while McMorrow, running unopposed, won 34,222 votes.

Knollenberg, 55, said he wasn’t concerned by his opponent’s strong showing in the primary. He also didn’t believe Trump would be a factor in the election.

Voters will be more influenced by his longtime roots in the county and his effectiveness as a state senator, Knollenberg said.

“The good news is that 13th District suburban voters are well-educated and highly informed. They know the difference between federal and state government, and they know Marty Knollenberg,” he said.

As vice chairman of the Senate’s education committee, he said he helped increase the state’s investment in education by $2.8 billion.

But Trump has not been received well around the country and in Michigan by well-educated voters, analysts said.

McMorrow, 32, an industrial design consultant, said she was pumped up after her strong showing in the primary.

“(It was) an unprecedented sign of support that makes this district a toss-up. Our team knows that anything can happen,” she said.

Trump has sparked strong reactions from people on both sides of the political spectrum and McMorrow said that her primary showed people are ready to come out and vote.

But it’s not going to be easy to win, she allowed.

She is a first-time candidate trying to boost her name recognition while Knollenberg, whose father was a congressman, has a well-known name and political legacy.


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Twitter: @francisXdonnell