Control of Michigan House hinges on a dozen races

David Eggert
Associated Press

Lansing, Mich. — The intense battle for control of the Republican-led Michigan House will hinge on roughly 10 percent of the state’s voters — people living west of Lansing, north of Muskegon and in places such as the Upper Peninsula.

Finance reports filed in the frenzied run-up to the Nov. 8 election show the campaign arms of House Democrats and Republicans each focused on about a dozen races. All are in GOP hands and seven are being targeted with major TV, radio and internet advertising from both sides.

Those include hotly contested seats held by Republican incumbents John Bizon of Battle Creek, Tom Barrett of Potterville, Holly Hughes of Montague and Brandt Iden in Kalamazoo County. Three are rematches from 2014.

The three other districts where both parties have spent heavily so far are open — Speaker Kevin Cotter’s seat in the Mount Pleasant area, Rep. Aric Nesbitt’s in southwestern Michigan and Rep. Ray Franz in northern Michigan.

Democrats are expected to bolster their ranks in the 110-member House because of higher voter turnout for the presidential election and the departure of dozens of term-limited Republicans. But whether they can pick up nine seats to seize the majority — and end six years of GOP control of the Legislature — is in doubt.

To have a chance, they likely need to win back Democratic-leaning districts in Calhoun and Wayne counties. If the GOP is victorious there, especially in the contest between Republican Bob Howey and Darrin Camilleri for the open “Downriver” seat, it could be a tough night for Democrats.

On the flipside, Republicans may become anxious if Iden and Rep. Klint Kesto lose their GOP-leaning districts in Kalamazoo and Oakland counties respectively.

Democrats badly want the Cotter seat, dropping $268,000 on ads for Bryan Mielke, a software development business owner, in his toss-up race against Roger Hauck, a technician at a food service equipment manufacturer. That is the most among all Democratic candidates, according to a recent House Democratic Fund report to the state Bureau of Elections.

“Nine seats is not easy to do. But we feel like things are trending in our direction,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon. “We’ve got a good issue environment, we’ve got a strong top of the ticket and we’ve got great candidates running. I wouldn’t make any rock-solid predictions, but I think on Election Night it’s going to be very close and if we get the turnout that we need in a few of our targeted House races, we can get over the top.”

Those contests include rematches in Eaton County between Barrett and former Rep. Theresa Abed and in Muskegon County between familiar foes Hughes and former Rep. Collene Lamonte. The House Democratic Fund has spent $215,000 in Abed’s race and $171,000 in Lamonte’s.

It also dropped a combined $410,000 into two open contests in northern Michigan — the 101st District west of Traverse City, where ex-Democratic Rep. Dan Scripps faces Curt Vanderwall, and the 108th District in the U.P., where Democrat Scott Celello squares off with Beau LaFave.

The House Democratic Fund spent more than $2 million from mid-July through Wednesday and had $568,000 on hand as of Oct. 20. The House Republican Campaign Committee spent $2.2 million through Friday, but appeared to have $1.3 million — twice as much — in the bank for the closing days.

That should give the GOP more flexibility to shift spending as needed in its plan to keep power.

“In the final two weeks, we’ll be competitive financially and making sure that we’re in all the seats that we need to be in and covering the flanks,” said Nesbitt, chairman of the House Republicans’ political arm. “If you look at the overall map, I feel very optimistic.”

He said voters are recognizing Republican-led progress on job creation, road spending and long-term public employee retirement liabilities, and there is a “stark contrast” with past and current Democratic leadership in Lansing and Washington, D.C.

The House Republican Campaign Committee has spent $147,000 on an open race in Macomb County between Republican Diana Farrington and Democrat Michael Notte. Other spending priorities include the Bizon and Iden races ($300,000 each), the Barrett and Hughes races (around $200,000 each), Rep. Jason Sheppard in Monroe County and the matchup between Republican Beth Griffin and Democrat Annie Brown in Van Buren County and a portion of Kalamazoo County.

An X factor may be the presidential election’s impact down the ballot.

Donald Trump could lose Michigan to Hillary Clinton but still do better than Mitt Romney did four years ago in pockets of the state with many important House races and a sizable number of Trump supporters — including northern Michigan and Macomb County. Trump, however could underperform Romney in other key House districts including one in Oakland County and some in western Michigan.

Much is at stake. In the final days, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has begun campaigning for House candidates. And liberal advocacy group Progress Michigan and its partners have launched a statewide tour to educate voters about GOP policies — business tax cuts, higher fuel taxes, a new Senate office building — that have “rigged” the economy.

“Working people have the power … to stop the Republicans’ big rig of our economy dead in its tracks,” Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber said at the first stop in front of the Capitol building on Thursday. “We can change the rules of our economy and we can make the rules work for us, but only if we vote.”