Pennsylvania vote rings warning bells for Mich. GOP

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Surging Democratic enthusiasm headed into the November elections might endanger Republicans in competitive Michigan U.S. House districts — particularly in Detroit’s suburbs.

Democrat Connor Lamb, right, and Republican Rick Saccone speak before their first debate in the special election in the PA 18th Congressional District on Monday, Feb. 19, 2018, in Pittsburgh. Lamb’s apparent congressional upset in a GOP stronghold Tuesday suggests that Michigan Republicans’ recent election success will be tested.

Republicans have maintained a 9-5 edge in the state’s House delegation and haven’t lost a seat during the re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012, GOP Gov. Rick Snyder’s re-election in 2014 and President Donald Trump’s surprise victory in 2016. But Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb’s apparent congressional upset in a GOP stronghold Tuesday suggests that Michigan Republicans’ recent election success will be tested.

“Everyone who is saying it’s a wake-up call is correct. But is it a slam dunk? Of course not,” said David Dulio, who chairs the political science department at Oakland University.

Analysts say the trend of depressed Republican turnout elsewhere in the country suggests that prospects may be better than previously thought for Democrats targeting seats held by GOP Reps. Mike Bishop, shown, of Rochester and Dave Trott of Birmingham, who is retiring.

Analysts say the trend of depressed Republican turnout elsewhere in the country suggests that prospects may be better than previously thought for Democrats targeting seats held by GOP Reps. Mike Bishop of Rochester and Dave Trott of Birmingham, who is retiring. What also isn’t helping Republicans is Trump’s low approval rating that Real Clear Politics says currently averages 41 percent nationwide and was 39.5 percent among likely Michigan voters in a January survey by Lansing-based Glengariff Group.

“What we’re seeing is that Democrats and independents are essentially joining forces in opposition to Donald Trump,” said Glengariff pollster Richard Czuba, whose January survey of likely voters showed high motivation to vote by Michigan residents in the political center and left of center.

“The caveat I mention is the onus is on the Democrats, especially in Michigan, to prove they can turn out the vote. Because they couldn’t do it in 2014 and couldn’t do it in 2016.”

U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet) represents Michigan’s 1st congressional district

In a Democratic wave scenario, Republican Reps. Tim Walberg of Tipton, Jack Bergman of Watersmeet and even Fred Upton in southwest Michigan could face tough re-election contests, political observers say.

Democratic challengers raised more money than each incumbent in the last quarter, but Republican boosters are working to generate more cash to protect the GOP majority come November. Vice President Mike Pence was in Detroit this month stumping for two-term Congressman Bishop and about 20 other vulnerable U.S. House members across the country.

Sarah Anderson, deputy chief of staff and spokeswoman for the Michigan Republican Party, said Lamb’s apparent victory is a message to GOP candidates that “nothing is certain.”

“Democrats would like this to be a harbinger for ’18, but it doesn’t have to be. A lesson learned from this is, obviously, candidates matter. Conor Lamb was a very conservative Democrat,” Anderson said.

“Also, candidate work ethic and fundraising matter. We’re feeling confident in both of those things — our candidates and their work ethic. Republican leadership in Michigan has turned our state around, and we’re banking on that resonating with voters.”

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, seeks re-election in the 7th Congressional District.

‘Shot in the arm’

Lamb is a 33-year-old former prosecutor who — with hundreds of provisional, military and overseas ballots uncounted — narrowly leads a Pennsylvania district that Trump secured by 20 percentage points in 2016. Republicans spent more than $10 million to defend the seat.

Democrats say that’s good news for their candidates running in less competitive districts, including the five in Michigan that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is targeting in the midterm elections.

Democrat Elissa Slotkin hopes to challenge U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop in the 8th District, which has been referred to as a benchmark for who will control the U.S. House.

“All I have to say is: wow. This is a shot in the arm for our district, which Trump won by 7 points,” Democrat Elissa Slotkin said in an email to supporters on Wednesday. “And further demonstration that, with a determined, thoughtful campaign, anything is possible.”

Slotkin, a Holly resident who hopes to challenge Bishop in Michigan’s 8th District, has a profile similar to Lamb’s, who is a veteran. Like Lamb, she has a record of public service and has eschewed donations from corporate political action committees.

The district includes Ingham, Livingston and parts of northern Oakland counties.

Bishop’s campaign has tried to tie Slotkin to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and frame her as a Washington insider. Slotkin moved back to her home state of Michigan a year ago from Washington after her position as a top defense official ended with the close of the Obama administration.

“Unlike Lamb, Slotkin lived and continues to own a home in Washington, D.C. She parachuted into the district at the behest of Nancy Pelosi and D.C. Democrats,” Bishop campaign spokesman Stu Sandler said.

Michigan native Nate Silver, a statistician who runs the blog, has called Michigan’s 8th a “great benchmark” for which party could end up controlling the U.S. House. Silver notes its mix of suburbs, exurbs and small towns where Trump won by 7 percentage points and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney won by 3 points.

Turnout in the Pittsburgh suburbs of Pennsylvania’s 18th District proved critical to Lamb, echoing a trend in congressional special elections in 2017 and state elections in Virginia last year, said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections and a political analyst for CNN.

“The suburban surge should be concerning for someone like Congressman Bishop. I think Republicans should be really worried about that seat,” Gonzales said.

“What’s driving it is President Trump – it’s an activism that’s inspired by him sitting on the Oval Office, perhaps by a group of people who took 2016 for granted.”

Local issues may matter

The open seat that Lamb looks to take in Pennsylvania might be more similar to Michigan’s 11th District — another open seat without an incumbent, Gonzales said. The district includes parts of Oakland and western Wayne counties that includes major cities such as Livonia, Canton Township, West Bloomfield, Rochester and Troy.

The Democrats and Republicans have crowded primaries with about a half-dozen hopefuls in each seeking to succeed Trott.

“The Republicans are trying to hold on with someone who doesn’t have as much of a relationship with the entire district. They don’t have the advantages of incumbency,” Gonzales said.

House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday stressed that Lamb ran on a “conservative” platform, distanced himself from Pelosi and lacked a primary challenger who arguably would have pulled him to the left.

“I just don’t think this is something that you’re going to be able to see a repeat of,” Ryan told reporters at a news conference.

The speaker added that Republicans have a “great track record” to run on that includes recent tax cuts. But Republican ads in Pennsylvania’s 18th District ultimately abandoned the tax-cut message as the race progressed, Dulio noted.

“It wasn’t moving the needle,” he said. “Maybe they alter their messaging on it. We’ll see.”

Dulio noted that Lamb ran as a centrist, suggesting that a more centrist Democratic candidate emerging from the Michigan primaries might be more competitive than a progressive one who comes across as “uber-partisan.”

“These House races are also fought on local constituency issues. This year, it seems like the House races will be more nationalized like they were in 2010, but you can’t forget about local dynamics,” Dulio said.

Czuba agreed, saying his early test for the Democratic contests will consider those who early on have raised large amounts of money, keep their issues local and “usurp” a classic Democratic issue like gun control. Lamb said more gun laws weren’t needed in the wake of the Feb. 14 Florida high school shooting that killed 17 people.

“The successful Democrats who have won special elections or were winning in Virginia kept the election local, rather than allowing Donald Trump to come in and say, ‘It’s about me,’ ” Czuba said.

“It is about him, but if you don’t let him claim it — if you look like you’re talking about local issues — you do better.”