Finley: Rookies lead parties into 2016

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
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Both the Michigan Republican and Democratic parties will head into the critical 2016 election cycle with rookie managers.

Democrats got a surprise when their state chair, Lon Johnson, decided that running for Congress himself would be more fun than helping other candidates get elected. He's expected to challenge Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls.

Benishek is a three-term congressman who was swept into office on the 2010 tea party wave and has managed to hold his seat in the heavily Democratic district in two close re-elections.

Johnson took over the party in 2013, defeating the previous chair, Mark Brewer, who mismanaged both the 2010 and 2012 cycles.

Johnson was touted as a superior organizer with a genius for turning election data into Democratic votes. He never lived up to his hype — Democrats did not during his tenure gain back the ground lost under Brewer.

But given the make-up of the 1st District, Benishek will always be vulnerable. If Johnson can raise enough money and put together a strong organization — both top bragging points on his resume — he could make that race very interesting.

His departure leaves Democrats hunting for a replacement party chair, which they'll likely pick at their state meeting next weekend.

The leading contender is said to be state Rep. Brandon Dillon from Grand Rapids, who will be term-limited next year. Dillon is from the far left wing of the party. His selection would fit into the national lurch left by Democrats seeking to shore up their ideological base and put the state party in line with the campaign of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

On the Republican side, Ronna Romney McDaniel, niece of Mitt Romney, took over from Bobby Schostak earlier this year.

Neither Romney nor Dillon have much experience in fund raising or candidate development. Aside from the presidential contest, the 2016 cycle will be all about the state House. Forty of the 110 House members are term-limited in 2016. The chairs will have to recruit competitive replacements and help the find the money to mount vigorous campaigns.

They'll be competing for resources with expensive ballot petition drives to legalize marijuana and quite possibly to bring a graduated income tax to Michigan.

There's also an open congressional seat — Candice Miller is retiring in the safely Republican 10th District. The race is already jammed with term-limited lawmakers, and mid-Michigan millionaire Paul Mitchell, who was defeated in a congressional bid last fall despite spending a small fortune, is said to be eying a move.

That will be a lot to manage for party chairs just getting their feet wet.

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