Wednesday, May 14, 2008

7th District State House Races

Yesterday was the filing deadline, meaning that the candidates we already knew about-- Tim Walberg (R), Sharon Renier (D), and Mark Schauer (D)-- will be the only major-party candidates in the 7th District. I was so hoping for a GOP primary, but it appears to have been wishful thinking.

Over the next few days, I'd like to spend some time looking at the other races which might have an impact on the congressional race. It's important to remember that this isn't happening in a vacuum, and what other Democrats and Republicans running in our state do will have an impact on the contest which this blog follows. The big one, obviously, is the presidential race, followed by U.S. Senator Carl Levin's reelection bid. I hope to talk about other races, too, from county commissioners to the state Supreme Court, always through the lens of the 7th District.

Tonight, however, I'd like to begin with the Michigan House of Representatives.

The 7th Congressional District includes all or part of eight state House districts. The individuals who represent each district may not themselves live in the 7th District, but their political strength as they run for office has an impact. (Note: the Michigan Senate is not up for reelection this year, nor is the governor.)

Listed below are the state House districts which comprise the 7th Congressional District, and my (brief) take on the 2008 elections in each.

HD052 - Pam Byrnes (D)

Pam Byrnes (D-Chelsea) represents this district, which makes up the majority of Washtenaw County (essentially, everything except Ann Arbor and the far east and south-east portions). Her district, which includes areas not in the 7th, is not solidly Democratic, having been represented for a long time by Gene DeRossett (R-Manchester), who was also a candidate in the GOP primary in 2004.

In 2002, Byrnes defeated David Nacht (one-time 2008 candidate for Congress) in the Democratic primary, only to lose to DeRossett 53 to 47. When DeRossett retired/ran for Congress in 2004, Byrnes was back, winning the seat over Republican Joseph Yekulis 55 to 45. She was reelected in 2006 with about 63 percent of the vote.

So, it's a lean-Democratic area (and growth of Ann Arbor only helps), but 2006 could have been a fluke in a wave election, and 2002 and 2004 were reasonably close. Byrnes is in good shape to be reelected to her third and final term (term limits). In a situation like this, one might expect the Republicans to field a reasonably strong candidate to run, build name recognition, and come back to win in 2010. It's exactly what Byrnes did and what many others have done before.

Unfortunately for the GOP, that's not what they did. Representative Pam Byrnes (D) was the only candidate to file in the 52nd House District. What does this mean? There's now a popular Democrat who is more or less guaranteed reelection this fall. The vast majority of voters will be checking at least one box with a "D," and Byrnes will likely be working hard to convince the voters in her district to check a few more.

In 2006, Sharon Renier only won the Washtenaw County portion of the district 50 percent to 47 percent. In 2008, I'm guessing Byrnes could help us improve that margin.

HD057 - Dudley Spade (D)

The 57th District (my own district) is represented by Dudley Spade (D-Tipton). The district encompasses all of Lenawee County except for Cambridge Township in the north. Now, some history. For 16 years, a man named Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) represented Lenawee County in the state House of Representatives. It was a conservative county, and it fit him quite well and liked reelecting him. Then, in 1996, a popular WLEN radio host named Doug Spade (D-Adrian) challenged Walberg for his seat. Spade didn't win, but he performed surprisingly well.

When Walberg retired in 1998, Doug Spade was back, and won the seat. He was subsequently reelected in 2000 and 2002 by increasing margins-- he got 69.4 percent of the vote in 2002. Spade was a perfect for Lenawee County, representing its interests well while gently nudging it away from the far-right conservatism of Tim Walberg. More than that, Spade connected with the people of his district.

In 2004, Doug was term-limited out and his brother Dudley Spade ran for the same seat. It's a sign of the strength of the Spade brand that he won his first term with about 59 percent over David Abraham (R-Tecumseh) in a year where John Kerry only got 45 percent. In 2006, Spade was supposed to get a strong challenge in Jim Koehn (R-Adrian), and ended up winning about 67 percent.

Going into 2008, Spade's challenger will be Emma Jenkins (R-Adrian), who filed Monday. Jenkins hasn't held elected office since the early 1980s (on a township board), but she's active in the local GOP as a "footsoldier." Still, she lacks the name identification Abraham (a county commissioner) and Koehn (a prominent travel agent) had, and Spade is still pretty popular. Indeed, it's a bad sign for your candidacy when the worst thing you can say about your opponent is:
Jenkins said she is looking forward to carrying the party banner in this year’s election against an opponent whom she also considers a friend.

“He’s just in the wrong party,” Jenkins said.

She is running, Jenkins said, because she believes it is important to work for a Republican majority in the state House. In holding the seat as a Democrat, she said, Spade strengthens Democrats’ efforts in Lansing on such issues as Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s Great Start pre-school programs.
Or, in other words, "I'd vote for you if you were a Republican, and I don't like that you're helping educate children!" The problem is, the people of Lenawee County aren't partisan enough for this to be a motivating factor. They might lead Republican, but they like Dudley Spade. He should win reelection pretty easily.

Depending on how popular Spade is and how good of a relationship he has with the Democratic nominee for Congress, he might have coattails similar to Byrnes. This could be a big deal, especially if Mark Schauer is really polling even with Walberg in Lenawee County. If Walberg can't count on Lenawee County, he's in trouble.

HD058 - Bruce Caswell (R)

Bruce Caswell (R-Pittsford) was first elected in 2002, representing a district spanning Hillsdale and Branch Counties, the two most reliably conservative counties in the 7th District. Caswell was elected and reelected by increasing percentages (66.9, 72.7, and 72.8 percent), but he's term-limited out for 2008.

There are four Republicans hoping to replace him-- Kenneth Kurtz (R-Coldwater), Frank Plodzik (R-Coldwater), Don Shemel (R-Coldwater), and Steve Vear (R-Hillsdale). I'll admit right now, I haven't got the foggiest idea how this primary will turn out, but if it's particularly divisive, it might give the only Democrat running a chance.

Her name is Jean Anne Kennedy-Windsor (D-Reading). I know very little about her, except that she was a candidate for uncommitted delegate at the 7th District convention earlier this year and that she was formerly known as Jean Elinor Perego. Still, I'm hopeful that she can put together a strong campaign and take advantage of Republicans who will be largely ignoring her. The better she can build the Democratic brand, the better her chances in November and the better our chances of ousting Tim Walberg.

HD062 - Mike Nofs (R)

Ah, Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek). He's the foe of Calhoun County Democrats, winning Mark Schauer's seat when he moved from the House to the Senate. He won three elections (2002, 2004, 2006) with roughly the same share of the vote (53.2, 53.4, and 53.6 percent, respectively) in a district that went to John Kerry by 50.1 percent. But while Nofs might be eying Schauer's Senate seat if Schauer wins, Nofs can't run for reelection in 2008.

This will probably be one of the hardest-fought state House districts in Michigan, with Susan Baldwin (R-Battle Creek) and Gregory Moore (R-Athens) facing Tim Nendorf (D-Battle Creek) and Kate Segal (D-Battle Creek). Being from the opposite end of the district, I don't have a good read of the primary for either party, but I have no doubt that all four are potentially strong candidates. Segal is currently chair of the Calhoun County Commission, and Nendorf is a young law student (23 years old) who has interned with Mark Schauer and Carl Levin.

Regardless of the nominees, there will be a lot of energy put into this race, which will probably drive turnout up. But then, if Schauer is the Democratic nominee, one would hope he doesn't have to worry about turnout in Calhoun County.

HD063 - Lorence Wenke (R)

Although based in Kalamazoo County (and not in the 7th District), Lorence Wenke (R) represents a portion of Calhoun County. He's the Republican who, in 2006, got a little bit of attention by pointing out that the DeVos campaign was "plain dishonest." He's also not up for reelection, after winning in 2002, 2004, and 2006 with 57, 59, and 55 percent, respectively. In 2004, John Kerry got 44 percent of the vote.

Those hoping to replace Wenke are James Bolger (R-Marshall), Jerry Vander Roest (R-Galesburg), and 2006 nominee Phyllis A. Smith (D-Vicksburg). Smith managed 45 percent against Wenke and held him to his smallest margin of victory, impressive against an incumbent. Smith is also the recording secretary for the Kalamazoo County Democratic Party, which (hopefully) indicates some party support.

Like other districts, I don't have a good read of how it might play out. However, we can once again hope for a tough GOP primary that will allow Smith to get her name out and contact voters. It's a winnable district and an open seat, and she should have some name recognition from the 2006 election. With any luck, this will be one more reason for Calhoun County Democrats to turn out in November.

HD064 - Martin Griffin (D)

Now we're into Jackson County, which has been the source of lots of excitement. Martin Griffin (D-Jackson) represents the western portion of the county and the city of Jackson, a district that had been solidly held by former Representative and 2004 congressional candidate Clark Bisbee (R-Jackson). In 2004, Rick Baxter (R-Concord Twp.) beat then-Jackson Mayor Martin Griffin 49.9 to 48.9. For those who have been paying attention, you may remember that Baxter was the state representative who said that the day they raised the minimum wage was "the worst day" of his term.

Griffin came back in 2006 to win the district about 53 percent of the vote. Baxter went on to become Tim Walberg's district director and then to leave unexpectedly, which I've covered before. He's not trying to win back his old seat, though, instead aiming for Jackson County treasurer. Baxter also serves as chairman of the Jackson County Republican Party.

So who is running against Griffin this time? Surely, after narrowly losing the seat, the GOP would recruit a top-tier challenger, right? Apparently not.

Leland Prebble (R-Spring Arbor) is the only candidate to file against Griffin. He's a retiring construction contractor, who, as far as I can find, has no previous political experience. The Citizen Patriot ran an editorial today commenting on this:
The fact that a political unknown is the only candidate Jackson County Republicans could find to run against state Rep. Martin Griffin speaks volumes about the state of local politics.

Republican Leland Prebble faces a steep climb against Griffin, the well-known former Jackson mayor. This is a strange situation when you consider this county's strong Republican heritage.


But this is not just about term limits. The local Republican Party seems to have weakened in recent years, while Democrats are gaining strength.

There is still a Republican majority on the county Board of Commissioners, and there are some Republicans running in high-profile county races: Rick Baxter for treasurer and Mickey Mortimer for clerk.

Nevertheless, in a county that has always favored Republican candidates, it's fair to question what has happened to the party that was born here more than 150 years ago.

Griffin is popular, well-known, and has a no-name opponent. Without knowing anything more, I'd put him about on the same level as Dudley Spade-- safe, soon-to-be reelected, and in a good position to help turn out voters who probably won't be voting for Tim Walberg.

HD065 - Mike Simpson (D)

This is another Jackson County district, covering essentially everything in the county that Griffin doesn't represent, plus tiny pieces of Lenawee and Eaton counties. This district has been changing representatives a lot lately-- Jerry Kratz (R) beats Sharon Renier (D-Munith) in 2002, then Mickey Mortimer (R) is elected in a 2003, and then Leslie Mortimer (R) is elected in 2004, beating 2002 7th Congressional District candidate Mike Simpson (D-Brooklyn) about 51 to 49. Simpson then returned in 2006 and won the district with about 53 percent.

In 2008, Simpson will be challenged by Ray Snell (R), the Blackman Township supervisor. I don't know anything about him, but he could potentially be a strong candidate. Simpson isn't helped, either, by two primary challengers-- Russell Severance (D), a 77-year-old who recently lost a school board election and tried to recall Simpson (the language wasn't approved), and Steven Godbehere (D), a paramedic. I don't know the details of either candidacy, though apparently Severance really doesn't like Simpson.

This is a district where the state House race might not offer any assistance to the Democratic nominee for the 7th District. The Republican could potentially be a strong opponent, and the eventual Democratic candidate might be weakened by the primary. But the district is Sharon Renier's home turf, and Mark Schauer has represented much of it in the state Senate.

HD071 - Rick Jones (R)

This is the last state House district which falls within the 7th Congressional District's boundaries. Since 2004, it has been represented by Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), elected in 2004 with 59 percent of the vote and reelected in 2006 with 58 percent. I don't know much about Jones (Eaton County is far away from me), nor do I know much about his challenger, Mark Eagle (D-Lansing).

Lacking any further knowledge, I'd say that Eagle has the potential to turn this into a top-tier race, but right now I'd say Jones is probably safe. Regardless of whether that's good or bad, it doesn't do anything for my primary goal, which is turning out Democratic-leaning voters for the 7th District race. Even so, Sharon Renier won Eaton County 50 to 48, which should mean there's a lot of potential for further Democratic gains.


So where does all of that leave us?

None of this, obviously, has been comprehensive. Instead, it's just been my first impressions as all the Michigan races begin to develop. Right now, I'd say that Democrats in the district are in a great position relative to their Republican counterparts. There are three Democratic incumbents (Byrnes, Spade, and Griffin) that I would say are very safe, and could help tremendously in building the Democratic brand and helping the Democratic nominee for the 7th District. There's one district (62) that will have a lot of activity and excitement anyway, which could help in a lean-Democratic year. Two districts (58 and 63) could potentially turn into hot races for their Democrats, depending on how they organize and how the GOP primaries play out. And two districts (65 and 71) I don't see having a major impact at all.

With all of this, I could be wrong. That said, I feel that right now, Byrnes, Spade, and Griffin are some of the best resources Mark Schauer or Sharon Renier could have for reaching out to local voters in areas where they can (and should) perform well. If those three can take advantage of their non-competitive races and help the 7th District nominee, we could be well on track for defeating Tim Walberg.

Hopefully, I'll have plenty of reason to write about all of these candidates and more as we get closer to November. I know that many of you aren't Democrats, and are here more out of a dislike of Walberg than a support for my party. Even so, I'd encourage you to learn more about some of the candidates I've talked about. We're Democrats, which means we're always eager to hear from you and convince you that we've got the right ideas.

Replacing Congressman Walberg is the primary objective of this blog. However, as the congressional race is connected to the other races going on around it, I don't think there's anything wrong with a little party-building.

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Kate Segal is a great candidate.
I'm glad Baxter isn't running against Griffin in the 64th. That would be another very costly election when resources need to be put into other races (Schauer and Simpson).

The bad part of this story is Baxter will easily beat Karen Coffman for Jackson County Treasurer. That win not only puts him back in public office but in one with a 4 year term with no term limits. We should have gotten someone with some kind of name ID to run against Baxter. While Coffman has experience in the Treasurer's office she is a nobody against Baxter who is known to be a very hard campaigner, can raise a lot of money, and is very organized. Looks like we missed out on getting a real candidate to at least give Baxter a run for his money.

Griffin - safe re-election
Baxter - safe election
Segal should win her primary going away, and until recently she worked for Schauer's legislative office. Watch for their campaigns to cooperate significantly from the beginning.
i hope you go over county commission races soon. calhoun, lenawee and eaton figure to have good CC programs, but i see in election results archives that the jackson, branch and hillsdale parties don't field many candidates. robust campaigns downticket can help supply footsoldiers for top-tier candidates, and the democrat figures to perform better in counties where s/he can step into an existing infrastructure with active down-ticket campaigns.
I disagree about Karen Coffman being defeated by Baxter. Check out what the CitPat's Brad Flory had to say about how bad Baxter is the other day.

In summary, Brad writes:

Baxter was chief financial officer of his family's company when the company claimed it mistakenly gave $25,000 to a charity that did not exist. Voters may demand better attention to detail from the person elected to oversee $300 million a year in public money. Spelling the job poorly is harmless compared to what can happen if someone does it poorly.

And, Karen is just as hard-working as the next hard-working candidate, plus is the Deputy County Treasurer. And, to boot, having a D after your name will be a great asset this election year. Karen will win!
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