LANSING — State and regional business leaders say an unpredictable presidential election could have implications on down-ballot races, including in the state House, where voters will elect representatives in all 110 seats in November.
Those effects, though, most likely will sharpen after Tuesday’s primary and into September, as the race for the White House comes into focus.
Business leaders and chambers of commerce are backing state House candidates — incumbents and challengers for open seats — who they believe share their pro-business agendas. Their political action committees have given hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates based in part on incumbents’ voting records and challengers’ positions on economic development programs, infrastructure challenges, education reform and tax incentives.
But which party controls the House in January will depend in some measure on whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump becomes president.
Republicans currently have an 18-seat majority in the state House. Yet some in the GOP have resisted supporting Trump, and there’s speculation that some voters might sit out the election altogether.
Democrats tend to benefit from higher turnout in presidential election years, and how well Clinton performs in the state could determine how well her party does in state races. Several people told Crain’s they believe Democrats can pick up seats, but not a majority.
“They’ll at least gain seats, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” said Mark Brewer, who served as Michigan Democratic Party chairman from 1995 to 2013 and who is an attorney with Goodman Acker PC in Southfield. He added that some seats become easier to win when the incumbent is term-limited.
In all, 42 seats are up for grabs due to term limits or other factors. Democrats have two vacant seats due to the resignation of former state Rep. Derek Miller, D-Warren, to become Macomb County treasurer, and the death of former state Rep. Julie Plawecki, D-Dearborn Heights.
“What’s disconcerting around this election is it’s very volatile. It’s very hard to know where this election is going,” said Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, the state’s business roundtable. “For a business, the worst thing in the world is uncertainty. They’re making huge investment decisions, they’re making decisions that will be multiple years in the making, and it’s hard to do that when you don’t know what the policy environment is going to be.”
Business Leaders for Michigan’s political action committee gave more than $185,500, mostly to legislative candidate committees, from April 21 through July 20, according to Michigan campaign finance records.
Its super PAC, Business Leaders for Michigan PAC II, took in $36,000 during that same period. It received $10,000 contributions each from Jackson-based Consumers Energy Co., Ann Arbor-based real estate firm McKinley Inc. and Benton Harbor-based Whirlpool Corp.
Business Leaders for Michigan has scored House candidates’ responses to a questionnaire and posted the results on its website. The group is focused on policy areas that could move Michigan into the top 10 states for jobs and income, such as educational attainment, creating a competitive business climate and economic development programs.
Its PAC has contributed to a slate of Republican challengers in open seats, including Jeffrey Neilson, an attorney from Northville Township, in the 20th District; Macomb County Commissioner Steve Marino, of Harrison Township, in the 24th District; and Pamela Hornberger, an educator from Chesterfield Township, in the 32nd District.
“We want people elected to office (who) have that same sense of urgency and drive that we do,” Rothwell said. “We want people (who) are very much aligned with a pro-growth agenda.”
The Detroit Regional Chamber’s political action committee in June endorsed 28 Republicans and 24 Democrats running in Tuesday’s primary. Support was given to candidates based on their responses to a questionnaire, feedback from PAC board members and individual interviews, the chamber said.
The chamber often doesn’t endorse candidates in races with multiple strong candidates, choosing instead to let the primary election results narrow the field, said Brad Williams, its government relations vice president.
For Tuesday’s primary, the chamber’s PAC considered incumbent votes on tax credit legislation for data centers that helped Nevada-based Switch move near Grand Rapids and on Detroit Public Schools reform, among other issues.
Regarding Switch, “you might wonder why did it matter so much to us, but it’s one of those situations where it’s pretty indicative of someone who is going to support economic development initiatives in the future, regardless of geography,” Williams said.
The Detroit chamber’s PAC gave more than $50,000 in the most recent quarterly filing period, with recording showing its largest award — $15,000 — going to a committee for Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who is not up for reelection this year. Its Powering the Economy super PAC received $4,300 in the period, a single contribution from the chamber.
Other business groups weighed in on the primary, including the Michigan Restaurant Association, which said it is supporting candidates who have shown a “demonstrated commitment to the restaurant industry.” The association added that it typically weighs in during primary elections only in cases in which an incumbent with a strong voting record is facing a challenger or if a single candidate stands out in a race without an incumbent.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce has endorsed 21 incumbent state representatives — all Republicans — and 23 challengers; of them, one, Ann Arbor school board member Donna Lasinski, is a Democrat, in the 52nd District.
The state chamber’s PAC gave more than $146,000 in the most recent quarter, according to campaign finance records. It gave $10,000 apiece to House and Senate Republican campaign committees and to a committee for Attorney General Bill Schuette.
The chamber’s super PAC, Michigan Chamber PAC III, received $2,500 from the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association during the same period, records show.
This fall, the chamber is placing much of its energy on open seats — especially since in many House districts, redistricting has led to competitive races in the primaries, said Rich Studley, its president and CEO.
“Our core purpose is to help chamber members solve their business problems,” Studley said. “Sometimes, those problems are that a company needs a business solution, they need labor law posters or a workshop or a seminar, or help in finding the right insurance for their employees. But often, that business problem is legislative or regulatory — there’s a need to pass legislation that would be helpful to job providers, or there is a need to block legislation.
“We think it’s especially helpful and important if we have members of the state House ... who have worked in the private sector and know what it’s like to pay taxes and be on the receiving end of regulations,” Studley added. “Often in government, we know the most important decision is who decides.”
Come November, though, primary winners will have to contend with the impact from the presidential race.
If the GOP’s base doesn’t turn out to vote, it could cause problems for Republicans in close House races, said John Truscott, president of Lansing-based public relations firm Truscott Rossman and a former spokesman for Gov. John Engler. Likewise, he said, seats currently held by Democrats could swing to the right in communities where Trump polls higher.
And with falling unemployment, typical economic issues might not play as important a role in deciding who wins, Truscott said.
“We’re dealing with two of the most unpopular candidates in our lifetime, so that has an impact of not motivating people to turn out,” he said. “Republicans have a strong-enough majority; I do think they hold on to (the House).”