Election preview: How a handful of House races could shape Michigan’s future

The taxes you pay, the potholes on your street, the tests your children take, all may depend on a few thousand votes in a handful of communities around the state next Tuesday.

The winners of about 15 races in the 110-seat in the Michigan House of Representatives considered tossups will have a major impact on Michigan for the next two years. The House could flip from a Republican majority to Democratic control, or could swing notably more conservative than it is today, with more members affiliated with the tea party movement and in no mood to make bargains with Democrats.

The GOP now holds a 59-50-1 margin. With that one independent seat expected to go Democratic, the Democrats would need to pick up five seats to seize a majority.

“It's such a crapshoot,” said Susan Demas, editor of Inside Michigan Politics, of the fight for control of the state House.

Demas sees three state Senate races as potential tossups. But even on a good night for Democrats, it would leave the GOP in control of the chamber.

The close state House and Senate races could be even less predictable because of the names at the top of the tickets. Republican incumbent Rick Snyder holds an edge in the governor’s race against Democrat Mark Schauer in most (but not all) polls, while Democrat Gary Peters appears to have a substantial lead over Republican Terri Lynn Land for U.S. Senate. It’s unusual for Michigan voters to split their ticket between a gubernatorial candidate of one party and a senate candidate of another party. The last time it happened was 1990, when voters elected Democrat Carl Levin for Senate, and Republican John Engler pulled an upset to become governor.

If that happens Tuesday, it will mean “no coattails” for other races, such as House, Senate and State School Board, said Bill Ballenger, founder of Inside Michigan Politics.

“It makes down-ballot races for House and Senate, and particularly for Supreme Court and state school board (races where voters often don’t know the candidates) less predictable,” Ballenger said. “Anything could happen.”

The fate of several Michigan issues is in the balance:

  • Finding enough state money for road repairs
  • Settling on a coherent system for evaluating teachers.
  • Choosing a new statewide standardized test to measure student performance
  • Voters will also choose two members to eight-year terms on the state Board of Education, which sets education policy and will likely choose a new state school superintendent when Mike Flanagan’s term ends in 2015, during a time when education reform could be a major issue in the state.

And three seats on the state Supreme Court are up for grabs, and while the justices are technically nonpartisan, the candidates are nominated by the Republican and Democratic parties.

A recent Epic-MRA poll shows a 19-point spread in voter preference by political party in the governor and U.S. Senate races (Republican Snyder with an 8-point lead and Democrat Peters up 11).

UPDATE: An Epic-MRA poll released today shows Snyder ahead by 2 points and Peters ahead by 15, for a 17-point spread.

“You look at that amount of ticket-splitting, and it suggests the candidates are standing much more on their own,” said Bernie Porn, president of Epic-MRA.

Tea party scenario

“If the Dems don’t take the House,” said Demas, “there are signs that the Legislature could get more conservative. You could have folks like Gary Glenn and Todd Courser (two Republican candidates in the House affiliated with the tea party), who are not looking for a pragmatic solution. They say, ‘Hey we’ve had a Republican majority and yet we’ve have liberal things get through like Medicaid expansion and the governor’s bridge to Canada. We’ve got to stop that.’

“Anything like Medicaid expansion or road funding that need bipartisan votes, this could be a real issue if someone from the tea party wing wins the House speaker,” Demas said.

Glenn, Courser and Cindy Gamrat, another tea party Republican running for election in the House, have reportedly issued a stern manifesto: No taxes for fixing roads, no expansion of rights for gays and lesbians and no state health care exchange under Obamacare.

But, surprisingly, it remains uncertain all three will win – even though they reside in districts that should be secure for a Republican. It's one of many unknowns in an election that will determine a lot about what Lansing gets done – or doesn't – in the next two years.

Of the three tea party candidates, according to Demas, only Gamrat of Plainwell seems to have a safe road to election. She is favored over Democrat Geoff Parker in the Allegan County-based 80th District southwest of Grand Rapids.

But in the Midland-based 98th District, longtime GOP anti-gay activist Glenn faces a surprising challenge from Democrat Joan Brausch. In the 82nd district in Lapeer County, Republican Courser could be in a tough race against former Imlay City Mayor and Democrat Margaret Guerrero-DeLuca.

“That's a real shocker,” Demas said of what she sees as closer-than-expected races. “Those are strong Republican districts.”

She bases her assessment on campaign internal polls and information from Democratic and Republican insiders. Why the outcome matters: At the very least, Demas said, a strong night for tea party Republicans spells trouble for consensus on funding road repairs in Michigan.

The trio also has vowed that no House measure be brought up for a vote if Republicans remain in power without a Republican majority, which would marginalize Democrats and make consensus legislation all but impossible.

“If we have a strong tea party contingent and they are able to hold sway in the House, it will be difficult to get any sort of bipartisan issue through the chamber,” Demas said.

If Dems gain

There are other election night scenarios – some more remote than others - that could tilt politics of the next two years:

Democrats take control of the state House. They need to pick up five seats to win control of the chamber, now held by the Republicans 59 to 50 with one independent. Demas gives them a shot – she sees a gain of two or three seats but would not rule out five. Demas sees about 15 races up for grabs, so a good night for Democrats could give them control. If that happens, a couple other scenarios come into play:

Democrats take the House and Democratic former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer beats incumbent GOP Gov. Rick Snyder. Schauer would still face a Republican state Senate, since no one gives the Democrats a chance to take that body. Republicans currently hold a 26 to 12 margin.

“We have a lot of experience with that in Michigan,” Demas said, referring to Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm's second term in which Democrats controlled the House and Republicans the Senate. Those years were infamous for a pair of government shutdowns.

“It's certainly hard to get things done.”

Schauer has vowed to reverse the income tax hike on pensions signed into law by Snyder. He also promises to boost spending for K-12 schools and universities, give tax credits to small business, reverse cuts in revenue sharing to local governments and fix Michigan’s crumbling roads.

But he is short on detail for how would pay for all of that – and how he gets any of that through a divided Legislature is unknown.

Which brings up a third scenario:

Democrats take the House and Snyder prevails. That could crimp Snyder's ability to push an aggressive agenda, though he got much of that heavy lifting done his first term. In addition to raising taxes on pensions and other personal income, Snyder cut business taxes, signed right-to-work legislation and expanded Medicaid. On the other hand, divided chambers could also play to Snyder’s strengths, allowing him to leverage each party against each other to build consensus on issues like roads or education.

Even if Republicans maintain control of the House and Snyder wins, it's not clear a second Snyder term would signify major change. He's likely to push for more charter education. He has called expanding vocational education his No. 1 priority. He doesn't dismiss an overhaul of how public schools are funded, though he has not spelled out a concrete solution.

He's spent two years trying get $1.2 billion in added road funding but failed to find consensus.

“That's the $64,000 question,” said Porn of Epic MRA.

“There is a big question about what the future would be. There is nothing that Snyder has said in the campaign that would be a clear direction in what he would do. He's pointed to what he has done in the past. That's been the focus of his campaign.”

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Nick Ciaramitaro
Thu, 10/30/2014 - 10:02am
Enough prognostication. Time to vote. Everyone should. The people of the State of Michigan have a right to have their say.
George Ranville
Thu, 10/30/2014 - 12:54pm
Good information, but your bias is showing. You did not point out that Mark Schauer is the far left candidate (pick your wording here - radical socialist, community organizer, far left progressive, whatever you would choose that he is), Nor did you point out that some of the house candidates are equally off the charts far left wing. Meanwhile you take great pains to point out that some of the Republican candidates are Tea Party (Taxed Enough Already) and are fiscal and social conservatives who are more influenced by budgets and the U.S Constitution and traditional and time honored values. Governor Snyder is certainly a moderate Republican. Let's vote.
John Bebow
Thu, 10/30/2014 - 1:15pm
Mr. Ranville - What you might call bias I'll gladly defend as independent editorial judgement. The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party has had significant organizing power and influence in Michigan's legislature over the past four years. The Tea Party is a real and active dynamic in Lansing and in this election cycle. Bridge aspires to cover real and active dynamics in Lansing... http://bridgemi.com/tag/series-inside-the-rise-of-michigans-tea-party/. Thanks for writing. And thanks for reading! John Bebow President & CEO The Center for Michigan / Bridge Magazine
Sun, 11/02/2014 - 8:23am
Wow John! " Independent Editorial Judgment" That's what we are calling now!! What about the crippling power the uaw had on this state for decades? So much so that the new auto capital of the US is now in the Southeast!! You dont think that they are at least partly responsible for where we are today? You are blind to your own bias.
Thu, 10/30/2014 - 3:06pm
"House could flip" Had my mother-in-law had wheels, she'd be a horse cart. (Subjunctive mode; elegant.) Why do writers waste our time in these low swamps of speculation?
Jack Lessenberry
Thu, 10/30/2014 - 4:31pm
Good piece, but it is not all that unusual historically for Michigan voters to pick a senator from one party and a governor from another. They did it in 1964, 1970, 1978, 1990 and several times before that.