LANSING, Mich. — Conditions are ideal for Democrats to bolster their ranks in the Legislature, but capturing a House majority — and ending Republicans’ full control of state government — could be elusive.
Democrats’ advantages include higher voter turnout for the presidential election and the departure of dozens of Republicans who were swept into office in the 2010 wave and cannot run again under term limits. Democrats have gained House seats in every presidential contest since 2004.
With no statewide proposals and few state-level races on the ballot, the focus is primarily on at least a dozen GOP-held House districts that will determine which party secures the minimum 56 seats for a majority.
In six of the “toss-ups” identified by the publication Inside Michigan Politics, Republican incumbents are seeking re-election. The other six are open.
Half of the dozen districts are blue-collar places where Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump may fare well — Macomb County, northern Michigan, “Downriver” Detroit and Monroe County — even if Democrat Hillary Clinton wins the state.
Democrats hope that Gov. Rick Snyder’s low approval rating, which fell after Flint’s water crisis, and voters’ frustration with nearly six years of one-party control will net them the nine seats they need.
“Democrats in this state are universally united on the importance of winning the Michigan House,” said Rep. Adam Zemke of Ann Arbor, who is House Democrats’ campaign chairman. He said Democrats have “great candidates” and “recruitment was pretty easy” because people are upset about GOP policies.
He cited problems at a state veterans home and the Michigan Senate’s pricey planned move to a newer office building.
“The Republican brand in Michigan is terrible right now. It’s terrible because of Trump. It’s terrible because of Snyder,” Zemke said. “Voters want to see balance in Lansing. They’ve seen that one-party control is not an effective way of running state government.”
Republicans counter that Democrats are running “retread” candidates who have lost before, and voters are happy with GOP-led progress on job creation, unemployment, the business tax code, road spending and addressing long-term public employee retirement liabilities.
“People see the difference between how Washington, D.C.’s being governed and how the state’s being governed. We’ve made great progress,” said Rep. Aric Nesbitt of Lawton, chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee.
Republicans have a 62-45 edge, with three vacancies.
Nesbitt said Democrats struggled to find better-quality candidates, and some “far left” Democrats who won their primaries are out of the mainstream in battleground districts.
“The indecision, the weakness of the Obama administration has provided a whole other generation of fresh-faced Republican leaders,” he said.
Democrats contend that coattails for Trump, who polls suggest could be headed to a big loss if he does not turn things around, are not as strong in areas where the GOP expects him to have appeal. An unknown factor is whether disheartened Republicans will choose not to vote if the presidential contest is out of reach.
Of 10 competitive races with the most combined fundraising among candidates through Aug. 22, Republicans had the financial edge in eight, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Six are incumbent Republicans, who would be expected to raise more money.
Snyder’s nonprofit fund, Making Government Accountable, had spent $110,000 airing economic “comeback” ads on broadcast television through Oct. 10, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of data from media tracking firm Kantar Media/CMAG. Of the six districts being targeted, two are considered competitive but not highly competitive — those held by GOP Reps. Klint Kesto in Oakland County and Brandt Iden in Kalamazoo County.
Susan Demas, publisher and editor of Inside Michigan Politics, said Democrats will gain seats, but Clinton has not polled well in Macomb County and northern Michigan — “areas where the Democrats need to pick up House seats.” She gave Democrats a 25 percent shot at taking the majority, noting that the last time they won back nine seats was 2008, when Barack Obama won Michigan by 16 points after John McCain stopped campaigning there and a record number of people voted.
“They’re pretty much at their base level now,” Demas said of Democrats. “The only way to go is up.”