In November 2009, Republicans were on suicide watch, both nationally and in Michigan.
President Barack Obama had won the ‘08 election with an almost 10 million-vote margin and still enjoyed a healthy approval rating a year later. Democrats controlled both houses of Congress, including a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the U.S. Senate. And the Dems had won several special congressional elections.
In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm had the help of a huge majority in the House (67-43) and the Dems had an 8-7 congressional advantage. The one bright spot for the GOP was the Senate, which they’d controlled for 25 years. With the ascension of Sen. Mark Schauer (D-Battle Creek) to Congress, the GOP had a 21-16 edge.
The special Nov. 3, 2009, election to fill Schauer’s slot wasn’t a terribly exciting affair, but it was a huge morale boost for once-dejected Republicans (yes, there was singing on the Senate floor the next day).
Former Rep. Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek) decisively beating Rep. Marty Griffin (D-Jackson) became a bellwether for the 2010 election cycle. Not only did Griffin go on to lose his House seat, but the GOP ran the table, winning the governorship, a 9-5 advantage in Congress, a 63-47 majority in the House and a 26-12 supermajority in the Senate.
Republicans also flipped the U.S. House and came close in the upper chamber, effectively stalling Obama’s agenda. And the GOP scored big in other key states like Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia, which proved invaluable during the decennial redistricting process.
Eight years later, President Donald Trump has a GOP Congress and Republicans still control everything in Michigan. Now Democrats are hoping for history to repeat itself in 2018 with the president’s party getting pounded in the midterms. Having a Democratic governor going into the next redistricting is the ultimate prize in Michigan.
But Republicans see another scenario. And it starts with another special legislative election this November, one that’s largely been overlooked in the Upper Peninsula.
Many Republicans believe ‘16 was a sea change in our state, with Trump’s stunning victory finally pushing us to red (or at least reddish-purple) status. Michigan is getting older and is less educated than most states. We don’t have a significant, growing Latino population. All these demographic trends bode well for the GOP.
Republicans also have favorably gerrymandered legislative maps to fall back on. And they’ve also made big gains in key areas like the U.P., the northern lower peninsula and Macomb County, which should help them mitigate or even withstand even a powerful blue wave tearing through the legislative map.
And Republicans are making noise about coming for three-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), openly praying that hometown sensation Kid Rock is serious about running and not just trying to sell concert tickets and merch.
Michigan has a special place in Trump’s heart, as it’s one of the three Rust Belt states that flipped to put him in the White House. And Republican National Committee Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel, a Michigan native, can also be expected to spread the love in terms of money and surrogates.
So the GOP is somewhat optimistic that they’ll be insulated from the historic precedent of the president’s party taking a hit in off-year elections.
But to get things off on the right foot, they’d love to steal what looks like a safe Democratic seat. The 109th in the central U.P., which includes Marquette, Ishpeming and Manistique, has a 56.9% Democratic base, according to Inside Michigan Politics.
The seat is open because Rep. John Kivela (D-Marquette) tragically killed himself after being stopped for drunken driving. This week, Sara Cambensy, a former Marquette city commissioner, won the Dem special primary. She’ll face Republican Rick Rossway, president of the Marquette school board, in the Nov. 7 special general election.
GOP strategists are excited about Rossway, a 17-year veteran of the board with strong ties to the community. Interestingly, he’s adopting the tactic used by many a Democrat in red-trending or socially conservative areas (like Griffin did) and isn’t stressing his party label. Instead, Rossway has been playing up his bipartisan credentials and making the case that he’ll put the U.P.’s needs before partisan concerns.
Republicans also see an opening because the Cambensy barely pulled off a win on Aug. 8. Last year, she also primaried Kivela, who was a beloved figure, which left some Dems with a bad taste in their mouths.
If Rossway scores a Trump-like upset, that gives the GOP another vote in the state House. As the Dems are expected to maintain the 1st District seat in Detroit and Harper Woods on Nov. 7, that would bring the GOP to a bone-crushing 64-46 advantage.
But flipping the 109th is bigger than that. It’s about changing the narrative about 2018 in Michigan and demoralizing Democrats, who have seen an influx of new energy from both the Indivisible and Bernie Sanders “Our Revolution” groups.
Republican operatives, no doubt, are already auditioning clever soundbites about how the Dems should just pack it in for good in Michigan.
It’s a longshot for sure. But for Republicans, it doesn’t hurt to dream.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.