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Senate Retirement Means Michigan's Dominoes Are Starting to Fall

Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Levin’s retirement cracked open the pipelines for statewide contenders in future cycles.

For a state that consistently votes for Democrats for president, Michigan has offered relatively little opportunity for advancement for the party’s congressional hopefuls. But that might change soon — starting this cycle.

“I think we’re in terrific position to take advantage of the demonstrated Democratic leanings of the Michigan voters,” Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson said. “We’ve got our act together.”

The Great Lakes State has a Democratic DNA but veered right in 2010. As a result, a GOP-controlled redraw of the congressional boundaries last cycle gave Republicans a 9-to-5 advantage over Democrats in the House delegation.

But Democratic Sen. Carl Levin’s retirement reverberated throughout his party’s ranks. Democratic Rep. Gary Peters easily cleared his party’s field to replace Levin in 2014, but the race cracked open the pipelines for statewide contenders in future cycles.

Specifically, state and national Democrats mentioned that University of Michigan trustee Mark Bernstein, Oakland County Clerk Lisa Brown, 5th District Rep. Dan Kildee and Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy could run statewide one day.

In the 2014 Senate race, the GOP’s most prominent contender is former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land. Rep. Justin Amash of the 3rd District is the only other high-profile Republican who has yet to rule out a run. But Peters is favored to win over both of them.

Several high-profile Republicans took a pass on Levin’s seat. Republicans said some of them — Reps. Candice S. Miller, Mike Rogers and Dave Camp — could run in another open-seat contest. They also mentioned state Attorney General Bill Schuette, Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and GOP Chairman Bobby Schostak as viable statewide contenders someday.

More immediately, Peters’ Senate bid opens up his House seat in and around downtown Detroit. It’s a safe Democratic district, and many local party leaders are backing state Rep. Rudy Hobbs as Peters’ potential successor.

But there might be more opportunity coming for Democrats soon. Three Democrats in the Michigan delegation are over 80: Reps. John D. Dingell, John Conyers Jr. and Sander M. Levin. Yet the members have shown little indication they plan to leave Congress.

Dingell is the longest-serving member in House history. Whenever the seat opens up, it could stay in the family.

“You’ve gotta think Debbie Dingell is the front-runner, but there are a lot of other people who are impressive,” a Michigan Democratic insider said.

Michigan sources also floated Worthy as a potential successor to Conyers in the 13th District. They also said an open-seat race for. Levin’s 9th District seat would be crowded, possibly including Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner, Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel, Macomb County prosecutor Eric Smith, state Sen. Steve Bieda and Ferndale Mayor David Coulter.

Top Michigan Republicans also expressed confidence in their bench of talent.

“There are a number of committed conservatives with records of success that can make strong candidates in the future,” GOP consultant Stu Sandler said.

Republicans sources noted the top Republican positioned to succeed Camp in the 4th District is state Sen. John Moolenaar. For Republican Rep. Fred Upton’s 6th District, the field of successors includes state Sens. John Proos and Tonya Schuitmaker and state Rep. Aric Nesbitt.

Should Miller retire or run statewide, likely Republican candidates for her seat in the 10th include state Reps. Pete Lund and Andrea LaFontaine and state Supreme Court Justice David Viviano.

This cycle, the national parties are focused on the Wolverine State’s three competitive seats held by Republicans: Reps. Dan Benishek in the 1st District, Tim Walberg in the 7th and Kerry Bentivolio in the 11th.

The 1st in northern Michigan is the most competitive district of that trio. Democrats are bullish on their recruit for that district, retired Army Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, who will take on the two-term Benishek.

But Democrats might have a better shot at the seat in 2016, because Benishek has previously supported a three-term limit in Congress. A spokesman for the congressman, in response to an inquiry from CQ Roll Call this week, did not say whether he still supports term limits.

If Benishek retires or loses, Republicans named state Rep. Frank Foster, state Sen. Tom Casperson and former state Sen. Jason Allen as likely GOP candidates.

Across the state in the Detroit suburbs, Bentivolio remains the delegation’s most vulnerable member. The former reindeer rancher and military veteran will have a contested primary against attorney David Trott, and Democrats say they plan to target the GOP-leaning seat in the general election.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee frequently touted former state Rep. Pam Byrnes as a top recruit for Walberg’s competitive seat in the 7th District, which includes southern Michigan. If he loses or retires, Republicans named Rep. Tom Leonard, state Speaker Jase Bolger, state Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville and Michigan Attorney General’s office counsel Matthew Schneider as strong GOP players there.

Farm Team is a weekly state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.

In an earlier version of this article, Rudy Hobbs was misidentified. He is a state representative.

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