For Some Democrats, the Political Picture Doesn’t Look So Rosy

Posted June 13, 2007 at 1:59pm

MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — While Democratic politicians and activists around the country are upbeat about the party’s near-term political prospects, including the 2008 presidential and Congressional elections, Democrats in Michigan are increasingly concerned about their standing in the state. Some are merely worried about the future. Others are openly pessimistic. [IMGCAP(1)]

State budget problems have Michigan politicians of all partisan and ideological stripes shaking their heads, wondering exactly when and where the short-term fixes — such as a recent move to delay state contributions to state universities until October (and the next fiscal year) to avoid making the budget deficit look as bad as it is — will end and whose ox the voters will gore next.

Not surprisingly, politicians aren’t keen on raising personal or business taxes, for fear of angering voters or further hurting the state’s business community. Nor are they enthusiastic about cutting spending, since that means axing popular programs and pitting constituencies against each other.

While state government is divided — the governor, Jennifer Granholm, is a Democrat, and Democrats took control of the state House of Representatives in November, but Republicans retained their majority in the state Senate — Michigan voters are more likely to give Democrats a much larger share of the blame for the state’s economic circumstances.

In Michigan, Democrats face the same problem that Republicans do nationally, where President Bush’s party gets the blame for bad news even though Democrats now control Congress. Granholm, who was first elected in 2002 and was re-elected last year after turning back a stiff challenge from conservative businessman Dick DeVos (R), is the face of state government, so she and her party are more on the hook for the condition of the state.

Not all of the state’s economic problems are Granholm’s doing, of course. Even Republicans acknowledge that former Gov. John Engler (R) left the state in a mess when he relinquished his office in 2003, and the current governor isn’t to blame for the American automobile industry’s problems.

But Granholm was slow to grapple with the tough issues facing the state, including jobs, and even those who want her to succeed seem unimpressed with her efforts to lead Michigan.

The governor’s performance and the automobile industry’s serious problems appear to have put the brakes on Michigan’s move from a true swing state to a reliably Democratic bastion, a change that seemed almost inevitable just three or four years ago. While the state hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1988 and has elected just a single Republican to the Senate since 1976 (Spencer Abraham in the Republican tsunami year of 1994), it is Michigan Republicans who are feeling upbeat about the future.

Next year’s elections could be another problem for the GOP nationally, but that won’t put Republican control of the Michigan Senate in jeopardy, since that chamber isn’t up until 2010.

Political insiders already are looking down the road to the 2010 gubernatorial race, when Granholm will be ineligible to run again and when state contests will have a huge impact on the next round of redistricting. Unless the state’s circumstances improve dramatically by then, Democrats could face a tough cycle.

A number of high-profile Republicans already are mentioned for 2010, including DeVos, state Attorney General Mike Cox, Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land and a handful of Members of Congress.

DeVos, who ran a strong though unsuccessful campaign in 2006, already seems to be benefitting from “buyer’s remorse,” as state voters wonder whether they made the wrong choice last year.

Knowledgeable insiders say the wealthy businessman — an heir to the Amway fortune — is considering another gubernatorial run.

Cox, who served as a prosecutor in both Oakland and Wayne counties before becoming director of the homicide unit in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, was elected state attorney general in 2006. In 2005, Cox admitted to committing adultery.

Land, though not known as a stirring speaker, is a tireless worker who was first elected secretary of state in 2002. A longtime Republican activist who served as Kent County (Grand Rapids) clerk, she comes from a wealthy family.

Democrats don’t have a natural successor to the governor, though some Michigan pols think Granholm’s husband, Dan Mulhern, who currently hosts a radio talk show, would love the state’s top job. Nobody thinks Lt. Gov. John Cherry Jr. will be the party’s nominee for governor or could win that office, but of course the party has plenty of time to find an appealing candidate for 2010.

National Democrats have been talking optimistically about running serious races against a handful of Michigan’s Republican House incumbents, including Reps. Joe Knollenberg, Thaddeus McCotter, Tim Walberg and even Mike Rogers. Certainly Knollenberg will be in for a tough fight next year. But Democrats cannot afford to ignore their own troubles in this important state, which start with the top officeholder in Michigan.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.