Great Lakes, Great Races

Michigan’s Two Competitive Battles Have Different Feel

Posted October 1, 2008 at 6:43pm

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

In this tale of two Michigan districts, it’s also a story of how two endangered Republican incumbents are trying to hold onto their seats in what could be described as ground zero for the economic crisis.

North of Detroit, eight-term Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R) has a tough challenge from former state Lottery Commissioner Gary Peters (D). And in southern Michigan, freshman Rep. Tim Walberg (R) is in a tight race with state Sen. Mark Schauer (D).

But some local pundits say that while Knollenberg’s district may have changed in the Democrats’ favor over the past few cycles, Walberg’s race is more about the ideology and the candidates.

“Walberg, it is sort of a referendum on him,” said Michigan-based GOP pollster Steve Mitchell. “But Schauer, also, is a very strong Democratic candidate.”

And in Knollenberg’s 9th district, Mitchell points out that even in his strongest cycles the Congressman has only won re-election with 58 percent of the vote.

A Grove Insight (D) poll from August showed Peters leading Knollenberg, 41 percent to 37 percent, with 14 percent undecided. Among the 400 likely voters interviewed Aug. 17-19, 8 percent said they would vote for Jack Kevorkian, an independent candidate and former physician who famously served time for helping his patients commit suicide. The margin of error was 4.9 points.

“I think Walberg’s seat is a little more Republican than the Knollenberg seat,” said Mitchell, who has worked for Knollenberg in the past.

But Peters said the district’s demographics haven’t changes that much.

“It’s not about demographics changing,” Peters said. “You’re really seeing a partisan shift.”

He said, for example, that the local commissioners in Oakland County, the heart of the district, are now almost split between Democrats and Republicans. In 2004, President Bush won the district by about 6,000 votes.

It’s probably why Knollenberg has emphasized his ties to the community in his campaign. In one of his television advertisements, a 9th district Democrat talks about how Knollenberg acquired funding for a special needs center that her daughter attends.

“Certainly there have been demographic changes, but Congressman Knollenberg has worked tirelessly to keep his constituents informed of the work he’s doing on their behalf,” Knollenberg campaign manager Mike Brownfield said.

Most recently, Knollenberg voted Monday against House leadership’s failed Wall Street bailout package, which promised $700 billion in funds to boost the stock market.

“Oakland County’s families shouldn’t have to foot the bill for Wall Street bankers’ failures,” Brownfield said. “It also didn’t perfectly and clearly ensure that taxpayer dollars would not go to pay for golden parachutes for Wall Street executives.”

Peters also said he had some concerns about the financial rescue package and would have voted against it. He cited “serious reservations” about the lack of protections in the bill to keep people in their homes and weak taxpayer protection clauses.

It’s an issues that hits especially close to home in Michigan, which many analysts believe has been in a single-state recession for years. The 9th district, in particular, is home to many auto workers who have felt the effects of the declining industry for years.

“Our financial problems started a little earlier than the test of the country,” Peters said. “As I like to say, we were just the canary in the mine.”

Still, Knollenberg’s vote surprised at least one Michigan political analyst. Peter Luke, a Lansing correspondent for Booth Newspapers, said Knollenberg’s vote against the package wasn’t in keeping with his pro-business reputation.

“He felt that he was in … a position where he had to cast a populist vote like that,” Luke said. “[Rep. Thaddeus McCotter], I understand, but Knollenberg is the quintessential pro-business Republican.”

Walberg was another Republican who voted no on the bailout package, but Luke said that was less surprising given his stringent fiscally conservative record.

“I am extremely disappointed in President Bush for refusing to consider other options and for thrusting this legislation on the American people in a way that only created more uncertainty,” Walberg said in a statement explaining his vote.

A spokesman for Schauer’s campaign said he would have also voted against the bill because there was not enough oversight or taxpayer protections in it.

“Clearly, we needed to do something,” Schauer campaign manager B.J. Neidhardt said. “But this wasn’t it.”

But unlike the 9th district, Luke said the 7th district contest will be more about the candidates than the changing nature of the district. Partisan polls that have been made public on the race have shown widely divergent results.

Walberg is more conservative than his predecessor, former one-term Rep. Joe Schwarz, whom he defeated in the 2006 GOP primary. Schwarz, a moderate Republican, endorsed Schauer this week.

But while Walberg might be to the right of many Republicans in the district, the GOP says Schauer is far to the left, pointing out that he voted for tax increases multiple times in the state Legislature during the administration of Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D).

“If you’re socially moderate and fiscally conservative, I’m not sure you have a candidate in this race,” Luke said.

Walberg campaign manager Justin Roebuck said Schauer’s record is proof that voters have a clear choice between the two candidates, especially when it comes to economic issues.

“More than anything, I think it’s about the issues,” Roebuck said. “As far as the candidates go, there is a clear contrast between the two.”

Neidhardt said he views the race as a referendum on Walberg and the Bush administration. As far as the district goes, he said, Schauer has often won in majority-GOP districts — including his current state Senate district.

“While the 9th is a little better district, Mark is the type of candidate that consistently wins in districts like this,” Neidhardt said.