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Published: Friday, 11/7/2008

Michigan buried in Obama avalanche

DETROIT - How bad a disaster was this week's election for Michigan Republicans? Consider this: Two of their incumbent congressmen were defeated, in seats that were designed to be completely safe for them.

U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat, became the first person in state history to get more than 3 million votes, setting another record with his 1.4 million-vote margin over a hapless rival.

Back in September, GOP State Chairman Saul Anuzis had predicted that John McCain would end the Republicans' long drought in Michigan and carry the state. Instead, President-elect Barack Obama won a bigger margin than any Democrat in history, save for Lyndon Johnson. He carried the Republican fortress of Kent County.

He took a majority of white voters in the state, said a stunned Ed Sarpolus, vice-president of EPIC/MRA, the state's leading pollster. Mr. Obama won the blue-collar "Reagan Democrats" of Macomb County by a landslide, and the white-collar suburbanites of rich Oakland County by a bigger landslide.

Overall, the president-elect's unofficial Michigan margin was 823,275 - five times the margin that John Kerry won by. Some of this was because of Mr. McCain's shocking public decision to pull staff and money out of the state a few weeks ago. That left state party leaders privately furious - and Republicans running in races elsewhere on the ballot were left high and dry.

The party lost nine seats in the lower house of the Legislature, mostly seats which were supposed to be rock-solid Republican. Supposedly, thanks to the wonders of partisan redistricting, the House, like the Senate, was supposed to have a foolproof GOP majority. Now, there will be 67 Democrats and only 43 Republicans.

From there, it only got worse.

In the most shocking outcome of all, Michigan Supreme Court Justice Clifford Taylor, considered totally safe for re-election, was solidly defeated by an underfunded and last-minute Democratic nominee, Diane Hathaway. Not even the most partisan Democrats thought she had a chance. Ironically, Mr. McCain also ended up wrecking the hopes of a second Romney brother.

During the primary campaign, he defeated Mitt Romney for the nomination. This week, his decision not to contest Michigan cost G. Scott Romney, Mitt's older brother, his seat on the Michigan State University board. Such was the Obama landslide that all of the GOP's nominees for statewide education posts lost, including Danialle Karamanos, the wife of the Compuware founder. She had spent a bundle on billboards, all to no avail.

So where does the party go from here?

Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson thinks the party ought to tack back towardthe center. Gruff, flamboyant, and witty, he believes firmly in jobs and development, and has ridiculed those in his party whom he sees as obsessed with social and lifestyle issues.

On Tuesday, despite a vigorous challenge, Mr. Patterson, 69, was easily re-elected, even as Mr. Obama won his county by a landslide. "I've seen us come back from this before, [from] Goldwater and the Watergate debacle," he said on Wednesday.

What the party needs to do, he said, is to get back to talking to people about things they care about, mainly pocketbook issues. Frequently, party chairmen are ousted after a bad election. Mr. Anuzis, GOP state chairman, is a doctrinaire conservative, though a cheerful and personable one. He survived a grumbling party base two years ago, when the GOP lost the lower house of the Legislature and failed in expensive bids to challenge both Gov. Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

The numbers were still coming in when Jerry Zandstra, a social conservative from the Grand Rapids area, said he might challenge Mr. Anuzis for the party leadership - but from the right.

The chairman was not available for comment yesterday.

The day before, he e-mailed the party faithful, saying they had done their best, adding, "It is my fervent belief that we are the right party with the right ideas. I do not believe these results indicate a repudiation of those ideas. Unfortunately, America lost faith in our ability to deliver in this environment, there was very little to be done on a state or local level to ride out the storm."

He thinks that what he likes to call the "GOP brand" had been damaged by party members who haven't lived up to their ideals.

However, there have been no recent scandals among Michigan Republicans, the party hasn't carried the state for president since 1988, and it has won only one Senate election in 36 years. Supply-side economics and social conservatism may work politically in Utah, but in Michigan, they are proving a recipe for electoral disaster.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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