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Jack Lessenberry


Michigan GOP has reasons to be optimistic in 2014


Jack Lessenberry.


LANSING — Michigan Democrats think they have a good chance to score major victories in next year’s statewide elections.

Thanks to union bitterness over “right to work” legislation and widespread anger at Gov. Rick Snyder’s push to tax pensions, Democrats think they just might unseat the incumbent.

They feel more confident of holding the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Carl Levin. Lon Johnson, the energetic new state Democratic chairman, says his party can win back the lower house of the Legislature, gain big in the state Senate, and maybe gain a seat in the U.S. House.

Maybe. But maybe not.

The story could just as easily read this way on Nov. 6, 2014:

LANSING — Gov. Rick Snyder earned a second four-year term fairly easily Tuesday, winning 53 percent of the vote over former Battle Creek congressman Mark Schauer. Republicans also added slightly to their majority in the state House and lost only two seats in the Senate.

And Terri Lynn Land became the first Michigan Republican in two decades to win a seat in the U.S. Senate, as she defeated Democratic U.S. Rep. Gary Peters.

Republicans have a fair number of reasons to be optimistic about next year. Traditionally, the party that doesn’t hold the White House does well in midterm elections, especially in any president’s second term.

That, however, may not be so true in Michigan, because of the big gains Republicans made in the 2010 elections. Michigan Democrats now hold only five seats in the U.S. House, all of which were drawn to be overwhelmingly Democratic.

But things may be different in the U.S. Senate race. Michigan Republicans have a stunning record of failure in Senate contests; they’ve won only once since 1972. But now there’s a rare open seat, and both parties evidently have settled on their nominees:

● Democrats will run Mr. Peters, 54, a former state senator and lottery commissioner who is in his third term in Congress from a district that is half in Detroit, half suburban.

● Republicans seem ready to run Ms. Land, 55, a former two-term secretary of state. She became the consensus choice when a couple of top congressmen decided not to risk their safe seats.

Most national surveys make the Democrat the odds-on favorite. But that may be wrong. Ms. Land, who is from Byron Center near Grand Rapids, has twice won statewide by landslides.

Though Ms. Land has won acceptance from Tea Party adherents and has tailored her rhetoric to please them, in past years she has been perceived by most voters as a comfortable moderate.

She also has a money edge. Her father is a self-made, wealthy developer. Indications are the family can and will pour $5 million or more into her campaign.

Mr. Peters, on the other hand, conducted what many saw as an inept campaign when he ran for state attorney general in 2002. He became the first Democrat in half a century to lose that post.

Since then, he has worked hard to improve his campaigning skills. He is a great fund-raiser, and has extensive legislative, congressional, and Washington experience.

Ms. Land has none. How she stands on many major issues is still largely unknown. But so is how much that will matter to voters.

Democrats have an even higher number of formidable hurdles to face in next year’s race for governor. Mr. Snyder is almost certainly going to do worse than in 2010, when he won 59 percent of the vote.

Few voters outside one congressional district know the designated Democratic nominee, a longtime state legislator who served a single term in Congress.

Polls show the governor’s negatives are high, but Democrats concede Mr. Snyder will be far better funded. Republicans historically have an advantage in midterm elections, because a smaller percentage of Democrats vote.

That will also tend to help the GOP in state legislative races next year. Republicans hung onto a 59-51 majority in the state House last year, even though President Obama swept the state.

Without a strong top of the ticket, it is hard to see how Democrats get to a legislative majority. They are almost certain to gain in the state Senate, where Republicans have a 26-12 edge.

But not even Democrats pretend they have any chance of winning control. There is, however, one factor that could turn things sour for incumbent Republicans, especially the governor: the Tea Party.

Todd Courser, an accountant and tax lawyer, has emerged as the closest thing that faction has to a Michigan leader. Its members largely hate the governor, and say that by accepting Medicaid expansion, he has turned his back on true conservatives.

Mr. Courser’s forces are vowing to force next year’s state GOP convention to dump Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, essentially for doing his job and backing his governor’s programs.

Mr. Courser, who stunned establishment Republicans by very nearly ousting GOP Chairman Bobby Schostak at the party’s state convention in February, is hinting that he may try to become the lieutenant governor nominee.

Mr. Courser also thinks a conservative should try to defeat the governor in next August’s primary — and encourages “the union vote” to cross over to try to do Mr. Snyder in.

Beating the governor in an open primary is not going to happen. But Tea Party members could pack a state convention and nominate one of their own for lieutenant governor. That would put Mr. Snyder in the impossible position of having a running mate who has vowed to sabotage his program.

So in next year’s election, it just might be that we ain’t seen nothing yet.

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.

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