This article is based upon the possibility that the Democratic Party could take control of the State House and Senate depending on the outcome of the November 7 election. The focus is on the 75th District House seat beat Robert Dean and Tim Doyle. Both candidates are cited, but no platforms or issues are mentioned. The language that is used at the beginning is interesting in terms of how this story is framed, with comments like “battle” and “bloodier fight.” What would make this election a bloodier fight?
The only other sources that are cited is current 75th District Rep. Jerry Kooiman and former 75th District Rep. John Otterbacher. There is one other source cited, Bill Ballenger. The sentence before his comment is “More impartial observers aren’t sure a sea change is on the horizon.” Does this mean that Ballenger is a “more impartial observer?” Ballenger runs the Lansing based website/newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. Ballenger himself is a former Republican legislator.
Most West Michigan Republicans can breathe a sigh of relief following Tuesday’s primary elections, secure the battle is over in heavily GOP districts.
Tim Doyle has to take a deep breath and gird for the next, bloodier fight — and the stakes are high. At risk is a state House seat held by Republicans for decades, which Democrats believe could upset the balance of power in Lansing.
Doyle, an assistant prosecutor, is in the race to replace state Rep. Jerry Kooiman, R-Grand Rapids. Last week, he bested two contenders in a hard-fought election.
Now, he faces Democrat Robert Dean, a former Grand Rapids city commissioner and school board president. Located on Grand Rapids’ East Side, the 75th state House District has shifted toward Democrats in recent years, and the race is expected to be one of the most closely watched in the state.
“If you want to measure how each party is going to do statewide, watch that district,” said John Otterbacher, a former lawmaker and current Dean advisor.
Power in the Legislature is presently tilted toward Republicans, who have a six-seat majority in each chamber: 58-52 in the House, and 22-16 in the Senate. Democrats figure to loosen that grip.
Nine House seats are considered toss-ups in this fall’s elections. Three are open, due mostly to term limits, including the Kooiman seat.
The other six feature Republicans seeking re-election in toss-up districts, as rated by Inside Michigan Politics editor Bill Ballenger.
In the Senate, four seats are considered toss-ups. Two are open; the others are held by Republicans, including Sen. Gerald VanWoerkom, from the Muskegon area.
Given the dynamics, Democrats think this could be their year. A three-seat swing in either chamber ties it up.
More impartial observers aren’t sure a sea change is on the horizon.
“The expectation of almost every political observer is it’s going to be very difficult for the Democrats to get a majority in either (chamber),” said Ballenger. “I would be included in that assessment.”
The most likely to flip is the Senate, Ballenger said. If Democrats grab three seats, they’ve got a 19-19 tie. That makes the governor’s race critical: The lieutenant governor becomes the swing vote.
The House is less likely to go to Democratic control. But the 75th District — the Dean-Doyle match-up — has the biggest bull’s-eye.
That’s the one “on paper, the Democrats would have the best chance to win,” Ballenger said. The state House district on Grand Rapids’ West Side long has been solidly Democratic. But the East Side has a Republican heritage, at least in the past few decades.
Before Kooiman, it was held by Bill Byl, the new Republican nominee for county drain commissioner, Richard Bandstra, now a Michigan Court of Appeal judge, and Vernon Ehlers, the area’s congressman.
You have to reach back to the 1970s and early 1980s — when district lines were different — to find a Democrat on the job. That was when John Otterbacher, a young psychotherapist, held the seat.
Redistricting put the area out of reach of Democrats. But Otterbacher and others have seen the demographics shift. He pegs the change on suburban flight and discontent with President Bush.
“The president’s policies have clarified for a lot of people their party affiliation, and in some instances reclarified,” Otterbacher said.
Is Democratic control coming?
Whatever the reason, recent elections provide evidence of a Democratic tilt.
In 2004, all-but-unknown Democrat Chris Vogt put little money or effort into the race, but came within 1,800 votes of ousting Kooiman, then a two-term veteran.
That same year, Democratic challenger Brandon Dillon fell short by only 100 votes against Republican county commissioner Dan Koorndyk in a seat that falls within the House district. Dillon is taking another run at Koorndyk this year.
Even presidential votes on Grand Rapids’ East Side have shifted. U.S. Sen. John Kerry outpolled President Bush by 4,000 votes two years ago. By contrast, Vice President Al Gore lost to President Bush there in 2000. The district’s term-limited lawmaker is well aware of such figures.
“Let’s face it. It’s increasingly more Democratic. Granholm nearly won my district against West Michigan’s Dick Posthumus,” Kooiman said.
In fact, Posthumus bested Granholm in the district by a slim 600 votes in 2002.
That, in particular, is a wake-up call for Republicans and Democrats as the Dean-Doyle matchup picks up steam.
The district holds the city’s largest concentration of black voters, where Dean, who is black, could make inroads. Doyle, with an Irish Catholic background, will appeal to the Catholic neighborhoods to the north.
And on the Southeast Side, both will battle over a heavy dose of Christian Reformed voters — voters who for decades went reliably to candidates with that heritage and are now up for grabs.
Does the governor help?
Dean knows he has to appeal to the middle to win.
“I really felt as far as myself personally, I will be viewed more as a moderate and I’ll be able to pull voters from both sides, and not just Democrats,” Dean said. “I’m viewed more as a fiscal conservative.”
Doyle all but depleted the more than $100,000 he raised in the primary, and now has to start from scratch in the fund-raising game. Political action committee checks already have been pouring in. Dean will see the same largesse from Democratic-leaning causes.
Doyle knows the challenge. “The Republican Party sees the numbers, they see the district is trending Democratic,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of work cut out for us.”
One thing Democrats can’t count on, Ballenger said: coat tails.
In Michigan, where voters are notorious ticket-splitters, pull from the top doesn’t amount to much. Even when former Republican Gov. John Engler was winning big in the 1990s, he couldn’t create huge legislative majorities for his party.
Ballenger’s no-coat-tails rule will be especially true this year, when Granholm is in the political fight of her life, facing a hard-charging, well-funded challenge from Ada businessman Dick DeVos.
“If the Democrats were counting a year ago on Jennifer Granholm winning some landslide re-election, and that could conceivably yield some dividends down the ticket, that expectation or hope is gone,” Ballenger said.
“She’s going to be lucky to even eke out a narrow victory, and she’s certainly not going to have coat tails.”