Congressman Gary Peters is running to succeed Carl Levin in this unexpectedly competitive race.
Congressman Gary Peters is running to succeed Carl Levin in this unexpectedly competitive race.

Michigan’s congressional delegation had largely been static until 2008.  Turnover and Congressional defeats led to some fresh faces being introduced to the state’s political scene.  The election of 2010 saw the same but in this case many of the fresh faces were Republicans.  Long the dean of the state’s federal delegation, Michigan senior Senator Carl Levin announced early this year he was retiring.  The announcement sparked excitement in GOP circles and mild apprehension in Democratic ranks.  In retrospect, perhaps Democrats should be a little more concerned than they initially were.

Republicans combed through several candidates including longtime Congressmen Mike Rogers and Dave Camp but both declined as they chair major House Committees.  Republicans even flirted with the idea of having Scott Romney run for the seat but he declined.  Republicans finally settled on a candidate, Terri Lynn, who at first was considered lackluster.  Her campaign skills, fundraising ability and recent poll results have shown she is anything but.  Democrats meanwhile found their nominee early in suburban Detroit Congressman Gary Peters.

The GOP has struggled among Michigan voters in federal races since the 80s.  Bill Clinton’s victory in the state in 1992 was the precursor to a Democratic lock on the state for the Electoral College.  Republicans initially floated with the idea of fighting for the state in 2012 partly because the McCain camp all but abandoned the state in late 2008, but ultimately declined.  Combined with Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Minnesota the state has given Democrats solid votes in Congress and for President.

Republicans hope for something different in 2014 and towards that aim they point to 2010.  That year, Republicans gained two Congressional districts, won all statewide constitutional offices by wide margins and took the state legislature.  Republicans were buoyed by a strong wave election fueled by concern over Obamacare and the economy.  Now Obamacare is again front and center and few Democrats are happy about it.

Lynn’s candidacy offers the GOP a shot at the open seat.  A former Secretary of State, Lynne has a soft spoken, calm style of campaigning that does not rub people in the wrong way.  So far her campaign has stayed fully on message and avoided discussing divisive social issues.  Instead, the economy and Obamacare are constantly being hammered on by her campaign.

Democrats have yet to show concern about Lynn’s candidacy.  Their candidate, Peters, has stockpiled cash, has the firm backing of the state party and is running in a light blue state.  Unfortunately, Peters did not have a competitive race in 2008, barely squeaked out a win in 2010 and redistricting led to him having a solidly blue district to run for in 2012.  In other words, Peters, like Lynn, is a largely untested candidate.  Indeed, his campaign seems to be floundering in the wake of the Obamacare fiasco.

Peters is sure to be helped by Michigan’s predilection for supporting Democratic candidates at the federal level.  Most recently, in 2012 even as Mitt Romney was losing nationwide by about 4% he lost by double that in Michigan.  The 2012 Senate race was even less competitive between Senator Debbie Stabenow and former Congressman Peter Hoekstra.  Stabenow won by over 16%.  Republicans best showing in the state relatively recently goes back to 2004 when George Bush lost the state by less than 3%.  Considering Bush won the popular vote by about 3% that year since at least 2004 the state has had a 5-6% Democratic tilt compared to the nation.

Of course this did not help Democrats in 2010.  But there are distinct differences between statewide races in an economic downturn and a federal statewide race in a Presidential or midterm election.  For one constitutional statewide offices are not solely fought on the ideological grounds, federal races are.  Second, statewide elections tend to have lower turnout than their federal counterparts potentially benefiting Republicans as historically the drop in turnout is focused largely in Wayne County (metro Detroit). Lastly, non-ideological issues such as background and competency play far more in statewide constitutional races.

Republican optimism for this race is not unfounded as hinted above.  Lynnehas performed well in the latest polls, reported a $2 million haul for third quarter fundraising and has built up a stellar campaign.  More importantly the campaign is hammering away on the right issues for a fiscal conservative to win on under the right conditions.

Lynn’s path to victory follows a geographical and regional split in the state.  Much as neighboring Wisconsin and Pennsylvania can attest, there are three primary geographical areas to the state.  In Southeast Michigan you have Detroit (Wayne County), Flint (Genesee County) and Anne Arbor  (Washtenaw), all Democratic strongholds.  Central and Eastern Michigan include both suburban and rural counties with a mild GOP lean.  Lastly, there is Northern Michigan where rural conservative interests often contrast with a strong union presence.

For Lynn to win she needs turnout in Detroit, Flint and Anne Arbor to drop (Obama’s absence on the ballot could help) or like Snyder she needs to run strongly (for a Republican) in each.  In Central and Western Michigan she needs to build up margins large enough to limit her losses in Southeast Michigan.  Lastly, Northern Michigan boasts one of the country’s most competitive Congressional districts in the country because of its polarized nature. Lynn needs to find some way to break through this polarization and win the region by at least several points.

Peter’s path to victory will largely follow the past Democratic script.  Run strong in SE Michigan and build up margins in the region that Lynn cannot overcome.  The verdict is out on whether he can.  A recently released survey from PPP (D) finds Lynn is running strongly in SE Michigan and winning elsewhere across the state.  Of course it is still early in the race as the survey notes but older surveys from state pollsters have found the same thing (though there were more undecided in the state pollster surveys).

Republicans should not be overly optimistic in interpreting these results.  While their legislative majorities and Governor Rick Snyder may be relatively safe it is far from certain their victories mean Republicans will break their strong of losses at the statewide, federal level.  Fewer states than ever now exist that boast a sitting Governor or Senator of the opposing party of the party’s candidate they backed for President in 2012.  Lynn needs to find a way to break through to these voters and explain why she should represent them in Congress.  Peters, well, he needs to remind them why they vote Democratic at the federal level.



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