Wednesday, February 25, 2009

West Michigan Senate Battleground: District 29 (Part I)

(Cross Posted at West Michigan Rising-PB)

West Michigan Democrats have much to be proud of since 204. In the two elections since we captured four State House seats (Districts 70, 75, 91, and 101), 19 County Commission seats, and a host of municipal government positions. The Democratic message of fiscal discipline, economic renewal, and quality of life for all residents has bought our party into a new era of governance. Michigan Democrats control the Governor’s mansion, the State Supreme Court, and the Michigan State House.

Yet our successes in 2006 and 2008 may still be undone as we head into the 2010 election. Although calling every election important is becoming a bit of a cliche, the 2010 races will help determine the redistricting of our state’s congressional districts in Washington, DC, as well as the boundaries for the State House and State Senate in Lansing, for years to come. Every ten years a redistricting plan needs to be approved by the State House and Senate, and signed by the Governor. When one party controls the redistricting process, as the Republicans did in 2001, the new boundaries strongly favor continued control. With 67 Democrats in the State House to 43 Republicans, the odds are strongly in favor of the Democrats maintaining control of at least one legislative chamber, and it is possible for the Democrats to try to gain a few more seats to further pad their legislative numbers iWest Michigan Democrats have much to be proud of since 204. In the two elections since we captured four State House seats (Districts 70, 75, 91, and 101), 19 County Commission seats, and a host of municipal government positions. The Democratic message of fiscal discipline, economic renewal, and quality of life for all residents has bought our party into a new era of governance. Michigan Democrats control the Governor’s mansion, the State Supreme Court, and the Michigan State House.

The Michigan State Senate represents the final barrier against Democratic control in Lansing. The Republicans currently control the State Senate, and have done so since 1985, when the Macomb County “tax revolt” caused two Democratic Senators to be recalled and replaced by Republicans, giving the GOP the majority for the first time since 1974. The GOP has not let go of its hold over the chamber in the past twenty five years, always controlling at least 20 of the 38 seats in the Senate (currently the GOP has 21 Senators to the Democrats 16, with one seat vacant). Past Democratic efforts to take over the chamber have fallen sort, most notably in 2006, when two contenders lost by narrow margins.

In the 2010 election cycle all 38 senate seats are open, with 30 senators unable to run for reelection. Based on some early analysis that I have done with baseline numbers and voting trends over the ten years, I think ten of these seats are swing districts. Of these, three are in west Michigan. The 20th District in Kalamazoo County, is being vacated by Republican Tom George (the district also covers two townships in neighborhood Van Buren County). Republican Gerald VanWoerkom is leaving the 34th District that covers Muskegon, Newaygo, Oceana, and Mason Counties. Finally, in Kent County Bill Hardiman is vacating the 29th District, giving Kent County Democrats a strong chance to pick up a most tempting target (Editor note-WMR will be covering the 20th and 34th Districts later this spring and summer-PB).

Glancing at the map above, the 29th District is dominated by the City of Grand Rapids, which provides almost 70% of the district’s population (193,627 of 276,938 residents according to US Census 2007 data). Kentwood holds 17% of the district with 47,329 citizens, and Cascade Township follows with 6% (16,902 residents). Lowell Township (2.5% of the total population with 6,865 residents), Lowell City (4,164 residents or 1.5%), Vergennes Township (4,243 residents or 1.5%), and Grattan Township (3,808 residents or 1.4%) make up the rest. Despite its static population growth since 2000, Grand Rapids remains the urban core of the district, although many neighborhoods on the suburban portions of the city are more similar to the build environment and density of Kentwood. Kentwood itself is rapidly becoming an indistinguishable part of the metropolitan core of Grand Rapids, with only the southeast section of the city remaining underdeveloped. In contrast, Cascade Township is a booming suburb, with most of its population and housing stock arriving since the 1970s. The remaining three townships (Lowell, Vergennes, and Grattan) and Lowell City remain predominately agricultural, although some development has occurred in this past decade. According to the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University, in 2000 16.5% of the district's population was African American, and 10.4% considered Hispanic, with 72% white. Looking at US Census figures, nearly all of the African American and Hispanic population in the 29th District lives in Kentwood and Grand Rapids, while the remainder is almost lily-white.

The Republicans have successful held the 29th District (and its predecessors the 30th and 32nd Districts which had different boundaries) since the 1970s. Prior to Bill Hardiman’s election in 2002, Glenn Steil, Sr. held this seat (1993-2003), as did Vern Ehlers (1985-1993) and Paul Henry (1983-1985) before him. In short, the Republicans have won the past seven elections--2006, 2002, 1998, 1994, 1990, 1986, and 1982.

Yet Democrats cannot be blamed for lack of effort. Democrats ran especially competitive challenges in 2002 and 2006 against Hardiman, and came short both times. In 2002 Democratic State Representative Steve Pestka (who represented the west side of Grand Rapids) ran a close race against Hardiman, pulling 45.4% of the vote. Each candidate raised close to half a million dollars, with the Michigan Republican Party providing ample sums to Hardiman to provide a critical edge in the final weeks of the race. While Pestka ran well in Grand Rapids (winning 53% of the total and a 3,287 vote advantage), Hardiman ran up his totals in Kentwood and Cascade. Indeed, Pestka won only 28% of the vote in Cascade and 30% in Kentwood, allowing Hardiman to surpass Pestka’s Grand Rapids vote margin in each municipality. Current Grand Rapids City Commissioner David LaGrand challenged Hardiman in 2006, and ran a very close race, despite being vastly outspent by the incumbent. LaGrand pulled 47% of the vote, improving on Pestka’s numbers in Grand Rapids (winning 55% and a 5,736 vote advantage) and Kentwood (34%). However, LaGrand did even worse in the rest of the district than Pestka, allowing Hardiman to pile up a 3,000 vote cushion in the rural townships, adding to the incumbent’s 9,000 vote edge in Kentwood and Cascade. Both Pestka and LaGrand significantly outperformed Democratic candidate’s efforts in the 1990s, where the Democratic vote share hovered around the high 30s. (Editorial Note: In a later post I will be looking at Hardiman’s over performance on the precinct level in Grand Rapids and Kentwood-PB)

The Democratic failures in 2002 and 2006 can partially be rested on Hardiman’s skill as a candidate. A well-liked Mayor of Kentwood for a decade before running for the State Senate, Hardiman had strong name recognition among voters throughout the district. Being an African American officeholder did not hurt Hardiman either, as Kent County Republicans drew the 29th District boundaries per Hardiman’s request to ensure that a favorable playing field for the candidate in the primary. Despite his lackluster legislative record in the State Senate, Hardiman easily gives the Michigan GOP gives a much needed African American face in the Senate in the midst of caucus of white men.
29th District
Grand Rapids
Lowell Township
Lowell City (says Lowell Township but should be Lowell City)
Grattan Township
Vergennes Township

Hardiman outperformed other Republicans in 2002, and especially in 2006. The graph above compares the Democratic percentage of the vote in a number of races, including the overall baseline average. Only Republican Congressman Vern Ehlers has done better than Hardiman over the past ten years (and against token opposition). As the following tables show, Hardiman did especially well in Grand Rapids, Kentwood, and Cascade. (Editorial Note-all data is included in a Goggle Document linked below-PB).

While Hardiman has performed well, other Republican candidates have not had similar success. Indeed, since 2002 there has been a clear trend to the Democrats. This shift is apparent in three baseline maps of the 29th District from 2000, 2006, and 2008. Where much of southeast Grand Rapids and Kentwood were as red as Cascade and Grattan Township in 2000, there is no such similarly today. Finding a candidate that can match Hardiman’s vote getting ability will be a must for the GOP to hold onto the seat in 2010
2000 Baseline Map
2006 Baseline Map
2008 Baseline Map

A strong Democratic candidate can win the 29th District in 2010. However, a skilled candidate should consider a few points in order to run a strong campaign. First, in the six elections between 1998 and 2008, turnout in non-presidential election ranges from 76% to 81% of the Presidential year vote. While a comparable number of people vote in Michigan State Senate races as they vote in the United State Senate and House, it is unlikely that more than 81% of voters who voted in 2008 will vote in 2010. Thus, of the 122,085 voters who cast a vote in the 2008 US Senate race, only 98,889 will vote in the 29th District State Senate race. Secondly, although the City of Grand Rapids provides 70% of the 29th District population, it only accounts for between 65% and 67% of the total vote every election from 1998 to 2008 (Presidential, US Senate, US House, Gubernatorial, MI Senate, MI House, and the baseline average). Likewise, Kentwood’s share of the vote falls at about 17%, while Cascade’s share is near 9%, and the remainder of the district is about 8%.

Hence, any Democratic candidate needs to maximize overall turnout from Grand Rapids, preferably at 66% of the total district vote. Likewise, in light of the discussion above, a Democratic candidate would want to get at least 60% of the vote in Grand Rapids. If this sounds hard, consider that in 2008 Obama received 67% of the Grand Rapids vote, Levin won 68%, and even the combined vote total for Democratic State House candidates in Grand Rapids was above 65%. This is an achievable goal.

In my mind, the key to winning the 29th District is getting larger Democratic numbers in Kentwood. Obama and Levin won majorities of the votes in Kentwood in 2008, and even Albert Abassee won 47% of the vote in Kentwood in his State House race the same year. Certainly any Democratic candidate can try to improve the 2002 and 2006 vote percentages, and should shoot for getting at least 40% in 2010, and getting 45% would almost certainly guarantee victory. Getting at least 30% in Cascade, as well as in Vergennes Township would be improvements on past numbers, although not more than 5%. Finally, polling at least 35% in Lowell and Grattan Township (which is similar to what Pestka and LaGrand both achieved), and 40% in Lowell City would give a Democratic candidate 51.3% of the total vote, if working with the vote shares and turnout assumptions discussed above.

From a distance, it appears that the Democrats have some advantages heading into 2010. First, there is a Democratic bench that plays to maximizing its share of the Grand Rapids vote. It seems that former Michigan House Speaker pro Tempore Michael Sak is a potential candidate and has an ample war chest to work with. Likewise, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell, David LaGrand, and Robert Dean are possible strong candidates for the Democrats, and might appeal to the crucial east side of Grand Rapids and Kentwood more than a west-side Democrat candidate. That said, Republicans would only be able to exploit a east-side/west-side division among Grand Rapids Democrats if they ran a candidate from the city. Both former Republican Representatives William Byl and Jerry Kooiman would be ideal candidates for the GOP, although it is unlikely that either would run, especially if they faced a primary against conservative candidates. Former Kentwood Representative Glenn Steil Jr. is a possible candidate, as is 86th District Representative Dave Hildenbrand, and Kent County Commissioner Sandra Frost Parrish, who represents the 5th District (Cascade, Lowell Township, Lowell City, Vergennes Township, and Browne Township). Should neither Byl nor Kooiman run, Republican Chris Meyer (who lost in the 75th District Republican Primary in 2006 to Tim Doyle) might seek to appeal to moderate voters in Grand Rapids and Kentwood.

Perhaps the most important benefit for the Kent County Democratic Party in 2010 is to perform some party building in the suburbs around Grand Rapids. The Obama campaign, working with the local and state party, did a great deal of work in creating an updated voter file in 2008 that can help create future successes in 2010 and beyond. One of the best places to put this to work is in the 29th State Senate District.

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