Monday, April 13, 2009

West Michigan Senate Battleground: District 29 (Part II)

In an earlier post WMR looked broadly at the 29th State Senate District, which includes Grand Rapids, Kentwood, Lowell City, Cascade, Lowell, Vergennes, and Grattan Townships. While this district has been held by the Republicans for the past 26 years, in recent elections Democratic candidates have made concentrated efforts to win the district. However, in 2002 and 2006 Democratic candidates fell short of victory and ran behind the Democratic baseline average. While the 29th District became more Democratic between 1998 and 2008 (moving from a baseline vote percentage of 39% in 1998 to 57% in 2008), Democratic candidates for the State Senate received 45% and 47% of the vote in 2002 and 2006, beating the baseline Democratic percentage of 43% in 2002 and trailing the 2006 baseline of 50%. The post concluded that the Democratic failures in 2002 and 2006 resulted in part to Hardiman’s performance in the urban areas of the district, particularly in Grand Rapids and Kentwood, which surpassed the GOP baseline vote. There also is a geographic problem facing Democrats in the district, as the party needs to select a candidate that appeals to the entire district and is dominant throughout Grand Rapids, competitive in Kentwood, and performs respectably in Cascade and the rural hinterland. (For all precinct level data, please see the linked Google Spreadsheet-PB)

A look at the precinct-level data from the 2002 and 2006 races helps clarify this geographic problem. If we look at precinct data that compares the baseline vote to the State Senate vote in the two elections, what sort of variation occurs? In 2002, there was an overall variation of 3%, meaning that Steve Pestka received 45% of the total vote compared to the 42% Democratic baseline percentage. Likewise, in 2006, there was a variation of -3%, meaning that Democratic candidate David LaGrand garnered 47% of the vote compared to the Democratic baseline of 50%. However, the similar overall variation hides the vastly different precinct differentiation in 2002 and 2006 that shows the challenges of running a Democratic candidate from the west or east side of Grand Rapids.
Map 1: 2000 Democratic Baseline
Map 2: 2002 State Senate Variation from Democratic Baseline

Map 1 shows the Democratic baseline in 2000, which was very similar to 2002 baseline percentages. Map 2 shows where the variation between the baseline and State Senate vote occurred. As the Map shows, Petska over performed by a significant amount on the west side of Grand Rapids, which he represented in the Michigan State House from 1996 to 2002. Petska also did quite well in the rural portions of district. However Hardiman did well on the southeast side of Grand Rapids and dominated in Kentwood, ensuring Petska’s defeat. However, the overall Democratic share of the vote in 2002 was 42%, meaning that Petska faced an uphill challenge to win the seat.
Map 3: 2006 Democratic Baseline
Map 4: 2006 State Senate Variation from Democratic Baseline

In contrast, the 2006 precinct-level data shows a much different story. While Hardiman continued to do well in Kentwood and southeast Grand Rapids, LaGrand did much better than Pestka in these neighborhoods. While LaGrand did not dominate the 1st Ward to the same extent that Pestka did in 2002, Map 4 shows that he did slightly better than the baseline average throughout the city (Map 3 shows the 2006 Democratic baseline). However, LaGrand did fall behind Petska in the rural portions of the district

Does the precinct-level data from 2002 and 2006 show lessons for Democrats in 2010? A few may be postulated. First, political geography plays a role. The GOP ran a candidate in 2002 and 2006 that had strong ties to the urban core (Grand Rapids) and a key suburb (Kentwood) that allowed the Republicans to win in crucial areas. While the Republicans have not selected a candidate yet for 2010, it is appearing unlikely that the GOP will select a candidate that has strong ties to Grand Rapids. Potential Republican candidates include former State Representatives Glenn Steil Jr. and Dave Hildenbrand, and current Kent County Commissioner Sandra Frost Parrish, all who are suburban candidates with few political ties to the city and have never run a large-scale political campaign needed to win in Grand Rapids. No Democratic candidate has officially announced for the seat, although it is suspected that former State Representative Michael Sak will run for the seat. If so, Sak will likely do well in the west side of Grand Rapids, and might face a similar problem that Steve Pestka confronted in 2002 on how to appeal to the remainder of the city and in Kentwood. Second, the Democratic campaign plan in the 29th District needs to established in Fall 2009/Winter 2010 to ensure that a solid Democratic voter ID campaign can take place well before Labor Day, allowing for eight weeks of swing vote identification to occur in September and October. This second step, in my opinion, is really needed in Kentwood and Cascade, where an increase in the Democratic baseline vote in 2006 and 2008 shows that voters are receptive to a Democratic message.

Can the State Senate Democrats pick up the 29th State Senate District in 2010? History says yes, although the next twelve months will go a long way to determining what happens on November 2, 2010.

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