The 2010 elections proved to be a profound disappointment for Democrats in the United States and Michigan. Reviewing the election data, did Kent County hold similar setbacks for local Democrats?
On the surface, the answer would be yes. The 3rd District Congressional candidate Patrick Miles, despite being the most formidable candidate in nearly two decades, lost to upstart Republican Justin Amash by 59.7% to 37.5%, by a 50,000 vote margin. Democrat David LaGrand, who nearly upset incumbent Republican State Senator Bill Hardiman in 2006, narrowly lost to Republican Dave Hildenbrand by 4,500 votes in the closest State Senate race in Michigan. On the County Commission level, four Democratic seats were lost, leaving four Democrats on the county board with 15 Republicans.
The Democrats woes in 2010 started at the top of the ticket with the gubernatorial race. Democrat Virg Bernero never gained traction against Republican Rick Snyder, who ran as a moderate from the first day of his primary campaign. Republican primary voters should be congratulated for nominating a centrist candidate as opposed to candidates like Pete Hoekstra or Mike Cox, who would have given Bernero more of a fighting chance. In any event, Bernero did poorly in Kent County, pulling only 30% of the vote, the worst Democratic performance in Kent County since Fieger in 1998 and Ferency in 1966. Bernero harmed the Democratic chiefly in terms of turnout rather than persuasion, reducing Democratic numbers in Grand Rapids (where turnout was 39.6% overall) and Kentwood. As a result, the Democratic baseline in Kent County was 35.5% in 2010, the lowest in a decade. In contrast, the Democratic baseline was 47.6% in 2008, 41.1% in 2006, 38.5% in 2004, 36.1% in 2002, and 38.1% in 2000. Maps 1 to 4 below show the Democratic baseline visually in 2000, 2006, 2008, and 2010. The reduction of Democratic gains in Wyoming since 2000 is quite apparent, and a smaller slippage is also present in Kentwood and in portions of the West Side of Grand Rapids.
Map 1: 2000 Democratic Baseline
Map 2: 2006 Democratic Baseline
Map 3: 2008 Democratic Baseline
Map 4: 2010 Democratic Baseline
As Map 5 shows, the decline in voter turnout was pretty uniformed throughout metropolitan Grand Rapids. Some commentators have noted that turnout in Republican areas of Kent County dropped, although not to as large of an extent as in metropolitan Grand Rapids.
Map 5: Decline in voter turnout, 2006-2010
At the same time, Map 6 shows how the Democratic baseline changed between 2006 and 2010. While the county-level baseline dropped by 6%, this decline manifested unevenly through metropolitan Grand Rapids. In the 3rd Ward, the Democratic baseline increased significantly, due in part to the absence of Republican Bill Hardiman from the ticket, who had always attracted the votes of conservative African American voters in the core portions of the 3rd Ward. The Democratic baseline also increased slightly in Kentwood and East Grand Rapids, perhaps providing a path for future Democratic gains. However, Republicans gains were significant in the West Side of Grand Rapids, which crippled any chance of David LaGrand beating Dave Hildenbrand in the 29th State Senate race. In retrospect the Republican resurgence in the West Side began last year, with the election of City Commissioner Dave Shaffer, who bested long-time Commissioner Jim Jendrasiak. Although a non-partisan race, Shaffer has identified himself as a moderate Republican, while Jendrasiak was long supported by Democratic interest groups. Yet the Republican resurgence on the West Side is largely due to the appalling drop in turnout among Democratic voters “at the bottom of the hill,” or east of Covell Street. Overall turnout in the 1st Ward was 36.5%, while turnout in the Republican precincts west of Covell Street was 53%, turnout was only 22% east of Covell and in the Hispanic neighborhoods along Grandville Avenue.
Map 6: Democratic Baseline Change, 2006 to 2010
As mentioned earlier, the combination of Republican resurgence and low Democratic turnout in the 1st Ward severely hindered David LaGrand’s chances in the 29th State Senate race (see Map 7). Bernero lost the 1st Ward by 20%, the Democratic baseline was 48%, and LaGrand won it by only 83 votes. Prior to Election Day I postulated that a Democrat could win the 29th by getting close to 50% turnout in the City of Grand Rapids, winning 58% of its votes, while pulling 43% in Kentwood. With turnout below 40% in Grand Rapids, LaGrand had an uphill battle, and splitting the 1st Ward did little to improve his chances. LaGrand performed on target in the 2nd and 3rd Wards, winning 55% in the 2nd and 61% in the 3rd, leaving him with 56% of the city’s vote. He even did better than any other Democratic candidate in Kentwood, pulling 40% of the vote.
Map 7: 2010 29th State Senate Race
Democrat’s fortunes in Kent County were better in the State House races. Representative Roy Schmidt significantly outperformed the Democratic baseline in the 76th State House District, winning with 64% of the vote. In the 75th, Kent County Commissioner Brandon Dillon also surpassed the Democratic baseline by 5% against Republican Bing Goei. Goei posed perhaps the strongest challenge to any Democrat in the city, having deep ties to the Christian Reformed Church and the aging Dutch neighborhoods on the southeast side of Grand Rapids as shown in Map 8. Indeed, Goei performed well above the Republican baseline south of Burton and west of Breton, a part of the city that has been steady trending Democratic over the past decade. Dillon’s strong campaigning efforts and strength on the north side of Grand Rapids allowed him to win this tight battle. Dillon’s victory is significant, since the 75th was the only open seat among the 15 targeted races the Democratic House Caucus won on election night. Likewise, the Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008 in the 75th do not appear to be an aberration but rather a long-term gain in Democratic strength on the east side of Grand Rapids.
Map 8: 2010 MI State House
Miles’ defeat against Amash also contains some potential silver lining. First, Miles held Amash to the lowest vote share in the 3rd District in a mid-year election in over two decades, keeping him below 60% of the vote in a year where Republicans picked up at least 62 Congressional seats. Miles ran strongly in Grand Rapids, won East Grand Rapids, and did decently in Kentwood. Miles’ fared no worse than any other Democratic candidates in the remainder of the 3rd District, paving the way for another run in 2012, although the 3rd District might be significantly altered during redistricting.
Map 9: 2010 3rd District Congressional Race
On the Kent County Commission Democrats lost four seats, while Democrat incumbent Carol Hennessey held on to narrowly retain her seat in the 14th Commission District. Of the four seats lost by Democrats, the 18th District seat vacated by Commissioner Brandon Dillon should have been retained by Democrat Richard Tormala. However, Tormala ran behind the Democratic baseline by five percent, and trailed Miles, LaGrand, and Dillon between five to ten percent. A stronger Democratic candidate will be able to retake this seat in two years.
So, was 2010 a disaster for Kent Democrats? On one hand, the loss of four county commission seats and defeat of LaGrand and Miles hurt. However, the fact that Dillon was able to hold the 75th in the worse Democratic year since 1998 shows how bad the political environment needs to be for the local GOP to make headway in the Grand Rapids. A more favorable political environment in 2012, redeveloping the base in the West Side, and vigorous party building outside of Grand Rapids, will help the Kent Democrats start a new age learning from a tumultuous decade in local politics.