With the general election only nine months away, the time for determining a general sense of the Michigan State House contests is upon us. The state house experienced significant turnover in the 2010 election, as the Republicans handed the Democrats the worst drubbing in the state’s history since the mid-1870s. The GOP won 20 seats and brought their total number of representatives to 63, the highest the party has had since 1952. Gaining unexpected control of the State House in 2010 allowed the Republicans to control the redistricting process in the following year, a godsend for the party that had created one of the more effective remaps in the previous redistricting cycle in 2001. With the new map awaiting candidates, what sort of early analysis can be given nine months before November?
Using precinct level data for every election going back to 1996, I sought to answer this question. I recoded every precinct in the state to the new State House, State Senate, and Congressional districts. With this data, I used election returns from 2004 onward to determine the average Democratic share of the vote in the top of the ticket race (either Presidential or Gubernatorial), the State House, and the Democratic Baseline (which is determined by averaging the Democratic vote of the two State Board of Education candidates) races. Of the past four election cycles, two were decidedly Democratic years (2006 and 2008), one moderately Republican (2004), and one overwhelmingly Republican (2010). I then determined the average Democratic share of the vote in each of the three different contests. I classified the 110 state house seats into five different groups; Safe Republican, Leans Republican, Swing, Leans Democratic, and Safe Democratic.
Of the 110 State House districts, 23 are Safe Democratic, 19 Lean Democratic, 24 are Swing seats, 19 Lean Republican, and 25 are Safe Republican. The Districts are shown according to their classification in the map below.
The pre-2010 parameters of Detroit being a Democratic bastion and rural Michigan being overwhelmingly Republican still exist. However, the significant drop in Detroit’s population between 2000 and 2010 has reduced the number of safe Democratic seats. However, Detroit’s population decline may be a blessing in disguise, as the dispersal of Democratic voters to suburban communities in Oakland and Wayne County makes many of these districts more competitive for Democratic candidates. Indeed, the decline of Detroit and the dispersal of its population is the unspoken weapon that the Michigan Democratic Party has against yet another skillful Republican remap.
Each party is certain to lose one seat to the other side. The Democrats will lose the 42nd District, which was recreated in southern Livingston County, while the Republicans will lose the 55th District that was remade to be a Democratic leaning seat surrounding Ann Arbor. Two other Republican-held seats are Democratic-leaning districts; District 110 (western Upper Peninsula) and District 57 (Lenawee County), both seats had been held by popular Democratic Representatives who were term-limited and won by the GOP in 2010. In the past decade, the Upper Peninsula has become more Republican for top of the ticket races, but it much more Democratic in State House contests.
Of the 24 Swing State House seats, seven are held by Democrats, while 17 are controlled by the GOP. Interestingly, all 17 Republican held seats were won in 2010, meaning that candidates who were elected in the 2010 wave election might find that some voters might have remorse over selecting a GOP candidate the last time around. A majority of the Swing districts are located outside of metropolitan Detroit, although Districts 18, 21, 23, and 24 are all located in either Wayne or Oakland Counties.
If I had to select five seats to watch, I would pick the following:
1. 52nd District (northern and western Washtenaw County). The 52nd is currently represented by Republican Mark Ouimet, who ran strongly on Synder’s coattails. Synder pulled the highest Republican vote share for any candidate in Washtenaw County since John Engler in 1998, and Ouimet did his best to model his candidacy as Synder: a moderate businessman who would represent the district in a non-ideological fashion. Without Synder on the ballot in 2012 (and Obama on the ticket), it remains to be seen whether Ouimet will be able to hold onto this seat. The 52nd was made a bit more Republican in the 2011 redistricting process, losing the northern portions of Ann Arbor while adding some rural sections of southern Washtenaw County, but the seat still remains a toss-up district.
2. 91st District (northern and eastern Muskegon County). Republican Holly Hughes won this seat in 2010 after losing her first attempt in 2008. Hughes, who is a wealthy and well connected GOP businesswoman, got a new district that was made slightly more Republican. However, organized labor still has a strong pull in this district, and a strong populist Democratic candidate might find success against a Michigan version of Mitt Romney.
3. 108th District (Delta, Dickinson, and Menominee Counties). This swinging Upper Peninsula district went hard for Republicans in 2010. While the 110th district will be a much easier district for Democrats to pick up, it figures to be a good election night if the GOP is struggling to hold the 108th as well.
4. 76th District (Grand Rapids). The 76th District was modified significantly from its 2001 incarnation. Previously a district covering the west side of Grand Rapids, the new 76th covers the outlying portions of the city that were annexed after 1959, and tends to be much more Republican leaning than the core portion of the city. While Democratic incumbent Roy Scmidt is popular and will likely hold this seat, if he is in trouble in November 2012, chances of a Democratic takeover of the house will be pretty slim.
5. 23rd District (downriver Wayne County). Another working-class district that went Republican in 2010, the 23rd is certainly to be contested.
The Democrats need to pick up nine seats to regain the majority. While the presidential election should increase the Democratic turnout, whether this can translate into seats from a map by a skilled Republican redistricting plan remains to be seen. At this date, I would suggest that the Democrats will gain 7 seats if Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee. But, we still have nine months to go. Below are some relevant maps of the baseline status and current partisan control of existing house districts.