The Real Bellwether May Be In Michigan

Most of the political class is focused on three races today: gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey and the Congressional race in New York's 23rd District. But across the country voters are casting ballots for state and local races that could have greater implications for next year's mid-term elections. One example is the special election in Michigan's 19th State Senate District where Republican and heavy favorite Mike Nofs is squaring off with Democrat Martin Griffin to replace Democrat Mark Schauer, who was elected to Congress last fall.

The race has been the focal point for both state parties in recent weeks, leading Michael Meyers of TargetPoint Consulting to call it a potential bellwether for 2010:

If Republican Mike Nofs is successful in retaking the seat and adding a new member to the Republican majority, it will have direct and meaningful consequences on the 2010 election's and its effects will be felt well into the next decade.

Located in southern Michigan, the 19th State Senate district includes Calhoun and much of Jackson Counties and its biggest cities are Jackson and Battle Creek. The district primarily overlaps with the 7th Congressional district that Schauer now represents. Susan Demas, a political analyst, syndicated columnist and one of state's shrewdest political observers said the district has a slight Republican lean but elections are normally a toss-up.

"I think that Nofs will win, he's done well with retail politics," Demas said, referencing Nofs massive fund raising advantage over Griffin. "I also think he should win. The GOP does better in special elections. It would be more of a bellwether if Griffin won."

For his part, Nofs seemed confident about a victory and eager to take on the challenge of bringing jobs to a state facing almost 15 percent unemployment. A former police officer, Nofs served six years in the State House before term limits ended his tenure and has run a campaign that has been widely-praised by groups on both sides of the aisle, leading to endorsements from both business groups and unions. During our conversation he repeatedly stressed the need to reform the state's tax code to make it more friendly to businesses.

"We are not a business-friendly state. Everybody knows that," Nofs said. "Taxes are high, regulations are onerous. We don't do a good job of partnering with the businesses we do have and keeping them from leaving."

Griffin is a pro-life, pro-gun Catholic and confirmed bachelor who served as mayor of Jackson for 12 years before getting elected to the state House in 2006. His father Michael also held his current seat for over 25 years. Griffin agrees that the state needs to overhaul its entire taxing structure, but thinks it's unlikely to happen with six-year term limits in place. He said he's in favor of extending term limits to twelve years for each chamber to allow legislators to become familiar with the process and engage in long-term planning.

"In the past [a new tax code] may have taken 4-6 years to develop. Last session with the Michigan Business Tax, it was cobbled together in about 60 days," Griffin said. "We have to have a group of people that get it right rather than pushing something through and having to go back and fix it."

Both candidates promised that win or lose they would run again when the seat is up next fall, though Griffin's lack of success on the fund-raising front has led some locals to question whether his heart is really in the race. Republican pollster and Jackson native Ryan Steusloff of Wilson Research Strategies said Nofs' campaign has tapped into the growing unrest among conservatives in Michigan.

"Look at races across the country and all the intensity is on the Republican side right now," Steusloff said. "I've talked to some folks in Lansing and it's not just the money on the Nofs campaign, it's volunteers also. It's been a well-run campaign."

While he has been able to raise significant amounts of money in past races, Griffin attributed his fund-raising woes this time around to the economic situation in Jackson, which has been hit hard by the downturn in the manufacturing sector.

"This time around it's been very difficult. Even traditional big donors just didn't have the money," Griffin said. Still, he's very happy with the campaign he's been able to run. "We weren't out there on TV and radio for months, we weren't dropping negative mail. We've run a very aggressive, under-the-radar campaign and the reaction has been phenomenal."

"Nofs has run a more focused campaign. Marty has no real message, his message is that I'm a nice guy," Steusloff said. "Griffin was mayor of my hometown for twelve years, ran for the state House a few times, his dad held that seat. Rightly or wrongly, he's got that career politician label attached to him."

Both Nofs and Griffin were realistic about the prospects of a recovery in the automotive industry, admitting that even if the Big Three survive, they will likely never return to their former prosperity. Both spoke of the need to attract other industries to the state, though they differed on the specifics. Nofs touted the energy bill he helped write as a legislator, which he said helped create jobs building wind turbines in Jackson. He also said he's a supporter of nuclear energy and wants to seem more energy jobs come to the state.

"Michigan is blessed with a lot of resources," Nofs said, referring to the state's natural beauty, abundance of clean water and deep pool of engineering talent. "We do a very job of educating our workforce. We're ahead of other states [on educating hi-tech workers] and we have the best public universities in the world."

Griffin referenced the $3 billion included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for advanced battery research and said the state will soon be the center of the vehicle battery industry. He also praised Governor Jennifer Granholm's program to attract the film industry to Michigan via tax incentives.

"That's a huge sum of money to the state that's spent at a local level shooting films. The spending of dollars on the street level is very important," Griffin said. "Our program is already in place, it's very generous but that's money not being spent here in the first place." However, Democrats are unlikely to have much success expanding the program or implementing other industry-targeted subsidies in the state's current budgetary climate.

Given the unique dynamics of the 19th District race, it's clear that much more is at play than a simple referendum on national party politics. At the state level the biggest impact on next year's election seems to be the public's disgust with Lansing in general and lame duck Governor Granholm in particular.

"I think the situation for 2010 could be very favorable for Republicans," Demas said, referencing Granholm's approval ratings, which have hovered in the 30s in recent months. She also called Lt. Governor John Cherry's approval ratingĀ  "abysmal"; Cherry is currently the slim favorite to take the Democratic nomination for governor next year. "The political situation in any state as depressed as Michigan is unstable. People in general are disgusted with Lansing."

"Granholm has done an atrocious job," Steusloff said. "Two out of three voters disapprove of her job as governor. It will be incredibly hard for Cherry to wash his hands of this. All the factors are there for a good year for the GOP."

Even Griffin was reluctant to express support for Granholm.

"Governor Granholm came into a situation that no matter who was elected, there weren't going to have a pleasant term in office," Griffin said. "I don't think it's fair to comment on her performance, though she has certainly done some things in a way differently than I might have, but I wasn't in her shoes or in the legislature."

The current winds seem to point towards a Republican takeover of Lansing next fall, but Demas believes the party is still rebuilding and hasn't yet reached the point where they can take advantage of the wave of bad economic news and scandal that have affected the Democrats. That's why she believes a third-party candidacy could be potentially viable next fall, most likely coming in the form of conservative of libertarian challenger similar to Doug Hoffman in NY-23.

Of course Michigan has had its share of colorful candidates for governor in the past including former Kevorkian attorney Geoffrey Fieger, but it would be fair to say the state's political bench is not deep at this point. Democratic House Speaker Andy Dillon has garnered bi-partisan support for his proposal to consolidate the state's employees into one healthcare plan and is said to be contemplating a run at governor. On the Republican side, Oakland County sheriff Mike Bouchard and attorney general Mike Cox have emerged as the early front-runners.

Today's race could also have implications for the 7th District race next fall, when Schauer will likely be defending his seat against former Congressmen Tim Walberg, a hard-right conservative who defeated incumbent Joe Schwarz in the 2006 primary. Demas said Walberg's defeat of Schwarz provided the template for Hoffman in New York.

Regardless of who wins today, it's clear that the state must find a new direction and quickly, as it currently loses more college graduates than any other state. Both candidates said stopping the exodus begins and ends with creating jobs.

"That's the frustrating part, the brain drain," Nofs said, referring to the example of his own son, now a deputy sheriff in Sarasota, Florida. "We do a great job of educating kids, churning 'em out but we don't get the fruits of what we paid for as taxpayers. There are simply no jobs here."

Steusloff agreed and said the answer is simple but the solution complex.

"I had a lot of talented classmates who went to the best universities. None of them live in Jackson anymore. There are great families there, good people. The people in Jackson are very resilient, some of the most hard-working I've ever seen. The ones who've stayed have managed to survive in spite of the economy. But there are fundamentally no jobs there. It kills me that Jackson businesses that have been there for more than 50 years have to shut their doors because they can't afford to meet their tax obligations."