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Democrats Seek Elusive Full Control Of Michigan Legislature

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WKAR File Photo

Democrats who have long been outnumbered in Michigan's Republican-led Legislature are expected to make gains in the November election.

But winning enough seats to take control of one or both chambers? It will not be easy, even if top-of-the-ticket candidates excel and more Democratic-friendly voters turn out for the midterm than is typical.

Despite bracing for a potential "blue wave," the GOP still has advantages, including a financial edge and gerrymandered districts. Republicans hold a 63-46 majority in the House, with one vacancy, and a 27-10 margin in the Senate, where one seat is empty.

Democrats will need to net nine House seats and, if Gretchen Whitmer wins the governorship over Bill Schuette, eight Senate seats to fully control the Legislature for the first time in 34 years. They last led the House in 2010, the Senate in 1984.

"Both caucuses on the Democratic side should pick up seats this year. The question is how many. It's very easy to envision a scenario where they both get close to flipping their respective chambers and come up just short," said Adrian Hemond, a Democratic political strategist.

The battle for power is being waged in key districts across Michigan.

Democrats are especially enthusiastic about their chances to take Republican-leaning seats in suburban Detroit's Oakland County and western Wayne County — where college-educated, more affluent women may be turned off by President Donald Trump. Whitmer is poised to do well in bellwether Oakland, which also has two major congressional races, and Democrats are running female candidates in all eight legislative seats considered to be competitive there.

Senate Democrats contend they are positioned to at least make a run at the majority for the first time in a dozen years and, unlike in 2006, more districts are in play. Republicans, they say, are being forced to think about seats they have not been uneasy about in a long time, partly due to how the map was reshaped after the 2010 census.

Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing said because the GOP drew the lines to keep a supermajority, many seats lean slightly Republican — giving Democrats an opening in a year in which enthusiasm appears high among Democratic voters for the first midterm election of Trump's presidency. State government has been dominated by Republicans for nearly eight years.

"Their arrogance may be what actually costs them control of the Senate," said Hertel, campaign chairman for Senate Democrats. "They got more money than we do, they always will. But I think I have better candidates and a better environment going in, and we'll see what happens."

Senate Republicans say they have no concern about losing their majority, though they concede their margin will be smaller.

"Retaining 27 (seats), that would be a heavy lift for us," said GOP Sen. Mike Shirkey of Clarklake. "But 24, 25 is not."

Due to term limits and the primary, no more than nine senators will return to the 38-member chamber. Two Republicans, Sens. Marty Knollenberg of Troy and Margaret O'Brien of Portage, face tough challenges. The other battleground Senate seats are open.

Senate Democrats say most of their candidates in top races are women, including seven going against Republican men.

"We were specifically looking to recruit strong female candidates that have differing backgrounds. Too often, the only answer has been to look for the last guy that ran for the House," Hertel said.

Shirkey said on Election Night he will pay particularly close attention to races in Grand Rapids and Oakland County, predicting there is a "better than even chance that we'll run the table in Oakland County."

He said the narrative that anti-Trump fervor among suburban women will carry Democrats has shifted, especially after national Democrats' "smear campaign" against now-U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

In the House, the GOP contends Republicans are starting to come home in districts the party was initially anxious about and Democrats must sweep a narrowing map due to GOP strength in northern Michigan. Republicans are emphasizing record-high education spending, jobs training, low unemployment and people moving back to the state.

"The adage goes, 'When the pocketbook is fine, so is the party in control.' We're hoping that stays true in this election," said Rep. Lee Chatfield of Levering, chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee. If Democrats win races up north on Nov. 6, he said, it will be "a concern."

House Democrats' bid for the majority took a hit when a candidate for an open Oakland County district they had a real shot at flipping was charged with embezzlement. They nevertheless remain confident, saying voters are frustrated after years of GOP control in Lansing and want affordable health care and better public schools.

"Everybody has a road in their district that has created a lot of problems because it hasn't been fixed," said Rep. Kevin Hertel of St. Clair Shores, co-campaign chairman for House Democrats.

He said a 55-55 partisan split in the chamber is a "likely possibility" next year. Places where Trump fared well in 2016 should not automatically be put in Republicans' column, he said, partly because of a surge of excitement among Democrats who typically turn out less in non-presidential years.

"A lot of people are just motivated to vote because of what's happened in this state over the last eight years and they want to see a change in leadership," he said.

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