• Lisa Brody and Kevin Elliott

2018 elections: Threat of blue wave in congress


By most forecasts, the 2018 congressional elections, on a national level, are expected to hold the potential of a huge wave roiling the political landscape, turning some Republican red landscapes into blue ones favoring Democrats. And in some congressional races in Michigan, especially in a couple of districts in Oakland County, voters could see that trend play out as voters head into the November general election.

Technically the April filing deadline to run for Congress is still nearly two months away, but a number of factors have already energized the candidate field and a growing number of hopefuls have announced their intentions to seek their party’s nominations in the August primary to be the standard bearer for the general election.

There are a number of proven factors that observers posit for 2018. First, it's a midterm election in which the current president of the United States enjoys unusually low favorability ratings, and generally the party in power in off-year elections does not do as well. Women across the country, thanks to Trump, are galvanized to run as candidates as never before, creating what some are calling a “pink wave” in this election year. Independent voters are political wild cards, and millennials, one of the largest voting blocks, could prove a major factor if they show up at the polls in any kind of concentrated number.

In December 2017, it was widely believed that all of the factors would portend a Democratic sweep of Congress. But by early February 2018, the Democrats' advantage had declined, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey, which noted that the share of voters that wanted Democrats to win control of Congress in 2018 had shrunk to six points from 11 points in December.

Similarly, in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, Democrats started 2017 with an advantage of almost 13 points on that question – which is now down to 6.6 percentage points. The Democrats need a net of 24 seats to gain control of the House, and the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll projects they will pick up more than 30 seats.

In Oakland County, three congressional districts – MI-8, currently held by Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester); MI-9, long represented by Rep. Sander Levin (D-Royal Oak); and MI-11, held by Rep. David Trott (R-Birmingham) – reflect the political trends, from their vulnerability to be flipped from one party to another; voter anger and distrust of political parties, the “Trump factor” – the unpopularity of the President and fatigue one year later, including buyer's remorse; congressmen retiring; and the resistance movement, which was crystalized the day after Trump's inauguration with the Women's March, followed by the online Indivisible movement and a significant rise around the country of women's candidates. For some political pundits, Oakland County is being viewed as a national bellwether.

To get an early projection of what could potentially take place during the 2018 elections in Oakland, Downtown newsmagazine tapped a group of nearly two dozen political experts to look at the three congressional districts that include the publications’s distribution area of Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester, Rochester Hills and Oakland Township. From political science departments of three universities, we talked with professor Dave Dulio, chairman of the political science department of Oakland University, where he teaches on campaigns, elections, Congress and political parties, along with professor of public policy John Klemanski. From the University of Michigan, political science professor Richard Hall, and from Wayne State University political science professors Tim Bledsoe and Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson lent their expertise.

We also gathered observations from Democratic strategists, including Josh Pugh, Jill Alper and Joe DiSano, and GOP strategists Dennis Darnoi and John Truscott of Truscott Rossman. And rounding out our field of prognosticators was the editor of the Ballenger Report, Bill Ballenger, considered by many to be the dean of political analysis in Michigan.

Among the experts, there is general agreement that midterm elections generally don’t favor the party which holds the office of President. Since at least the Civil War, the party that has held the presidency has subsequently lost seats in the following midterm elections.

“It's a matter of history. Midterms are generally bad, and sometimes terrible, for the president's party in Congress,” noted OU professor Dave Dulio. “Only twice since FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt) has the president's party gained seats in the House of Representatives, and even those were minor gains.”

He further explained, “In 1938, FDR lost 71 seats in that midterm. That's the most since then. In 2010, (President) Obama and the Democrats lost 61 (seats). In 1994, (President Bill) Clinton lost 51. We can certainly have major sea change wave elections in midterms, and one of the biggest factors in the seat loss is the presidential job approval rating. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that Trump is unpopular and that means bad things for Republican candidates.”

Wayne State University political science professor Tim Bledsoe concurs. “Historically, going back a couple hundred years, the party that holds the White House typically loses seats in the midterms. Then you have a very unpopular president – his favorability rating is less than 40 percent. That is unprecedented. Beyond that, there is a special awareness amongst women that is fueling their candidacy. What we're seeing across the country is far more Democrats for Congress than we've ever seen in history, and that testifies to the energy they have – and so many more are women, to the point that there's increased political energy being found among groups that are frustrated with Trump, especially college-educated women.”

“The Trump effect is going to seriously disadvantage Republicans, because they're embracing the President with both arms, because that's what they have to do. The Republican Party is Donald Trump's party,” noted Josh Pugh, a Democratic political strategist with Lansing's Grassroots Midwest, which has strategists on both sides of the aisle.

“Trump has the worst approval rating since Gallup began polling,” said Jill Alper, Alper Strategies, a Democratic political consultant in Grosse Pointe, who noted that for most of 2017, Trump's approval rating has been hovering at 36 percent, although on February 5 it had risen to 40 percent based on perceptions of the tax bill and the stock market, prior to its turbulence. “He's hardened his base; it's uncertain if he can get it to 50 percent.” She noted that there is a growing realization among Middle America that the tax bill “is a boon for the upper classes and corporations. But the middle class feels like they were sold a bill of goods. It's a climate that people get what he says and does are disunifying.”

All of those consulted by Downtown also agreed on one other thing – what will ultimately determine the outcome of the midterm elections in 2018 is turnout.

“It all comes down to one thing: turnout. Whoever gets their people to the polls wins,” Dulio emphasized. “Turnout explains almost every election there is. In a midterm election like this one, we are lucky to have a 40 percent turnout nationwide. If we plan on 40 percent, it doesn't take a genius to see 60 percent aren't participating, which gives both sides ample opportunity to turn out more of their voters.”

Dulio's colleague at Oakland University, professor John Klemanski, also said it will come down to voter turnout. “We hear it all the time, but we hear it because it's true.”

Klemanski said that midterms tend to favor Republicans and hurt Democrats, and that if Democrats want to take congressional seats, “they are going to have to come out.”

Also of interest to local forecasters is whether congressional districts can remain Democratic or Republican, or if they can be flipped, and what factors besides turnout will determine who goes to Washington.

“The Democratic Party in Michigan has never been particularly organized or proficient at vetting or organizing candidates,” said WSU professor Marjorie Sarbaugh-Thompson, who specializes in Michigan politics. “The Republican Party has been more proficient at that. They may be able to influence those races, and not go too far off the deep end.”

While most of us look to the November election as the determining factor, often political decisions are made in the primaries, depending on the political makeup of a district, when diehard party advocates vote – and few others do. Michigan traditionally is a late primary state, with its primary the first Tuesday in August. This is where Democrats take on other Democrats, and Republicans take on other Republicans, all for the privilege of battling the winner of the other party in the November general election.

“The two open seats (M-9 and M-11) will be where people need to be more careful about going to the fringes, but the system is sort of set up for fringe candidates in the primaries,” Sarbaugh-Thompson pointed out. “The parties are losing control of the nominating process. It's become en vogue to have these amateur candidates running.”

District 11: Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Troy, Rochester Hills, Lake Angelus, West Bloomfield, Auburn Hills, Clawson, Farmington, Farmington Hills, Walled Lake, Waterford, Wixom, Novi, Northville, Canton, Plymouth, Milford, S. Lyon, Lyon Township, Highland Township

“The fun one, and the money one, hands down, is MI-11. That is the type of seat Democrats need to win if they are going to take back the House of Representatives,” said Republican strategist Dennis Darnoi.

The rambling district, which cuts a wide swath through central and western Oakland County and into part of Wayne County, was considered a plus-four Republican district, according to The Cook Political Report, an independent, non-partisan online newsletter that analyzes elections and campaigns. In September 2017, Republican David Trott, who was first elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2016, announced he would not run for a third term. Trump won the district, although Clinton won Oakland County.

“Look at 2016 – Trump won (the district) with a plurality of 49.4 percent. Trott won with 52.9 percent. It suggests a ceiling to Republican support, and makes it a very competitive seat,” said Darnoi.

Klemanski said that of the three districts, the 11th is the most likely to flip. That is for a few reasons, he noted.

“It's a slightly Republican district, but there's a lot of anger amongst voters. A Democrat could stop in,” he said, pointing out that Trump won the district by five points, which suggests a Republican has an advantage – “but there's so much anger post-Trump after he was elected, with people unhappy with his policies. The Republican candidate could have problems there.”

“Trott decided to retire. I think he saw himself as vulnerable,” Klemnaski said. “He took heat for some of his votes on Obamacare and others.” He noted that currently The Cook Report is calling it a toss-up.

Democratic strategist Joe DiSano agreed. “It absolutely could flip. It's one of the top 10 races Democrats (nationally) are looking at. It's one of the reasons Trott walked away. He didn't want to subject himself to a tough race.”

Darnoi explains that in 2013, Democrats were running six percent below Obama's total at 44 percent. “That gave us advance warning of the Republican wave in 2014,” Darnoi said. “For Trump in 2016, and elections in 2017, Republicans have been running 2.6 percent below Trump's two-party percentage total. You can say there's not that big of an unfavorability factor for Republicans – except for open seats in 2017, and in those seats, Republicans ran 5.1 percent below Trump's two-party percent total.

“What those numbers are suggesting right now is that those seats with Republicans that will be open in 2018 – those seats are ripe for Democrats to pick up,” he said. “That's why a seat like MI-11 will be so appealing to invest time, money and ground troops in, over MI-8 (Mike Bishop's seat). As more Republicans retire from Congress, there is an increasing likelihood that Democrats can take back the U.S. House.”

Democrats had already targeted Trott and the district prior to Trott's announcement, with Birmingham Seaholm graduate Haley Stephens returning home from working in the Obama administration as chief of staff on the Auto Task Force inside the Treasury Department, announcing in April 2017 that she was running to take on Trott. At the time the incumbent was facing criticism within the district for not meeting with constituents at town hall meetings or at his local office, and his repeated efforts to get rid of Obamacare.

Since then, several other Democrats have jumped on board, including Birmingham businessman and attorney Dan Haberman, who worked to ban smoking in restaurants and bars in the state, Auburn Hills state Rep. Tim Greimel, former Detroit Mayor Duggan aide Fayrouz Saad of Northville and technology businessman Suneel Gupta of Birmingham.

Trott’s retirement announcement drew an ever-growing field of Republicans hoping to go to Washington D.C.

Lena Epstein, who had co-chaired Trump's campaign for Michigan, had originally announced for the U.S. Senate against Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow, but apparently saw a clearer path to victory in the House 11th District, and quickly switched plans. Epstein, who has never held elective office before, calls herself a “conservative outsider” and businesswoman. She is the daughter and granddaughter of the owners of Vesco Oil Company, where she currently works and her sister runs.

Former state Rep. Rocky Raczkowski, of Farmington Hills, a staunch conservative and retired U.S. Army Reserves vet, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate against Carl Levin in 2006, and unsuccessfully for Congress in 2010 against former Representative and current Senator Gary Peters, jumped in. So did state Rep. Klint Kesto of Commerce Township, Plymouth Township Supervisor Kurt Heise, political neophyte Kristine Bonds, daughter of former tv anchorman Bill Bonds, state Sen. Mike Kowall, and former Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, also known as the ‘Accidental Congressman’ for a short term in Congress he won years ago until Trott defeated him.

Of the Democrats and Republicans who have announced their candidacy, as Downtown went to press, none of them had actually filed to run in the August primary.

“This has always been a lean Republican district,” said Republican strategist John Truscott, who used to be spokersperson for former Gov. John Engler. “There are a lot of people with a lot of money, or who can raise a lot of money, who are in this race. I think this will be a very competitive and very expensive one. It's too early to call it, to me.”

“I think the Democrats are going by the polls, not the elections, that show Trump's favorability rating isn't good,” said Bill Ballenger of The Ballenger Report. “I still believe a Republican will win in the 11th – unless the Republicans blow it and come up with a flawed nominee – for instance, Bentivolio could win the 11th, and then the Democrats might have a chance.”

“That's going to be the wild west on both sides,” said Democratic strategist Joe DiSano. “The amount of money Epstein is bringing to the table is scaring people away. She is also extremely disliked by many Republicans – she has replicated the Trump persona of abrasiveness, selection of issues, using personal money, and attacking other candidates. I believe she will be the cause of the Republican primary being the equivalent of a knife fight in a phone booth.

“It's difficult to attack a woman in politics,” DiSano continued, “although less so because she's so abrasive. And she's got the resources to attack and defend.”

Epstein, who raised $1.3 million in the last quarter's fundraising report, which ended January 31, and has given the campaign personal money totaling almost $1 million – $930,100, to be exact. She has over $1 million cash on hand. No other Republicans are even close. Kowall only announced his candidacy on February 5, so did not have a fundraising report; neither did Bentivolio or Bonds. Kesto raised $144,835 and has $100,000 on hand. Raczkowski raised $151,880 – half, $75,000, from himself. He has $141,199 on hand. Heise reported $123,650, of which $100,000 was self-funded, and he has $111,532 on hand.

On the Democratic side, Stevens has been on an almost year-long funding binge, raising $655,479 this quarter, with $464,515 on hand. She had financial competition this quarter from Gupta, who co-created the health care technology company Rise with his brother, Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN-fame, and previously worked at Groupon. Gupta raised $503,802, and has $468,205 on hand. State Rep. Tim Greimel raised $329,023, and has $285,518 cash on hand, with Saad raising $376,863. She has $250,816 on hand. Local businessman Dan Haberman raised $150,473, $50,000 which is a loan, and ended with just under $41,000 cash on hand.

“All of them have a lot of money, except Dan Haberman,” said DiSano. “If he doesn't have it, and he can't self-fund, it's not enough money to raise for him to make it. Haley Stevens, Tim Greimel and Suneel Gupta are just ‘hoovering’ up all the money. The only thing left will be loose coins in the back of the couch.”

“Haberman had very unimpressive fundraising numbers. I audibly gasped when I saw the numbers,” Pugh said. “Haley Stevens has very strong connections to Washington and the Obama administration and allies to that fundraising communit