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When I was growing up in Michigan, the political rules were pretty simple. About 40% of all voters were in union households with at least one union member–and they voted heavily Democratic. Others voted Republican, but by smaller percentages. The usual result was a close election, but in recession years like 1958, when thousands of United Auto Workers members were laid off by General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, voters shifted toward the Democrats on the belief that more government spending would help them through tough times.
No more. This year there is no question that Michigan is in economic distress. It had the nation’s highest unemployment rate for more than three years until it was overtaken by Nevada last May. Now it’s No. 2. But unlike during earlier recessions, Michigan isn’t trending Democratic. It’s going the opposite way.
Consider the race for governor. Republican Rick Snyder leads Democrat Virg Bernero 53% to 40% in the RealClearPolitics.com average of recent polls. Mr. Snyder, a businessman who has never run for office, has been winning at least 49% in every poll taken since the August primary. Mr. Bernero, a veteran politician, has not topped 38%.
In congressional races, Republican Dan Benishek, a doctor, has been leading in the race to replace First District Democrat Bart Stupak. Mr. Stupak announced his retirement shortly after announcing he’d vote for ObamaCare in March even though the bill didn’t include the abortion provision he’d insisted on for months. The district includes old mining towns in the Upper Peninsula and gritty industrial towns on the shore of Lake Huron.
The Seventh District, south of Lansing, features a close race between incumbent Democrat Mark Schauer and Tim Walberg, the Republican he ousted in 2008. FiveThirtyEight.com numbers maven Nate Silver, who grew up in the Lansing area, calculates that there’s a 57% chance the Republican will prevail.
Even veteran Democrats John Dingell (first elected in 1955 and the longest-serving House member in history) and Dale Kildee (first elected in 1976) are getting spirited challenges in districts that voted 66% and 62% for Barack Obama in 2008. Reps. Dingell and Kildee are likely to prevail, but not with the 70% and 71% they received two years ago.
Republicans also have a serious chance, according to Bill Ballenger’s influential Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, at picking up the 13 seats they need for a majority in the state House of Representatives. If they’re successful–and hold the state Senate and win the governorship–they’ll have control of redistricting. Earlier this year, Mr. Ballenger, a former Republican legislator himself, scoffed at his party’s chances. Now he’s a believer.
All of which is an enormous turnaround in a state which until recently seemed solidly Democratic. In 2006, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Sen. Debbie Stabenow were re-elected with 56% and 57% of the vote, respectively. In 2008, Barack Obama carried Michigan 57% to 41%. John McCain even failed to carry longtime Republican strongholds like Oakland County, which contains most of Detroit’s affluent suburbs.
There’s considerable evidence that this is a turnaround both in partisan preference and in basic attitudes toward public policy. The state has seen its share of tea party activity. But more significantly, the tea party mindset seems to have spread to the majority of the electorate.
Consider the backgrounds of the two candidates for governor. Mr. Snyder was president of the Gateway computer company in its growth years, then returned to Michigan where he helped launch two start-up health-care and wellness firms that were acquired by Johnson & Johnson and Becton Dickinson. He led off his candidacy with a Super Bowl ad touting him as “one tough nerd.”
“Nerds know how to work with others to get things done,” proclaims his website. “Nerds don’t take ‘no’ for an answer–and they quickly tire of those who say ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’” Mr. Snyder argues that Michigan government needs a basic overhaul–meaning cutting spending and taxes–to make the state attractive to business. That’s different from the spending policies of the politicians Michigan voters traditionally supported in recessions.
Mr. Bernero, the Democratic nominee, has a more typical political pedigree–mayor of Lansing, state representative and senator, county commissioner. He’s a proud ally of the United Auto Workers, and in fiery appearances on cable news he’s championed the General Motors and Chrysler bailouts.
But even he seems to be talking less about government programs and more about encouraging business investment. He has a proposal to give away abandoned factory sites in Detroit and other distressed cities to businesses willing to create jobs. It’s not clear that any start-up would want these sites for free. But it’s an indication that Mr. Bernero sees private-sector investment as an answer to Michigan’s plight.
Michigan is not the only state in the industrial heartland trending Republican this year. GOP candidates lead in races for senator or governor in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. But Michigan’s turnaround, like its unemployment rate, looks to be particularly dramatic.
Voters in my home state seem to have realized that the solution to joblessness is not to plunder the private sector, but to nurture it.
Michael Barone is a resident fellow at AEI.
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