Published in Economic Development

The Trump Effect? Tight West Michigan House races may swing against business-backed candidates

BY Sunday, August 21, 2016 02:28pm

At least two Republican-controlled state House seats in West Michigan are expected to be competitive in the Nov. 8 election as Democrats set lofty goals to retake a majority in the lower chamber.

Democrats need to win back nine seats to gain a majority, which they last had in the House in 2010. They are hoping Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s unpopularity will have a ripple effect down-ballot in Michigan’s statewide elections, where every House seat is up for re-election.

Moreover, recent polling by the Detroit News shows Hillary Clinton with a narrow advantage in the historically Republican strongholds of West and Southwest Michigan.

But with Trump’s strained and at times contentious relationship with major U.S. business groups, statewide and congressional races have attracted more attention from the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce and the statewide Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

While officials say they have traditionally avoided weighing in on presidential races, their top priority is retaining and financially backing incumbent Republicans in statewide races.

“We just focus on where we can make a difference,” said James Holcomb, senior vice president and general counsel of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The 61st and 91st districts — which include areas near Kalamazoo and along the lakeshore in Montague, respectively — could be swing districts in November with nearly even Republican and Democratic bases. Freshman Republican Brandt Iden is seeking re-election in the 61st, and Republican Holly Hughes is looking for another term in the 91st, a district that has swung between Democrats and Republicans every election cycle since 2008. Both candidates have the backing of the Grand Rapids Chamber.

Other business groups and well-known executives are also primary campaign contributors for Iden and Hughes. As of late July, Iden had more than $75,000 in his campaign war chest after raising nearly $125,000 during this election cycle. His top contributors include the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers, the Realtors PAC of Michigan, the Southwest Michigan First PAC and the political action committees of major utilities DTE Energy and Consumers Energy.

Similarly, Hughes has raised $165,000 this election, with top contributors including the political action committees of the Grand Rapids and Michigan chambers of commerce, the Michigan Farm Bureau, Michigan realtors and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

According to the political newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, Iden’s district has a 54.2-percent Republican base, while Hughes’ base is a virtual tie between Republicans and Democrats.

Susan Demas, IMP’s publisher and editor, called the 61st District a “tossup and could be a sleeper.” Particularly, Iden aligned himself with Trump early on, signing on as a delegate for the New York developer at the Republican National Convention. The 61st District is also a “moderate, suburban Kalamazoo district that isn’t fertile Trump territory,” Demas said.

Iden, who is seeking a second term, was unchallenged in the Republican primary this month. He’ll face Democrat John Fisher in the general election, whom Iden beat 48-43 percent in 2014. Fisher is at a fundraising disadvantage, having raised only $25,000 this election cycle from mostly individual contributors — about $100,000 less than Iden.

However, Demas noted that “it’s not ’14 anymore in terms of politics or turnout.”

IMP has called the 91st “the ultimate House swing district” because it has swung between Republicans and Democrats in the past four elections. In 2014, Hughes won her seat back from Democrat Collene Lamonte by just 53 votes. Lamonte and Hughes will face off again in November.

“The 91st is the big prize,” Demas said, noting that the district leans Democratic during presidential election years with higher turnout. “The Dems have an excellent shot at at this one. … And Donald Trump looks like he’ll hurt Hughes in this district. It’s hard to imagine the Democrats winning a majority if they can’t steal the 91st back.”

Lamonte, a former teacher in Muskegon, has raised just over $100,000 this election cycle with top campaign contributions coming from organized labor.

CHAMBER PAC STAKES ITS BETS

Joshua Lunger, director of government affairs at the Grand Rapids Chamber, said the PAC will give further consideration to the tighter races in West Michigan “and decide how best to engage in those.” 

Overall, most of the Grand Rapids Chamber’s favored candidates advanced to the general election, easily winning their primaries or running unopposed. According to the latest campaign finance reports, the Grand Rapids Chamber’s political action committee — Friends of West Michigan Business — spent more than $22,000 since Jan. 1 and has nearly $34,000 in cash on hand.

In 15 state House districts in West Michigan, only one candidate backed by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce failed to make it to the general election. Term-limited Rep. Ken Yonker’s 72nd District seat that covers areas of Allegan and Kent counties is opening, although Ryan Gallogly — who raised more than $32,000 from various business groups and members of the DeVos family — took third in the five-way Republican primary. He lost to Steven Johnson, an unemployed 25-year-old and self-described “Constitutional conservative.”

Of the 15 candidates the chamber supported, two are Democrats from Grand Rapids — incumbent Reps. David LaGrand (who filled former Rep. Brandon Dillon’s term when he left to chair the Michigan Democratic Party) and Winnie Brinks. The biggest contributors to Brinks and LaGrand are political action committees of state and local labor unions, including the Operating Engineers Local 324, the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters and the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association.

CONFRONTING BIZ INTERESTS

Aside from securing support from the business community, statewide candidates, particularly in districts that don’t have a strong Republican base, must now consider how Trump’s candidacy could impact their outcomes.

Lunger and Holcomb each said their groups aren’t endorsing or donating to presidential candidates. Lunger said it was “interesting to see (Trump) follow a script more” while he gave an economic speech in Detroit in early August.

“I wonder if it is a change or just a blip on the radar,” he said. (The following day, however, Trump made comments about “Second Amendment people” stopping Hillary Clinton, causing a firestorm of controversy over what exactly he meant by that.)

This summer, though, Trump has had public confrontations with groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which isn’t endorsing Trump based on his anti-free trade and protectionist positions. 

The U.S. Chamber’s Sean Hackbarth wrote in June: “If Trump has his way and imposes steep tariffs, we could be headed to a recession with millions out of work.”

Establishment groups like the U.S. Chamber have instead focused their efforts on congressional races. The three West Michigan representatives — Bill Huizenga in the 1st District, Justin Amash in the 3rd and Fred Upton in the 6th — are all favored to keep their seats after November.

But it’s still unclear what Trump will mean for candidates like Hughes and Iden, said Richard Hall, professor at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. The key factor will be turnout and whether Trump “depresses or increases” turnout among Republicans — “and how much he will motivate Democrats to vote against him,” Hall said.

“With these elections, even setting Trump aside, you expect Republicans will lose a few seats,” he added. “I don’t think Trump will help any down-ballot Republicans, but he may not hurt them too much, either.”

For Michigan’s business community, Hall said it’s “really hard to tell” what a Trump presidency would mean for them.

“He’s now come out with this tax plan that’s favorable towards business, but it’s hard to know or trust where he would eventually come down or what type of deal he might cut if he were to become president,” Hall said. “One thing about Clinton is that we pretty much know what she’s going to try to do. But Trump has this sort of mix of policies and it’s not like we have any confidence in what he’ll do.” 

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