Commentary: How Democrats can fight back after new congressional boundaries

Oct 9, 2012

Michigan’s congressional districts have all new boundaries this year, drawn by the Republican majority which controls the legislature. They wanted to maximize their party’s chances, and did so brilliantly.

They drew the new districts in a way designed to produce nine Republican and only five Democratic congressmen. But this year, Democrats have a fighting chance at an upset in two districts.

They are making a full court press in one -- the physically enormous first district, which includes the sparsely populated entire upper and about one-fourth of the northern lower peninsulas. This had been a Democratic district until two years ago, when the incumbent retired and a Tea Party-backed Republican doctor, Dan Benishek, defeated a moderate Democrat, Gary McDowell.

That was an abnormally Republican year, however. This year’s race is a rematch. Polls show it about even, and both parties are already pouring lots of money into the contest.

But I wonder whether the Democrats are passing up a chance to pick up another seat that may be just as winnable. Michigan’s Eleventh District includes a group of mostly Republican-leaning Detroit suburbs in Wayne and Oakland Counties.

This had been represented by a Republican, Thaddeus McCotter, and the boundaries were redrawn to give him a slightly easier shot at re-election. But this summer, he spectacularly flamed out, failing to qualify for the ballot and then quitting Congress entirely.

Republicans, caught unaware, attempted to get a mainstream candidate nominated by a write-in campaign but failed, leaving them with Kerry Bentivolio, a reindeer farmer and near-libertarian figure who mainly avoids interviews, but who believes the United States should close its foreign military bases, and that Michigan needs right-to-work legislation to break the power of unions.

Democrats, meanwhile, nominated the strongest candidate they’ve been able to field in some time: Dr. Syed Taj, the former chief of medicine at Oakwood Hospital. He is a mainstream Democrat who, as a physician, is an enthusiastic supporter of President Obama’s health care reforms. Four years ago, he ran as a Democrat for township trustee in Canton, a heavily Republican area, and won by a landslide. Now, his campaign has internal polling showing the race almost a dead heat.

Yet so far, the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has done little here, beyond helping with some funds for mailings. Dr. Taj, who has an infectiously charming personality, has a large corps of enthusiastic volunteers. When I asked his campaign manager if she thought the national party was overlooking the race, she said, “I think that’s pretty accurate.“

Yesterday, the Taj campaign sent a memo to the party pleading for support, and citing data showing the race as winnable.

The national party might be well advised to pay attention. They aren’t making much of a race this year against another conservative Republican, Tim Walberg. Six years ago, the first time he ran, Democrats nominated an organic farmer named Sharon Renier who pleaded unsuccessfully with the national party for help.

In the end, Walberg outspent her twenty-five to one, and still nearly lost. Democrats could have taken that seat, had their candidate had a few thousand dollars for local TV ads.

It will be interesting to see if Democrats make a similar mistake a second time.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.