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State Democrats now "A Little House in Big Disarray" with Gilbert's exit

May 25, 2016

For most people, May is one of the best months. The flowers are blooming; it’s pretty clear that it isn’t going to snow any more, and summer is coming. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Michigan Democrats start regarding May with a shudder. For two years in a row, the party has been embarrassed in May by one of their own. Last year it was State Senator Virgil Smith Jr., one of the legislature’s dimmer bulbs.

He shot up his ex-wife’s car as part of a sordid sexcapade and was charged with multiple felonies. Democratic leaders then embarrassed themselves by bizarrely refusing to denounce him or call for his resignation, even though Smith often voted with Republicans so they wouldn’t throw him out. It wasn’t till last month when he finally quit from jail.

Well, it’s a year later – and this May, state Democrats have just added a new chapter to the formerly beloved Laura Ingalls Wilder saga, one we might call “The Little House in Big Disarray.” The party was giddy when the popular actress Melissa Gilbert, who starred in the TV adaptation of The Little House on the Prairie series, challenged first-term Congressman Mike Bishop, who represents a Lansing-area district.

Bishop, a former state senate majority leader, was first elected two years ago, but with a modest 55 percent of the vote against an underfunded opponent in a big Republican year. Democrats felt Bishop might be vulnerable, given his record of obstructionism in Lansing and his ties to Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun.

Plus, Democrats almost always do better in big turnout, general election years. When Gilbert threw her gingham dress in the ring, Republicans were worried at first. Celebrity sells, and after all, California voters had been persuaded to send both Sonny Bono and then his widow Mary to Congress.

But it quickly became clear that Gilbert had no idea what she was doing or what being a congressional candidate entailed. She had no sooner gotten into the race when it was learned that she owed the IRS more than $360,000 in unpaid taxes. That was probably the ballgame right there, and if not, this race was effectively over when an old clip from a talk show emerged, showing Gilbert appearing to partly defend infamous child rapist Roman Polanski.

Gilbert ought to have quit then, but she stayed to demonstrate that when it came to campaigning, she could make Terri Lynn Land look good. She was nowhere to be seen in the district, didn’t cultivate the press, and refused to attend a Brighton Chamber of Commerce forum when she found out she would have to take questions from the audience.

Now, she has finally quit, claiming health reasons. That is important, because the only way Democrats can field a replacement candidate at this point is if theirs was physically unfit. However, don’t bet a whole lot on their prospects here.

This may be a muted blessing for Republicans, however. With Bishop’s district a seemingly lost cause, Democrats may be able to devote resources to the nearby Seventh, where State Representative Gretchen Driskell has a shot at beating Congressman Tim Walberg.

And things could get really interesting if a federal judge tosses out a new law outlawing straight ticket voting. I’ll have more on that later this week.