2008-06-07 / Columnists

Term Limits, National Coattails Energize State House Races

Michigan Politics
By George Weeks

In the battle for control of the state House, northern Michigan has three toss-up races, two of them GOP seats along shores of Lake Michigan, and some spirited primaries.

Odds are against Republicans ending Democratic control, and they face a strong challenge in at least one of their long-held northern seats.

In the four-county 101st District seat held by term-limited Representative David Palsrok (R-Manistee), Inside Michigan Politics (IMP) newsletter aptly opines: "Democrats have a terrific chance to capture this seemingly safe Republican seat with attorney Dan Scripps of Northport, who almost won it two years ago."

Scripps, a policy guru for the Leelanau Conservancy, has no primary opposition. The leading GOP contender is prominent educator Mike McManus of Lake Leelanau, father of Senator Michelle McManus (R-Lake Leelanau) and brother of ex-Senator George McManus (R-Traverse City). (Downstate, sons and other relatives running to replace term-limited lawmakers abound.)

IMP says McManus "enjoys a Leelanau County address in the GOP all by himself while his three opponents hack each other up in their Manistee County home base" - Gregory Ferguson of Manistee, Ray Franz of Onekama, and Janice McCraner of Arcadia.

Across Lake Michigan to the northwest, is the threecounty 108th District seat held by term-limited Representative Tom Casper-son (REscanaba), a marginally Democratic district that Casperson won by defeating Menominee Mayor Laurie Stupak, wife of U.S. Representative Bart Stupak (D-Menominee), whose seat Casperson now seeks.

In January, IMP put the district in the "Lean Dem" column and now hedges by calling it a toss-up. (IMP is published by Bill Ballenger, a former state senator and state and federal government executive who also was Michigan's racing commissioner, and does a pretty good job of handicapping derby and political races.)

"Now," says IMP, "the GOP thinks it's found a Casperson clone, Northern Michigan University aide Mike Falcon of Gladstone. Four Democrats are running, including Judy Nerat, Menominee County road commissioner who ran and lost two years ago, and Menominee city attorney Janis Burgess."

The other Democrats are David Polzin of Menominee and Dennis Baldinelli of Kingsford.

Also rated a toss-up is the six-county 106th District seat held by term-limited Representative Matt Gillard (DAlpena). Among the five contenders, leading contestants appear to be ex- Representative Andy Neumann (D-Alpena), who's eligible for one more term, and Presque Isle Township Supervisor Peter Pettalia, an Alpena businessman, running against two others in the Republican primary.

Other northern districts of note:

• 104th: Like Casperson in the 108th, term-limited Representative Howard Walker (R-Traverse City) was active on natural resources issues and made a positive impact in Lansing. The district was dubbed "Solid GOP" by IMP in January, although its nearly 60% base is not as robust as it was six years ago, and as of late May, was downgraded to "Likely GOP."

Grand Traverse County Commissioner Wayne Schmidt, a sportsman activist who works at a haberdashery owned by Senator Jason Allen (R-Traverse City), and his father, looks on track to win the GOP nomination over Tony Hefner of Rapid City and the seat over Democrat Roman Grucz of Traverse City.

• 105th: At one point, this shaped up as a real northern doozie, when second-term Representative Kevin Elsenheimer said he would go run for the Michigan Court of Appeals. Eight other Republicans, including media headliner John Ramsey, quickly filed for this solid GOP district.

But, as he told me, Elsenheimer "took one" for the party and stepped aside in the court race for a party legal disciple and agreed to run again for the House. Ramsey, et al, withdrew.

Democrat Connie Saltonstall of Charlevoix is still hanging in there.

• 107th: The district of second term Representative Gary McDowell (D-Rudyard) is dubbed "Likely Dem."

It's "most" likely that McDowell, a retired UPS driver who has had numerous local government posts, will prevail over Republican Alex Strobehn of Sault Ste. Marie.

But face it. There are forces beyond the dynamics within the districts that will impact the outcome.

As noted by IMP, there is this factor in the fragile House GOP strategy to regain House majority:

"The party's presumptive presidential nominee, John McCain, must keep things close at the top of the ticket and perhaps even provide some coattails for down-ballot Republican candidates in suburban and rural areas."

George Weeks retired in 2006 after 22 years as political columnist for The Detroit News. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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