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Is there a Democratic strategy for Michigan in 2016?

Jack Lessenberry

For years, there has been a huge contrast in this state between election outcomes on the state as opposed to the federal level. Republicans haven’t carried Michigan for a presidential nominee since before the Berlin Wall came down.

They have won only a single U.S. Senate race in the last 44 years. But they dominate every branch of state government.

The last time Democrats had a majority in the state senate, Brandon Dillon was an 11- year-old kid in Grand Rapids. Dillon is 43 now, married and the father of three kids himself. Six months ago, he unexpectedly became the new chair of the Democratic Party.

That means that while he still officially lives in Grand Rapids, you might say his second home is the Chevy Equinox on which he has put 50,000 miles since July. He was a third-term state representative last summer, starting to think about what he was going to do after term limits booted him out of the legislature, when opportunity suddenly appeared.

Lon Johnson was quitting as Democratic chair. Johnson had staked the party’s fortunes on a massive campaign to try to raise turnout in the 2014 elections.

This flopped badly.

Fewer people voted than had four years before. Democrats lost the governorship, and Johnson quit to run for Congress. Dillon jumped at the chance, and was elected the party’s new chair.

Last week, he told me over lunch that there were no quick fixes to the Democrats’ statewide problem.

“This is a long-term project,”

he said, one that could take a decade. Part of the problem is massive gerrymandering, which has packed as many Democrats into as few districts as possible.

This has ensured continued Republican majorities, often even when the majority of the voters select Democrats.

The GOP legislatures that result then write new redistricting plans, perpetuating the problem. Dillon knows this may take a constitutional amendment to solve, and is studying the options, but isn’t willing to announce any plans yet.

What a good party chair does is endlessly raise funds and work on candidate recruitment, especially for lower-level jobs. This year, Dillon’s focus is on the state house of representatives, where all 110 seats are up for election.

Democrats need to gain nine seats to win control, but this year, Dillon thinks his party has a real chance. Twenty-seven Republicans have to leave office because of term limits, as opposed to only eleven Democrats. Many of the open Republican seats may be vulnerable, since the departing incumbents were all first elected in the GOP landslide year of 2010.

If a Democratic presidential nominee wins a landslide in Michigan this fall, Dillon hopes this will carry in a legislative majority. That’s what happened eight years ago, when President Obama badly beat John McCain. If that happens, it would effectively mean an end to the Snyder and Meekhof agenda.

Brandon Dillon isn’t entirely a political creature; he missed out on a dinner with former President Clinton this fall because one of his twin sons had an event at school.

But I get the clear sense this is a job he’s been training for since he became an intern for Senator Ted Kennedy back when Dillon was in graduate school.

It will be interesting to see how he does.

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

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