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Will troubles in DC rain on Michigan's political parade?

This week on "It’s Just Politics," we’re talking scandals, or at least, perceived scandals. In D.C., at the White House, the Obama administration is dealing with the Benghazi emails, the IRS alleged targeting of certain Tea Party groups and the Department of Justice investigating the phone records of journalists.

Scandals: They have the ability to alter the political landscape. Watergate, a national scandal so profound that all subsequent national scandals of any note get “-gate” attached to them.

Back in 1993, here in Michigan, there was the House Fiscal Agency scandal. Some agency employees were caught using what was kind of a petty cash account for all kinds of things that had nothing to do with their jobs. The long-time chairman of the House Appropriations Committee lost his job and people went to prison. It gave Republicans a bump in the next election; winning control of the state House after two years of evenly shared power with the Democrats.

Sufficient to say, scandals can change elections. We are in an era where elections are nationalized. So here we are, going into a presidential mid-term race in 2014 and, as we've talked about before on "It’s Just Politics," mid-term elections are seldom kind to the party in the White House. Here in Michigan, that puts Democrats on defense as they’re hoping to notch some major victories come November 2014.

Democrats are being given the edge in keeping the U.S. Senate seat that Carl Levin is vacating. And in the gubernatorial race, former Democratic Congressmen Mark Schauer, who's hasn't officially announced he’s in the race yet, is running even with Governor Snyder, according to some very early polling from EPIC MRA.

In the state House, Democrats want to take control from Republicans. Democrats would like to spend the next 17 months talking about and having people pay attention to their issues: the state’s new right-to-work law, the pension tax, the financial troubles we’ve seen in some school districts. It raises the question: Will the Democrats, instead of talking about these issues, have to waste valuable time and resources trying to shake off reputation problems created in D.C.?

Democrats also have their eye on some congressional seats held by Republicans. They’d really have to catch lightning in a bottle in most of these cases. But they do harbor some hopes of picking up the 1st Congressional District held by Republican Dan Benishek. It’s been a target every year since he took it after Democrat Bart Stupak retired. Benishek won first in the 2010 Republican sweep and won reelection in 2012 when President Obama was at the top of the ballot, and the President is very unpopular up north. There’s a sense that the right Democrat can take this seat in 2014 without the President dragging down the ticket in northern Michigan. The Tea Party is serious business up north and a lingering scandal about the IRS targeting some groups could inspire some passion, get people out to vote who might otherwise not turn out for a mid-term election.

Anyone who wants to make hay off a political scandal also needs to be cautious. We’re thinking back to November of 1998 when Republicans thought they had Democrats on the ropes. President Clinton was in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He was a month away from impeachment by the House of Representatives. But Republicans overplayed their hand. They lost seats in a presidential mid-term, the first time since 1934 that the party not in the White House failed to win seats. It was also the first time since 1822 (we're talking when there was still a Federalist Party, before there was even a Whig Party) that the party out of the White House failed to win seats in the mid-terms of a president's second term. Certainly no six-year itch. 1998 was also the year that Debbie Stabenow unseated then-Senator Spencer Abraham.

On the other hand, Watergate really helped to cement Democratic dominance for years. There was an enemies list that became emblematic of government hostility to the people. Then it became a status symbol to have been on it. Begs the question: Could that happen again? Just this week a CBS journalist said her computer was hacked, but says she’s not ready to confirm it was the government. And three people in Michigan have stepped forward to claim they were IRS targets.

But hey, maybe it is a new political status symbol?!

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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