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Split government? Open seats in 2016 could give Democrats a chance at state House control

As we head into the final month of 2015, campaigns in Michigan are already ramping up for Election 2016.

With a lot at stake next year in Lansing, Republicans and Democrats have been busy for months recruiting candidates. Next year could be a pivotal election in determining who is running things in Lansing for years to come.

If Democrats have any hope of controlling the next round of redistricting (the process of drawing legislative maps every decade), they have to make hay in this upcoming presidential year (when higher voter turnout tends to benefit them).

GOP control

These are not happy times to be a Democrat in Lansing. Republicans control the state House, the state Senate, the governor’s office and the courts.

But, there could be some hope for the Ds in the state House of Representatives.

There will be at least 40 open seats without incumbents running for reelection in 2016. Republicans hold more than twice as many of those seats as Democrats. One of the by-products of the paddling state House Dems took in 2014 is that pretty much every seat the Ds currently hold is a safe seat.

On defense

The Inside Michigan Politics newsletter names seven open toss-up seats in 2016, all of them held by Republicans, and another 11 open seats that are, on paper, at least, considered attainable if things line up right for the Ds; compare that to just one of those in the Democratic column.

That means, numerically, Republicans are playing more defense.

But, it’s not like the GOP doesn’t have advantages. It’s easier to hold onto the majority when you are in the majority.

The Rs might have to defend more seats, but that also means more places where Ds have to go on offense.

Also, let’s not forget, Republicans drew the current district lines. That’s one reason why, in 2014, Dems got more votes in total than Republicans, but the Republicans won more seats.

But, those lines were signed into law in 2011. It’s been half a decade since they were drawn and the districts have since changed.

Meantime, one of the raw political principles of redistricting is that you try to pack as many of the other side’s voters into as few districts as you can manage; but that also means Democratic districts are often a lot more Democratic than the Republican districts are Republican. Advantage: Democrats.

The unknown unknowns

There are also other factors, of course, like the candidates themselves. In competitive House seats, it can all come down to who works the hardest - the relentless door knocking, organizing, and fundraising.

There are also factors outside the candidates’ control, factors we can’t predict yet: like just how closely voters will associate candidates with the presidential candidates at the top of the ticket in 2016. 

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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