With Michigan Republicans four seats away from dominating state lawmaking, the big questions facing Democrats in November are whether Geoffrey Fieger or Bill Clinton will hurt them more -- and whether the Clinton-Fieger baggage on the Democratic ticket will cost Dems control of the state House.
Republicans control the state Senate with a six-seat margin that no one expects to be relinquished this election. And if the polls are correct, Fieger has little chance of toppling incumbent Gov. John Engler.
Which means the real battleground is the House, where Democrats hold a 58 to 52 seat majority. Term limits have opened up more than 60 seats, but the parties were zeroing in last week on about 10 districts where polls showed neither had a lock.
"The Republicans are either going to have to overcome a Democratic House that's going to try to block everything they try to do, or they will have complete control and ram everything down the Democrats' throats," says Bill Ballenger, a Lansing-based political analyst.
This being politics, experts say, the weighty questions for Michigan -- including who gets what tax breaks, how tax dollars are spent, whether people have decent working conditions, health care, a clean environment and functional public education -- will be decided not on the basis of the issues, but by scandal and personalities.
Blame to share
"I just find this an incredibly issueless campaign," says Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan associate professor who teaches both environmental and state politics. "I blame the candidates for that. In part, I blame the media for that. Maybe that's what life in these times is all about."
Important issues are falling by the wayside, says Rabe, including equity in education, wetlands protection, growth and sprawl, hazardous waste management, and the state's long-term economic stability.
"How prepared are we for the next recession? Virtually every other nation is in financial chaos. You have some loss of confidence in the economy in the United States," Rabe adds.
Instead of focusing on these weighty issues, pundits say, elections across the state could be determined by the impact of Fieger's loose-cannon candidacy and the potential downward pull of Clinton's stained coattails.
Ballenger says Republicans, who outnumber Democrats in most of the open House districts, could gain anywhere from five to eight seats.
Others contend a Republican sweep isn't a sure bet.
If Republicans don't do a good job turning out the vote, there are districts where Democrats are strong enough to win even though they are in the minority, contends Ed Sarpolus, a political analyst with the EPIC/MRA firm in Lansing. He mentions two likely targets for the Dems -- districts held by term-limited Jim McBryde, R-Mt. Pleasant, and Mike Goschka, R-Brant -- where the Democratic base is between 40 percent and 46 percent.
According to Sarpolus, the way Democratic women perceive Clinton in the wake of his sex scandal could determine the Legislature's balance of power. He says polls show that women, who happen to be the majority of Democrats, took Clinton's affair harder than men.
Following Clinton's Aug. 17 grand jury testimony Democrats -- particularly Democratic women -- began telling EPIC/MRA pollsters that they were going to sit out the election entirely because of their disillusionment with Clinton.
Since then, Sarpolus says, the trend has begun to reverse slightly.
What will happen three weeks from now is anybody's guess with Republicans keeping the issue alive with a highly politicized impeachment process, says Sarpolus.
Of Democrats, he says, "If they don't get out of their coma, they may wake up and find out not only have they lost their president due to impeachment, but they've lost on all their issues."
For all of Clinton's problems, Ballenger contends Fieger's candidacy will be even more harmful to Democrats.
"One of two things can happen with Fieger," he says. "Either people will not vote at all, or they're going to show up at the polls, and, particularly in the case of independents and ticket-splitters, more of them are going to vote for the Republican Party."
Sarpolus, however, says Engler's big lead in the polls could work against Republicans. If the governor's supporters feel his victory is assured, they may not bother to vote.
Sarpolus offers one last possibility, perhaps even a probability if current polls hold true: a 55-55 tie in the House.
Neither side, however, is looking for a split decision.
Sarpolus says although it's hard to track hard and soft money going into elections, he estimates Republicans are spending millions of dollars more than Democrats on this election. "This is John Engler's swan song," Sarpolus says. "It determines whether he has coattails."
Ballenger suggests the GOP and Dems may spend $18 million and $15 million respectively.
Senate Majority Leader Dick Posthumus, R-Alto, says his party will spend "every amount of time and money it takes" to make sure Engler and other Republicans are elected.
"The governor and I are traveling every day, not only on behalf of the ticket but also on behalf of those members of the Legislature," says Posthumus, who is Engler's pick for lieutenant governor. "It's still going to be an uphill battle, but as long as we keep getting our message out, we should be able to win control of both houses."
For their part, Democrats say they are confident in their ability to keep control of the House, and hope that voters will concentrate on the issues and individual candidates in their districts.
Democratic Speaker Curtis Hertel says, "When you look at education, tax fairness, and the environment -- which I think are the most important issues for the voters -- if we run on those issues, I think we will be successful."
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