Why I Rate Michigan’s Senate Seat As ‘Safe’ for Democrats

by Stuart Rothenberg March 14, 2013 · 9:34 AM EDT

Moments after the Rothenberg Political Report reiterated its “Safe” rating of the now open Michigan Senate race, I started hearing complaints. Some of the questions raised were reasonable — so reasonable that I thought I’d use this space to explain why my colleagues and I decided not to move the race immediately to a more competitive category.

Republicans had no chance of defeating Democratic Sen. Carl Levin next year, so his retirement certainly improves their prospects. But does it improve the GOP’s chances enough to warrant a change in the race’s rating? Not yet. Michigan’s fundamentals still pose major problems for Republicans. Democrats have won the past six presidential elections and 11 of the past 12 Senate elections in the Wolverine State.

The sole Senate victory came in 1994, when a huge national Republican wave helped Spencer Abraham win retiring Democratic Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr.’s open seat. Abraham lost the seat, albeit narrowly, six years later to the seat’s current occupant, Democrat Debbie Stabenow.

Three of the last four GOP Senate nominees — Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski in 2002, Jack Hoogendyk in 2008 and Peter Hoekstra in 2012 — failed to reach the 39 percent mark, while the fourth — 2006 nominee Mike Bouchard — drew just more than 41 percent against Stabenow. That roster of recent GOP Senate nominees got my attention. While some were stronger than others, as a group it wasn’t intimidating. In other words, Michigan Republicans have had a hard time finding strong candidates.

The closest presidential race in the state since 1988 (when George H.W. Bush carried it comfortably) was in 2004, when Democratic challenger John Kerry defeated President George W. Bush by about 3.5 points at the same time that Bush was being re-elected nationally by about 2.5 points.

Mitt Romney’s performance in Michigan (one of his home states) is particularly noteworthy. President Barack Obama carried the state by about 450,000 votes, winning by almost 9.5 points. Obama won nationally by fewer than 4 points, so his margin in the state was much larger than his margin nationally. Obama’s winning margin was smaller in 10 states than it was in Michigan, and Romney’s winning margin in both Arizona and Missouri was less than the president’s winning margin in Michigan.

But Michigan’s governor, secretary of state and attorney general are all Republicans, and the party controls both houses of the state Legislature. Doesn’t that prove the state is competitive and the GOP has a reasonable chance of winning an open Senate seat, particularly during a midterm election?

No, for two reasons. First, as I have written ad nauseam, voters traditionally have evaluated candidates for state office differently than they have for federal office. Republicans can get elected governor in Democratic states such as Hawaii, Maryland and even Vermont but have no chance in Senate races or presidential contests in those states. Similarly, voters will elect a Democratic governor from time to time in Republican states such as Wyoming or Kansas but refuse to send a Democrat to the U.S. Senate.

Second, while Republicans have held some statewide offices in Michigan for years, the party’s current strength in the state can be traced back to the GOP wave of 2010, when swing voters around the country pulled the party’s lever up and down the ballot. Republicans went into that election with a narrow majority in the state Senate and in the clear minority in the state House but came out of the election with a huge majority in the state Senate and a comfortable one in the state House. Because of that election, Republicans controlled redistricting, both at the state and federal levels, giving the party a chance to draw districts that would enhance the chances that they will control those districts throughout the decade.

After considering all of this, my newsletter had to rate the race. Both “Democrat Favored” and “Safe Democrat” seemed like reasonable ratings.

The lack of an obviously strong Democratic bench and an open seat, during a midterm year, argued for “Democrat Favored,” a less competitive category that at least concluded that Republicans had a pulse in the race, unlike in other states.

But while lots of Republicans names were being floated (some of whom might make the race very interesting), Michigan has a well-earned reputation of being a state where Republicans float their names to get attention and then eventually decide not to run. Without candidates, we are stuck with nothing but fundamentals — and a Republican Party that has proven to be ill-equipped to run a statewide federal race in Michigan.

So we opted for “Safe Democrat.” But ratings are not “predictions.” We don’t “predict” races 20 months out from an election, especially when we don’t know who the nominees will be. A rating at this point in the cycle is our best assessment of what is most likely to happen, pending candidate decisions, changes in presidential performance and the development of a cyclical narrative about the parties and about change.

Our “Safe Democrat” rating could change tomorrow or next month or never, depending on what happens in the race. But at this moment, the burden is on the GOP to prove that it can make this race into a competitive contest.