Will Dingell lose? Probably not

On Friday, a poll from Rossman/Team TelCom reported that Republican challenger Rob Steele is running ahead of Democratic John Dingell in Michigan’s 15th congressional district.  Dingell has been in Congress since 1955, replacing his father who was swept into office on FDR’s coattails in 1932.

Is this a winnable race for the GOP?

Twenty years ago, I would have said yes.  Ten years ago, I would have said yes.  This year, I’d have to say probably no.

In the 1980s, Dingell’s district was heavily industrialized and dominated by second-wave immigrants – Poles, Hungarians, Italians.  In other words, it was home to New Deal Democrats who eventually became the Reagan Democrats.  Reagan carried the district in 1984 by 20 points, then George H.W. Bush won it by 7 points in 1988.  These are about the margins that both carried nationwide, so Dingell’s district was a swing district on the presidential level during the Reagan/Bush years.  It ticked back to the Democrats in the 1990s, going for Clinton by 7 points in 1992 then by 20 points in 1996.  Even so, George W. Bush managed to pull in 44% of the vote against Al Gore in 2000.   

 A Democratic held district that gave George W. Bush 44% in 2000 is probably a winnable district for the GOP today.  But the Republican-dominated Michigan legislature pulled off the most successful partisan gerrymander after the 2000 census, and essentially combined MI-13 and Dingell's MI-16 into a new MI-15.  In 2002, Dingell famously faced off against Democrat Representative Lynn Rivers (previously of MI-13) and defeated her by 18 points in the primary.

The result was that the GOP destroyed a Democratic district, but handed Dingell the safest seat he had had for years.  The heart of Rivers’s district was Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan and one of the most liberal communities in the whole Midwest.  That was placed into the new MI-15.  In the redrawn MI-15, Bush’s 2000 share of the vote actually dropped by 6 points relative to the old MI-16.

The partisan makeup of MI-15 is probably too much for the Republican to overcome, in my judgment.  Give Steele a good chunk of the Reagan Democrats in communities like Dearborn Heights and Woodhaven.  Give him a huge haul out of Monroe County in the far southeast, and Dingell will still have Ann Arbor to fall back on. 

That being said, this race will probably be the closest shave Dingell has ever had.  I can definitely see him pulling in 55% or less; in fact I think that’s where he will end up.  The Democrats are getting obliterated at the top of the ticket in the state, and it will be much harder for the 84-year old Dingell to drum up enthusiasm among the U Mich student body than it was for Obama in 2008!  Still, the guts of this district are so Democratic that he should be able to pull it out.

The more interesting lesson, I think, is that this is a district that gave Barack Obama 66% of the vote in 2008.  There are 178 Democratic-held seats that are more Republican than MI-15, and John Dingell is scrambling against an opponent who had just $100k as of July.

Read more Morning Jay at the Weekly Standard.

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