The Michigan 7th Congressional District race (that’s my district) is one that has been seen as a kind of classic 2010 matchup–a traditionally Republican district with a first-term Democratic incumbent who won his seat in the Obama landslide. Here’s why that’s not the whole story, and Tip O’Neill’s statement that “all politics is local” should be a precautionary watchword on every political observer’s lips. What follows is a relatively unorganized set of notes for an op-ed that just isn’t going to get written properly so it can get published before the election.
First, the Republican challenger, Tim Walberg, is the person the current Democratic incumbent, Mark Schauer, deposed in the ’08 election. It’s often said there are no second acts in American politics (a corruption of an F. Scott Fitzgerald saying that “there are no second acts in American lives”). It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it’s a good rule of thumb.
Second, Walberg has never been very popular. Six years ago he ran for what was then an open seat, but lost to a former mayor of Battle Creek, Michigan, Joe Schwartz, a traditional Midwestern-style Republican. That is, a Gerald Ford type. Four years ago he beat Joe Schwartz in the Republican primary, on the basis of a lot of out-of-the-district money and a campaign that dishonestly claimed Schwartz wasn’t a true Republican. In fact Schwartz was very much a true Republican, a man very emblematic of the party of Lincoln, while Walberg, a religious conservative (who is an ordained minister), is much more in the style of the old moralistic Southern Democrats (minus the racism, though). Schwarz is what the party once was, while Walberg is what the party has become.
Walberg won the general election after knocking out Schwartz in the primary, but narrowly. His Democratic opponent was, to put it kindly, a bit odd. She proudly proclaimed herself to be a “gun-toting organic farmer.” While that honestly endeared her to me, it comes off as a bit crackpot. She spent a grand total of $46,000 on her campaign. Walberg spent twenty-six times as much, $2.1 million, and defeated her by only four percentage point. Two years previously she had lost to Schwartz by twenty-two percentage points.
That all equates to a quick lesson in spatial political analysis, specifically the median voter theorem. Wherever the middle voter is located, you have to get her and everyone else to your side of her in order to win. Because primaries draw from a biased subset of the general election voters, the median voter in the primary is more to the right or left (depending on party) than the median voter in the general election. Walberg obviously plays well to the median voter in the subset that makes up the Republican primary in Michigan’s 7th District. But despite the 7th District leaning Republican, he doesn’t seem to play so well to the median voter in the general electorate of the District.
My tentative conclusion is that the 7th District’s median voter is rather more of a Lincoln/Ford Republican, not a Strom Thurmond/Jerry Fallwell Republican. Still, Walberg may yet reclaim his seat. Nate Silver gives him a 53.8% chance of winning (as of Oct. 25). But a recent EPIC/MRA poll puts Schauer ahead at 45-39%, just outside the 5 point margin of error. However there are a lot of undecideds still, and most pundits expect the enthusiasm gap to favor Republicans.
I have little doubt Walberg blames the Obama surge as the primary cause of his ’08 defeat (and with some justice), but by the same token, if Schauer loses he can just as legitimately blame the anti-Obama surge as the cause of his defeat.
My prediction is that whomever wins–and I won’t predict who that will be–will win by no more than four percentage points, and likely less. It will all be dependent on which party can turn prospective voters into real voters on election day, I think.
But Walberg is a good case study in how the Republican Party has moved too far right to be sure of holding the center. His saving grace is that he doesn’t couple his conservatism with actual crazy (or perhaps it’s just stupidity) like, say, Christine O’Donnell.