Detroit — Mitt Romney and Rudy Guiliani are the horses to beat in Michigan — and Fred Thompson’s debate debut didn’t change that. As likeable as Thompson is, age is not his ally, and Romney and Giuliani are both also likeable and brimming with the energy of candidates in their political prime. But the more important news from Tuesday’s debate was its Michigan backdrop. In the last month, the political ground has shifted dramatically in this key swing state — a shift that favors Republicans on their signature issue of taxes.
In 2006, Michigan — like the country at large — saw strong Democratic gains at the expense of the Republicans’ Achilles heal: The Iraq war. A year later, however, economic pain is the dominant issue as the state’s 7.4-percent unemployment rate badly lags the national economy, the Big Three automakers are in desperate straits, and home foreclosures are mounting.
Then, two weeks ago, state Democrats threw a match on this economic tinder.
Facing a $1.75 billion state budget deficit, Michigan’s Democratic governor, Jennifer Granholm, and her newly Democratic statehouse led a partisan charge for one of the largest tax increases in state history: A $1.35 billion penalty on income and sales taxes.
In a state where families saw home values plummet 17 percent in August alone, a 12 percent income tax hike seems cruel and irresponsible. The governor praised her Democratic colleagues’ “courage” for doing the politically difficult thing, but a pinched electorate saw only cowardice. The office of Leon Drolet, president of the Michigan Taxpayers Alliance and orchestrator of a recall campaign aimed at pols who voted for the tax hike, has been flooded with calls. E-mail responses were so heavy that the Alliance’s e-mail server shut down. A survey by a major Michigan pollster found a staggering 71 percent of voters opposed to the tax increase.
Enter the Republican candidates. The war still vexes, but suddenly, taxes is a hot issue again.
And Tuesday’s news for Democrats only got worse. Because Michigan Democrats elected to move their primary to January 15, the national Democratic party has sanctioned it for violating party rules. As a result, reported the Detroit News today, “Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson are withdrawing from the primary ballot.” Hillary Clinton did not join them, but she will still be operating in the midst of party controversy.
Because of the withdrawals, there will be no Democratic debates here. And no debates mean that the presidential candidates don’t feel Michigan’s pain.
“It’s a huge mistake for those candidates and the Democratic Party,” David Dulio, a political scientist at Oakland University, told the News. “I think they could pay a price down the road in the general election. In a state like Michigan that is just struggling and the hardest-hit with job losses and the economy in the entire country, for them not to come and listen to the concerns of Michigan voters, when the Republicans are — what does that say to the electorate?”
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, a Democrat, concurs. “If the Democratic candidates choose not to address the issues facing Michigan,” he says, it could be a big win for the Republicans.”
Romney and Giuliani leave Michigan with momentum in their race to then nomination — but whoever the Republican nominee is will find fertile soil in Michigan in 2008.
– Henry Payne is a writer and editorial cartoonist for the Detroit News.