Can Kid Rock Become Michigan's Next Senator?

By David Byler
August 21, 2017

“How could an entertainer with no political experience and a long history of controversial comments ever win one of the most important political positions in the United States?”

No, that’s not a quote from last year’s presidential election. For better or worse, it will likely echo into 2018 as the ranks of celebrities navigating the world of politics expand beyond President Trump and Minnesota Sen. Al Franken. Robert “Kid Rock” Ritchie has expressed interest in seeking the Republican nomination in Michigan’s 2018 Senate race, and some party members are encouraging him to run.

I have no idea if Kid Rock would win the GOP primary. And if he did, there’s certainly no guarantee he would beat incumbent Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow. But if the outspoken pop star runs and generates even a quarter of the controversy that Trump has, it may be hard to keep up with the news while also keeping tabs on the other important midterm elections.

So it’s worth taking some time now to step back, think about the playing field in Michigan and gauge the odds for any Republican, rock musicians or otherwise, to win in the state.

The Playing Field in Michigan and the GOP’s Two Paths

Democrats have a solid record of winning offices in Michigan that deal with national-level issues. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama both won the state twice, and Al Gore and John Kerry each carried it while failing to win the White House. Democrats have also been successful in recent Senate elections. Gary Peters now occupies the seat that Democratic Sen. Carl Levin held from 1979 to 2015, and Stabenow has held her seat since 2001 (the previous two Republicans in that seat were Spencer Abraham, who won a single term in the 1994 Republican wave, and Charles Potter, who lost re-election to Democrat Philip Hart in 1958). The House delegation is more Republican, but the details of the congressional map make it tough to jump from that fact to a claim that the state itself is conservative.

But despite Michigan’s somewhat blue tint, Republicans still sometimes manage to win statewide. Donald Trump eked out a victory in 2016 -- a significant shift from President Obama’s 10-point triumph in 2012. GOP candidates take the governorship more frequently. Most recently, Republican Rick Snyder ran as a fiscal conservative and a “tough nerd” and ended up winning the governor’s mansion in 2010 and 2014.

Gubernatorial races often revolve around state issues and thus have limited usefulness in predicting Senate results, but Snyder’s and Trump’s wins highlight two different paths that GOP candidates can take in Michigan.

Snyder’s route was basically a souped-up version of the traditional Republican map.

Snyder, like Republicans in other states, won rural a­reas. But he also performed well in heavily Dutch-American Grand Rapids (some such areas voted heavily against Trump in the GOP primary) and won affluent, suburban Oakland County (where Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney grew up). In that way, Snyder’s victory looks like the pre-Trump version of the GOP – a party whose base is religious conservatives, wealthy suburbanites and rural voters. In fact, the county-level results show that Snyder’s 2014 win correlates more closely with George W. Bush’s 2000 and 2004 wins than with Donald Trump’s 2016 showing.

Trump took a slightly different path to victory.

It’s easy to spot the big red area in the top half of the “mitt” where Trump outperformed Snyder. That swath of the state is more rural and sparsely populated than the bottom half, where Trump lost ground in some key areas. He didn’t fare as well as Romney in some areas in and around Grand Rapids as well as the Detroit suburbs, despite performing better than Romney overall.

The contrasts become apparent when we map out the differences between Snyder’s 2014 re-election and Trump’s 2016 win.

This map more clearly shows the differences between a traditional Republican path the victory and a more Trump-ish route. Trump outperformed Snyder in rural areas as well as famous working-class locales like Genesee and Macomb counties, while Snyder outperformed him in large cities – especially in the suburbs of Detroit and in Grand Rapids. Unsurprisingly, college education among whites was a powerful predictor of where Trump did and didn’t outperform Snyder (in areas with lower rates of college education among whites, Trump fared better, and vice versa for Snyder). Moreover, when we divide the state up by CBSA Division (rural, small town, large town, small city, large city and mega city) we find that Trump did much better than Snyder in rural areas and small towns, while performing similarly in large towns and underperforming him in large cities.

In other words, it’s possible for a Republican to win in Michigan – and that Republican doesn’t necessarily have to fit the Trump mold. But the flip side of this is that there are two ways for Democrats to win: If black turnout had been higher, Hillary Clinton might have won despite losing many blue-collar voters, and Obama won enough blue-collar voters to comfortably carry the state despite Romney doing well with college-educated whites nationally. In other words, it might be hard for any Republican, regardless of style or strategy, to take either path in 2018.  

Stabenow Has the Early Advantage in This Race

Michigan’s map and demographic contours permit a Republican win, but the map alone doesn’t dictate the outcome of the elections. A few key dynamic factors point towards an early advantage for Stabenow.

First, Trump’s approval rating is low. Senate elections are more closely tied to national politics than gubernatorial or other statewide elections, so it might be tough for a GOP candidate to distance himself or herself from an unpopular president. Obviously approval can move up or down between now and next November, but Trump’s current numbers suggest an advantage for Stabenow.

Even if Trump’s numbers improve or if the GOP nominee manages to run ahead of him, Stabenow has incumbency. Sean Trende and I recently published a Senate model that suggests -- all other things being equal -- incumbents often enjoy a roughly three-point advantage over non-incumbents. Three points might seem small to some, but a less than three-point swing in a handful of states would have made Hillary Clinton president.

That being said, Kid Rock, if he were to officially announce his candidacy and win the primary, probably wouldn’t run quite like a generic Republican. It’s impossible to know if or how his presumably unconventional candidacy would affect the race. So for now it’s best to sit back, grab some popcorn, remember that Stabenow has some real advantages in this race and watch what might become the craziest U.S. election of 2018.

David Byler is an elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at dbyler@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidbylerRCP.

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