By JOHN FLESHER
TRAVERSE CITY - Democratic and Republican leaders are counting on voters in the Aug. 5 primary election to nominate strong slates of candidates for the Michigan Legislature, especially in races for the state House, where the two parties are competitive enough that a shift in the balance of power is a realistic possibility.
The GOP seized control of the House in 2010 and holds a 59-50 edge, with independent Rep. John Olumba of Detroit also leaning Democratic. A five-seat swing would be needed for Democrats to gain majority status.
"We're in a very strong position," said Rep. Tim Greimel, the House Democratic leader, contending about 15 Republican-held seats are "very winnable" for his party. "House Republicans have done a lot in the past four years to anger people."
Republicans are confident of maintaining their edge.
"What matters most to people is what matters most at their kitchen table and, for Michigan families, the talk around that table is more positive and more optimistic now than it has been in a decade," said Ari Adler, spokesman for House Speaker Jase Bolger.
In the Senate, the best Democrats can hope for is to chip away at the Republicans' 26-12 margin. That's a tall order for the first Senate election since district boundaries were redrawn following the 2010 census, which enabled the GOP to fashion the map in ways that boosted its electoral prospects even further.
"Based on the new map under reapportionment and the number of open seats, only 11 Democratic seats are secure," said veteran analyst Bill Ballenger of the Lansing newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. "Democrats have to worry about just holding on to 12 before thinking about new pickups."
The first step is for voters to select nominees in the primary election, which is producing spirited contests - particularly on the GOP side, where the nationwide clash between the party's establishment and populist Tea Party wings is playing out.
Numerous Republican incumbents face challenges from hard-line conservatives based largely on two issues: the Legislature's decision to expand Michigan's Medicaid program under the federal health care law, which Gov. Rick Snyder supported, and the state's participation in a nationwide educational initiative called Common Core, which sets nationwide English and math standards for students in kindergarten through high school.
In the 39th House District, tea party challenger Deb O'Hagan's Web page features a series of video ads accusing Rep. Klint Kesto of siding with President Barack Obama by supporting both measures.
Kesto "increased the size and scope of government and took more money out of our already strained family budgets," says O'Hagan, of West Bloomfield, labeling herself "the real conservative."
Kesto, of Walled Lake, focuses on what he describes as the Legislature's accomplishments.
"We have successfully enhanced education reforms and funding, eliminated bureaucratic barriers, and found new ways to save taxpayer dollars in a more effective and efficient manner," he says on his campaign Web page.
Cindy Duran, a political newcomer from St. Joseph running against Rep. Al Pscholka of Stevensville, labels the federal health care law "Pscholkacare" and scorns the incumbent for supporting Medicaid expansion. Pscholka says he's no friend of "Obamacare" and contends the GOP-led House bill reformed Medicaid in keeping with free-market principles.
In the Senate, first-term Republican Mike Kowall of White Lake Township also faces accusations of straying from conservative orthodoxy. Challenger Matt Maddock of Milford boasts on his Web page that he "will never vote with the Democrats" and urges voters to choose "new principled conservative voices over the 'beltway' Republican establishment."
A closely watched battle for an open Senate seat in northern Michigan's 37th District features two Republican House members: Wayne Schmidt and Greg MacMaster. Schmidt, of Traverse City, is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and has endorsements from numerous business organizations, Right to Life of Michigan and the National Rifle Association. MacMaster, of Kewadin, has drawn praise from Americans for Prosperity, the staunchly conservative group founded by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch.
Democratic primary contests appear to be based more on personal and political rivalries than ideological differences.
Rep. Stacy Erwin Oakes faces business owner Garnet Lewis in the Senate's 32nd District, one of the seats Democrats hope to capture from the GOP with the departure of Saginaw Republican Roger Kahn, who cannot run again because of term limits.
In the Detroit area, Sen. Bert Johnson faces a challenge from Olumba, the state representative who switched his status from Democrat to Independent two years ago but is running as a Democrat once more. State Rep. Rashida Tlaib, also term-limited, is challenging Sen. Virgil Smith in the 4th District in a race that has produced back-and-forth accusations of unethical campaign tactics.