While voters in most of the state are focused on Michigan's upcoming presidential primary, pockets of Genesee and Oakland counties are getting state House races off to an early start in 2012.
Political analysts aren't expecting to draw any broad conclusions from Tuesday's special elections, which will fill vacancies through the end of this year for two House seats. But the elections are the first voter tests of the year for a chamber where all 110 seats will be up for grabs with candidates seeking new, two-year terms in November.
Republicans enter this election cycle with a 62-46 edge over Democrats in the House, which has the two vacancies. Republicans also hold the majority in the Senate, which does not have another election until 2014.
Republicans expect to maintain their edge in the House this year, but Democrats figure they have a chance to gain ground and possibly even retake control of the chamber they lost in the 2010 election.
"It wasn't so much a Republican tsunami last time as a Democratic ebb," said Rep. Mark Meadows of East Lansing, chairman of House Democrats' campaign efforts. "I don't know exactly what's going to happen this year, but I think that the signs are looking very good."
The August primary and November general elections will be the first under a redrawn map that reconfigures the House's 110 districts based on 2010 population counts. Democrats figure to lose some sway because Detroit, which is heavily Democratic, has lost population and will have less representation. But Democrats generally aren't complaining about how districts shape up outside of southeast Michigan, and figure they could pick up some seats that may suddenly be more competitive.
How incumbents fare will be crucial because relatively few lawmakers are getting forced out of office this year by Michigan's term limits law. Lawmakers who may be forced to run against each other because of redistricting have races that generally will be decided in August primaries.
Top-of-the-ticket races could help Democrats, if President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow are successful in their re-election campaigns in Michigan. Their opponents for the November election have not yet been chosen.
The Michigan House has a recent history of significant power shifts over relatively short periods. Democrats wrestled control away from Republicans in the 2006 election. Republicans won the chamber back in 2010, a good year in elections for the GOP across much of the nation.
Republicans will aim to persuade voters that the business tax and policy changes ushered in with GOP Gov. Rick Snyder in the past year have set Michigan in a new, positive direction. The state's unemployment rate has fallen from 11.4 percent when Snyder was elected in November 2010 to 9.3 percent in December 2011. The state government budget situation is stabilizing, reflected in Snyder's budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts in October.
"I think we've done some great things for the state. But we haven't done enough yet," said Rep. Pete Lund of Macomb County's Shelby Township, chairman of House Republican campaign efforts. "You can't do it in one year, you can't do it in two years. But what we've done in this one year or so is definitely change the direction of the state with some things that had to be done."
Democrats will argue that Obama, not the state's Republican officeholders, deserves the most credit if Michigan's economy is turning around. Democrats also will try to re-ignite any lingering voter unrest about Republican policies that cut business taxes while taxing some forms of retirement income and reducing education funding in the current fiscal year.
Voter opinions over those changes could play a role Tuesday when voters in the 51st District, which covers part of Genesee County, will be selecting a replacement for former Republican Rep. Paul Scott of Grand Blanc. Republican Joseph Graves, a Genesee County commissioner and General Motors retiree, is running against Democrat Steven Losey — a teacher and union leader with the Redford Union school district and a board member for the Linden school district.
The race should be competitive, with Graves perhaps getting a slight advantage because the special election is on the same day as Michigan's Republican presidential primary. Democrats say they are working hard to drive voter turnout to offset that edge.
Scott last year became the first Michigan state lawmaker to be recalled from office since the early 1980s. He was targeted for recall by the Michigan Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, because of his role in a new law that weakens the significance of teacher tenure. Cuts to education funding and tax policy changes also played a role in Scott's recall.
In the 29th district, Democrat Tim Greimel is considered the favorite against Republican Bob Gray in a heavily Democratic district representing the Pontiac and Auburn Hills area.
The winner finishes the year in place of former Rep. Tim Melton, a Democrat who resigned to take a job with StudentsFirst, a national education group.
Neither race is considered a microcosm of the broader, bigger election fight that will evolve as November approaches. Both winners in Tuesday's election would have to run again for full, two-year terms later in the year.