April 2 2014 12:00 AM

Byrum emerges as leading Democrat for open 8th Congressional seat; Republicans confident they will keep control of district vacated by Mike Rogers


Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum is emerging as the leading Democrat to campaign for an open congressional seat being vacated by Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers. Now she just has to decide whether to say yes.

Byrum, 36, said she is “seriously considering” running for the 8th Congressional District seat, which represents all of Ingham and Livingston counties and the northern tier of Oakland County. She could have an edge with women voters, independents and moderate Republicans.

“This is a conversation that needs to be had with family, friends, advisers,” she said Monday. “I’m truly humbled by the amount of support I’ve received. It’s been absolutely amazing.” Byrum said she expects to make a final decision next week.

Byrum, who was elected county clerk in 2012 after being term-limited out of the 67th state House district, was among a flurry of names to surface after Rogers’ surprise announcement Friday that he’s leaving Congress to start a conservative talk-radio show (see page 6). Other Democrats considering a run are Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing.

Bernero, 50, commissioned a telephone poll over the weekend to assess his chances. Schertzing, 51, said Tuesday morning that he’s in the process of getting the necessary 1,000 signatures to file as a candidate by April 22, but if Byrum or Bernero end up getting more support within the party, he would step aside to avoid a costly August primary.

“I’m not going to run in a primary against Bernero or Byrum,” Schertzing said. “I don’t think any of us want that.”

Bernero estimated a contested Democratic primary could cost $500,000, which makes for an even more difficult matchup against a Republican in November.

Central Michigan University Professor Susan Grettenberger, 57, and retired state demographer Ken Darga, 61 — who each announced plans to run against Rogers months ago — say they’re still running. As of Monday afternoon, both were still getting the required signatures to file as a candidate.

But whereas Schertzing, Bernero and Byrum have name I.D., political experience in the district and a likely higher potential for raising money, Grettenberger and Darga are political rookies. When asked if he thinks Grettenberger and Darga would be encouraged to step aside so the Democrats can avoid a primary and get behind the strongest candidate, Schertzing said: “I would imagine.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee polled 8th-District voters over the weekend, focusing on Bernero and Byrum. It also included questions about those two matching up against 47-year-old Republican Mike Bishop, a Rochester-based attorney and former state Senate Majority Leader.

The automated poll asked for favorability ratings for each of the potential candidates followed by matchups: Byrum versus Bishop and Bernero versus Bishop. Poll results were not released.

If polling numbers are favorable, Bernero said he will consider running. He expects results of his own poll by the end of the week. Byrum said she’s unsure whether the results will affect her decision.

However, by Tuesday morning, Bernero gave indications that Byrum could likely emerge as the leading Democrat.

Both parties were stunned by Rogers’ announcement Friday that he would not seek reelection. He is regarded as one of the more powerful members of Congress as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and is from a district generally safe from political challenges. Rogers expects to host a radio talk show for the Cumulus network starting in January, but he has not ruled out a bid for president in 2016.

The 8th District leans Republican but is fluid enough politically that Democrats could mount a serious bid for the congressional seat.

Bernero, who was an Ingham County commissioner and state representative and senator before becoming Lansing mayor in 2006, was badly defeated in the race for governor against Republican Rick Snyder in 2010. He was seriously outspent by Snyder, a millionaire corporate executive. But the election gave Bernero statewide recognition — for good and for bad. He has been characterized, often by himself, as the nation’s angriest mayor and regularly appears on national news programs promoting the interest of cities. The fiery persona may mask for those outside of greater Lansing the progress in the city.

Meanwhile, Byrum’s profile has continued to rise since 2012 when she helped lead a movement in the Legislature challenging proposed legislation aimed at putting more regulations on abortion providers. (See: “Vagina-gate.”) Byrum has also been mentioned as a lieutenant governor running mate with Mark Schauer. She was one of four county clerks to issue marriage licenses and officiate over wedding ceremonies for samesex couples on March 22. A less-than-24- hour window allowed same-sex couples to get married after a federal judge ruled Michigan’s marriage ban unconstitutional. That decision was stayed by a federal appeals court pending an appeal, putting same-sex marriage on hold in Michigan.

Byrum said her record of “standing up for people and for women and encouraging more women to run for office” distinguishes her as a candidate.

Schertzing is in his fourth term as the county treasurer and he’s also chairman of the Ingham County Land Bank. He describes himself as a “fiscally conservative and socially progressive moderate candidate,” which “fits the district well.” Schertzing was Ingham County’s chief deputy drain commissioner for seven years in the 1990s. Before that he spent eight years as a special assistant to former Congressman Bob Carr, who served eight terms in the 6th District and one term in the 8th. “I know a fair amount about the district,” Schertzing said.

Former Democratic county commissioner Mark Grebner, of the Lansing firm Practical Political Consulting, said Byrum is shaping up to be the better candidate, at least compared with Bernero.

Democrats need “someone with a name, kind of middle-of-the-road politics, who can raise a lot of money,” Grebner said. “Virg would not be on that list. He’s sort of a lightning rod. … He’s polarizing.”

Do Dems even have a chance?

But Grebner downplays the optimism that this will be a highly competitive race with the incumbent out. Republicans redrew the district in their favor after the 2010 census, for one, he said. Secondly, Grebner disputes that the district gives Republicans a narrow advantage based on the makeup of voters. Averaging results based on the last four elections — when Democrats had three “blowouts” in other statewide races — makes the district seem marginal, he said. “It’s not marginal. It would be if Democrats have a blowout year. But no, we’re not going to.”

Nationwide, Republicans are expected to fare well in this year’s mid-term elections.

Which brings us to Republican nominees in the 8th District. Bishop, the former Senate majority leader, appears on a hastily made website (votemikebishop.com) running for U.S. Congress, though it’s unclear who made it. A Facebook group, “I support Mike Bishop for Congress,” said Monday that Bishop “confirms he is in the race ... . Sounds like an announcement is coming soon!”

Norm Shinkle, chairman of the 8th Congressional District Republican Committee, said two other names that keep circulating are Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett and state Sen. Joe Hune, who represents Shiawassee and Livingston counties and the southeast portion of Ingham County. “Those three names are the most prominent,” Shinkle said.

With Rogers dropping out, some have predicted an open district for Democrats.

Still, Shinkle is confident the Republicans will maintain control of the 8th. “Defending Obamacare” will be the leading issue for rural parts of Ingham and Livingston counties, he said. “I mean, good luck. This is going to be a Republican year just like 2010.

“The real competition is going to be in August, not November.”