Chicago — In America's industrial Great Lakes states, it is impossible to separate politics from the tight pinch of the current recession.
State leaders in the Midwest have been working hard to keep budgets balanced by spending cuts and tax hikes - amid a rising chorus of protest from both taxpayers and the unemployed.
Republican governors in three Great Lakes states - Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin - have opted to step down rather than seek reelection. As the Detroit Free Press put it in a recent headline which seemed to speak for more than Michigan: ''To the victor in November, a state in trouble.''
Yet to leaders of the Democratic Party, this section of the Midwest has never looked better. Long considered a GOP stronghold, the nation's heartland now appears to Democrats a golden opportunity, ripe for the taking.
''The Midwest is going to be our best region for gains,'' insists Ann F. Lewis, political director of the Democratic National Committee. ''I'm extremely optimistic.''
She says she is confident that the Democrats will pick up a majority of the Midwest governorships on the ballot, keep all incumbent Democratic Senate positions, and pick up at least a few additional congressional seats. All this, she says, despite the fact that every Democratic candidate will be ''vastly outspent'' by his Republican counterpart.
GOP leaders readily admit their task in this section of the Midwest is tougher now that the majority of Republican governors have opted out of the race. But they do not view it as a necessarily wholesale loss for the party. And they insist Republicans will be trying harder.
''I really think that the economic news by November will be good enough so that Republicans will be on the offensive,'' says Republican National Committee political director Ron Kaufman. ''I suppose we may lose a seat or two here or there in the Midwest, but I don't think the Republicans are going to have to hide from anybody.''
The current outlook: Illinois
Gov. James R. Thompson qualifies as something of an endangered species in this year's fall elections. He is the only incumbent GOP governor up for election in the six Midwestern Great Lakes states who wants to come back for more. Though he will be shooting for a third term and he won his first with a whopping 1.4 million vote margin, he admits this will be by far his toughest campaign.
Democratic challenger Adlai Stevenson III, former US senator and grandson of another Illinois governor, is no firebrand campaigner. Indeed, his aloof, low-key style stands in sharp contrast to the often-exuberant approach of former US Attorney Thompson. But a recent Democratic statewide poll by a New York firm shows Thompson trailing his opponent by 11 points. And the latest Chicago Tribune poll gives Mr. Stevenson a 30-point lead with voters in Chicago, Thompson's home city and a place where he has generally fared better than most Republicans. Although Thompson also has an unusually strong labor record for a Republican, Stevenson recently won - albeit narrowly - the endorsement of the Illinois AFL-CIO.
One reason for the Stevenson gains: he frequently points to Thompson as a ''cheerleader'' for Reagan policies and the man most responsible for Illinois's economic woes. The governor counters that he has balanced the budget without raising income or sales taxes. But he has admitted that recent gift disclosures and campaign spending practices, while legal, have not helped his image. And many women voters have been critical of Thompson for not doing more in support of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and for choosing conservative House Speaker and ERA opponent George Ryan as his running mate.
The state of the economy in November should also play a key role in determining whether or not the Republicans' current four-seat congressional edge holds.
Two districts Republicans could lose just as the result of a Democratic tilt in redistricting: those held by GOP incumbents Paul Findley and House Speaker Robert H. Michel. Another district to watch for the same reason: the Chicago and west suburban area long represented by liberal Democrat Sidney Yates. He faces corporate public affairs executive Catherine Bertini, an ERA proponent with strong fund-raising resources. Indiana
Since GOP Gov. Robert Orr's term does not expire for another two years and GOP Sen. Dan Quayle is not up for reelection until 1986, Indiana Republicans are sure of surviving the November elections with two top positions intact.
But GOP Sen. Richard Lugar faces a tough fight for his seat from liberal Democratic Rep. Floyd Fithian, whose district was eliminated by a GOP-drafted remap.
Senator Lugar, known as former President Nixon's ''favorite'' mayor while in charge of Indianapolis, is a staunch Reagan supporter who has backed most efforts to cut spending, lower taxes, and build a strong defense. Mr. Fithian vowed after his May primary win that ''no other race in the US will be so clearly a referendum on Reaganomics.''
''Fithian is liberal for Indiana, but it's noteworthy that someone with his background and ability has been brought into the race in a big way,'' observes University of Indiana political science Prof. Edward Carmines. ''I don't think it would have been possible a year or so ago because Lugar was so popular and had so much money behind him. . . .''
Democrats have already lost one congressional seat as a result of redistricting. And it has been widely assumed that the remap would give the GOP at least two more of the state's 10 remaining congressional seats.
But labor and the national Democratic money and muscle are backing Bloomington Mayor Francis X. McCloskey's campaign to upset GOP Rep. H. Joel Deckard. ''It's probably the Democratic Party's best change of upsetting a Republican (Indiana) incumbent,'' observes Professor Carmines.
A tough fight is also expected from four-term Democratic incumbent Philip R. Sharp in a Muncie district redrawn in the GOP's favor. He faces former state motor vehicles commissioner and one-time Shelbyville Mayor Ralph Van Natta.
But Indiana GOP chairman Gordon Durnil insists Republicans are sure of gaining at least one or two new congressional seats. His view of the toughest battle: the Sharp-Van Natta race. He says state polls conducted for Republicans give Mr. Deckard a 30-point lead over his opponent (''McCloskey has no name recognition'') and show Senator Lugar with a 2-to-1 lead over his challenger.
''All of our incumbents are looking good,'' insists Mr. Durnil. Michigan
The man considered most likely to succeed moderate GOP Gov. William Milliken, retiring after 13 years in office, is Democratic Congressman James J. Blanchard. The reasons for the party shift are both economic - Michigan leads the nation in unemployment and has faced cash shortfalls over the last two years of more than labor, blacks, and business leaders. He is the leading House architect of the 1979 Chrysler bailout legislation.
His opponent, the surprise winner in Michigan's Aug. 10 primary, is Richard Headlee, a life insurance company president. A conservative, he initiated a ballot move to limit taxes, which won 52 percent of the state vote in the 1978 general election.
Incumbent Democratic Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr., onetime Republican who split with the party over the Vietnam War and has strong support in blue collar industrial areas, is likely to win again. His GOP opponent is Philip Ruppe, a moderate who once served six terms in Congress.
Michigan's redistricting has left the existing array of Democrats and Republicans at the congressional level largely intact.
''I'd be surprised if there were any shift there in November at all,'' says University of Michigan political scientist Arthur H. Miller. Minnesota
Republicans are expected to have an especially tough time this fall defending Minnesota's grim state budget situation which has required sharp spending cuts and tax hikes. The state's primary is not until Sept. 14. Among the Democratic gubernatorial candidates vying to replace retiring GOP Gov. Albert Quie, Attorney General Warren Spannaus goes to the primary with a slight edge. Despite a somewhat lackluster campaign style, he is a proven vote getter. He has the formal endorsement of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. But he still faces a lively fight for the Democratic nomination in the September primary from former Gov. Rudy Perpich, a more colorful, old-style politician.
Currently given the edge among conservative GOP candidates vying to replace Governor Quie is Lt. Gov. Lou Wangberg, who won the endorsement of the Independent Republican Party at its June convention. But the common assumption here is that Minnesota's next governor will be a Democrat. As one veteran political analyst puts it: ''The Democrats would have to shoot themselves in the foot to lose this one.''
At the Senate level, Republican incumbent David Durenberger, a pragmatic moderate who has largely supported President Reagan but recently got into a well-publicized flap with him over New Federalism, is expected to be reelected. But his chief challenger, liberal Democrat Mark Dayton, a former state commissioner of economic development, is expected to narrow Durenberger's lead by the fall. Dayton is a man of means who has already spent $2 million on his campaign. Also seeking the Democratic nomination for the Senate seat but not considered a heavy contender is former senator and one-time presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy.
At the congressional level, Republican incumbents face the toughest challenge. Democrats, who have three seats to the Republicans five, will be trying hard to reverse that ratio. Ohio
Veteran Republican Gov. James Rhodes is constitutionally barred from seeking a third consecutive term. Democrat Richard Celeste, the former Peace Corps director and Rhodes Scholar, is considered the man most likely to win the chair of the retiring governor. A former lieutenant governor, Mr. Celeste lost to Mr. Rhodes by a mere 57,000 votes in a try for the same office in 1978. But Ohio's high 11.8 percent unemployment rate and $1.5 billion deficit - which has already required two unexpected tax increases and may yet require a third - are expected to help Mr. Celeste's candidacy this time around. He has been running ahead in polls taken by both parties.
Still, he faces a formidable GOP contender in the easygoing and popular US Rep. Clarence J. Brown, whose family has held a rural west-central Ohio congressional seat for more than four decades and whose family name is the same as two of Ohio's former governors. Mr. Brown, a conservative supporter of Reaganomics, has a well-organized and particularly well-financed campaign network.
Another Democrat, incumbent liberal US Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum, is expected to win the only Senate post up in this year's Ohio election. But much may yet depend on the political strategy and dollar backing of GOP contender Paul Pfeifer. He's a state senator with a relatively unfamiliar name in Ohio, and he entered the race only after Rep. John Ashbrook, the GOP's leading candidate, passed on last spring. But Mr. Pfeifer is considered a moderate among Republicans, and that's usually a plus in statewide elections. If Republican party and business sources do not write off his candidacy, and if he casts himself as a centrist against someone too liberal for Ohio voters, he could give provide the senator with a tough race. Senator Metzenbaum, a vigorous opponent of large oil interests, has amassed a $2 million war chest for his campaign by stressing that the New Right has targeted him for defeat.
''Most people say it's a walkaway for Metzenbaum, but he's potentially vulnerable because he's so liberal. I don't see it as an automatic win,'' says Ohio State University political scientist Dr. Herbert Asher.
Columbus is expected to become the center of one of the liveliest congressional races in the fall election. Two years ago Democrat Bob Shamansky ousted 11-term GOP veteran Sam Devine. This time Republicans, with a district redrawn in their favor, are expected to wage an intense fight to get the seat back. They're hanging their hopes on candidate John Kasich, a state senator and energetic campaigner. Wisconsin
Incumbent veteran Democratic Senator William Proxmire is expected to win reelection easily. As a sign of his own confidence in that prospect, he has decided once again not to accept campaign contributions. He won his last election in 1976 by a landslide, toting up a campaign bill of only $697.
The most interesting race in Wisconsin, (which, like Minnesota, faces a Sept. 14 primary), is the campaign for a successor to the ebullient and often flamboyant GOP Gov. Lee Dreyfus, who is stepping down.
Former Gov. Martin Schreiber, a late entry in the race, is considered most likely to win the Democratic nomination in the state's open primary. Support among party regulars, however, who had to assume some of the campaign debt incurred by Mr. Schreiber in his unsuccessful 1978 race against Governor Dreyfus , appears to be stronger for former state legislator Anthony Earl and former history professor and public policy analyst James Wood.
The race for the governorship is expected to be close. Primary Republican contenders at the moment are Lowell Jackson, a member of the Dreyfus administration who is considered bright and able, though a newcomer to elective office; and Walter Kohler, a Sheboygan businessman who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1980, and whose father and grandfather previously served the state as governor. Both are conservatives, but Kohler is better known and financed.
At the congressional level, GOP incumbent Rep. Steve Gunderson, who narrowly won in 1980, is considered a prime Democratic target in the LaCrosse-Eau Claire area.