June 11, 2014 at 10:47 pm

Cantor's loss buoys Mich. tea party hopefuls

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor lost to a tea party challenger once seen as a long-shot on Tuesday. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s stunning primary loss to a tea party candidate in Virginia is giving hope to like-minded Republican candidates in Michigan.

“If it can happen in Virginia, it can happen in Michigan,” said tea party candidate Alan Arcand, who is challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek of Crystal Falls in the Aug. 5 GOP primary in northern Michigan’s 1st District.

Brat’s feat of unseating a powerful incumbent with about $200,000 to Cantor’s $5 million also inspires 8th District congressional hopeful Tom McMillin, a state representative from Rochester Hills whose opponent has been blessed by the outgoing congressman, Mike Rogers, R-Howell.

“The main thing it showed is money’s not everything,” McMillin said. “I think it makes it clear that if you get your message across … and if your message is solid constitutional conservatism and free markets and personal liberty, limited government, I think those are the things people are looking for.”

For now, the political strategists and analysts aren’t convinced that the tea party lightning in Virginia can strike in Michigan.

East Lansing political adviser Steve Mitchell said Wednesday Cantor didn’t take his opponent seriously enough, early enough.

Brat was aided by conservative talk show hosts, Mitchell said, as well as an influx of illegal immigrants in Arizona that became a prominent issue on conservative social media in the week before the primary.

“It created the perfect storm for Cantor to lose,” Mitchell said. “You would need a similar type of event to happen here in Michigan, and I don’t see that set of circumstances happening here in races in Michigan.”

West Michigan GOP strategist Greg McNeilly agrees.

Cantor, he said, was universally known within his district and perceived by voters as neglecting his home base. None of the Michigan Republican congressmen facing tea party challengers — Benishek, Tim Walberg of Tipton and Fred Upton of St. Joseph — has that problem, McNeilly said.

“I honestly don’t see a connection (with Michigan candidates).”

Arcand calls Benishek a RINO

Still, Brat’s victory buoys party candidates.

Benishekwas elected in 2010 in a tea party wave, campaigning on the repeal of Obamacare. But Arcand, a 36-year-old disabled Air Force Veteran, says he’s no longer conservative enough — having voted on bipartisan budget bills that reopened the government and alleviated some sequester cuts.

Arcand calls Benishek a “Republican in Name Only.”

“Dave Brat’s message was clear and was heard. Let’s go RINO hunting!” Arcand posted on his Facebook page.

Benishek, whose $650,000 campaign war chest dwarfs Arcand’s $7,500, said Wednesday he believes he still has tea party support on his side.

“I agree with a lot of their issues,” he said. “I’m happy to have had tea party support in the past and look forward to their continued support.”

Tony Stackpoole, co-founder of a tea party group in Northern Michigan that has since fallen apart, supports Benishek.

“Benishek is well-liked,” said Stackpoole, who owns a coffee shop in Sault Ste. Marie. “I don’t think there’s going to be the huge upset that (Arcand) hopes for.”

McMillin runs on record, principles

McMillin is considered an underdog against former state Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop in a Republican primary in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District, where Rogersis not seeking re-election.

Bishop is backed by two heavy hitters in the GOP establishment: Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, and Rogers. The district includes Ingham, Livingston and northern Oakland counties.

Bishop has even declared that he is a tea party conservative.

McMillin said he’s not overtly running on the tea party mantle, preferring to highlight his conservative efforts in the Legislature.

“I think generally the voters are looking at principles,” McMillin said. “I’m just running on my record and principles.”

GOP strategist Mitchell says McMillin faces “an uphill struggle.”

“Mike Bishop was a very conservative guy when he was Senate majority leader,” he said, and Rogers’ endorsement will carry weight on his behalf — especially since he chairs the U.S. House Intelligence Committee.

Bussler: Backers want to see change

Jim Bussler, 46, is challenging Upton in west Michigan and posted on his Facebook page Wednesday a picture of Upton with Cantor.

A year and a half ago, people said he was crazy to run against Upton because of the lack of fundraising, said Bussler, a Dowagiac registered nurse. But Brat’s victory speech motivated him and his volunteers with the message that money doesn’t vote, but people do, he said Wednesday.

“It’s energized our volunteers,” said Bussler, who’s running on a platform of limited government that’s so far netted him $4,000 in donations. “We don’t have the fancy steak dinners and all that stuff that some campaigns hand out to people. They are here helping me because they actually want to see change happen and they want to get rid of somebody who had been there for 27 years.”

In Michigan’s 7th Congressional District — which includes Jackson, Lansing, Coldwater, Charlotte, Adrian, Hillsdale and Monroe — Walberg has long said he was a tea party member before there was a tea party. Despite Cantor’s loss, Walberg said he doesn’t feel any less confident of winning the nomination for reelection against primary challenger Douglas Radcliffe North.

“We know that Congress doesn’t have a high approval rating,” he said. “We’re hoping we’ve done enough to demonstrate to our constituents that we represent them first and foremost. I know I’ve done that in my district.”

Not all tea party candidates in Michigan are challengers. In two districts, they’re the incumbents, defending themselves from establishment Republicans in the primary.

In the Grand Rapids-based 3rd District, businessman Brian Ellis is taking on Rep. Justin Amash of Cascade Township, a tea party favorite who has the backing of libertarians Ron Paul and Rand Paul.

And in the 11th District, which includes parts of Oakland and Wayne counties, Farmington Hills lawyer and GOP fundraiser David Trott is challenging U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio of Milford. Bentivolio was elected in 2012 when U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Livonia, unexpectedly dropped out of the race and Democrats were unable to capitalize.

“The Bentivolio campaign has been a train wreck,” Mitchell said. “But because he is an incumbent and a conservative, Trott would have a problem against him if Bentivolio raised at least $250,000.” He is about halfway there, while Trott has more than $1 million.

Cantor endorsed Bentivolio for re-election and donated $10,000 to his campaign. On Wednesday, however, Bentivolio distanced himself from Cantor and aligned himself with Brat, who “had a lot of grassroots supporters and a good message.”

Mschultz@detroitnews.com