Washington — Michigan’s senior Republican in Congress, Rep. Fred Upton, made national headlines this month when he struck a deal that aided House Republicans in passing their plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.
In the three weeks since the bill’s passage, the move has increased the chatter about Upton as a prospective candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2018. Allies say his role in the negotiations will boost his credentials with a Republican base eager to trash the health care law known as Obamacare.
It has also made Upton an early target for emboldened Democrats, who argue the moderate Republican’s high-profile part in passing the GOP health care bill renders him vulnerable — whether he runs for re-election in his southwestern Michigan district or tries to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing.
Democratic groups are running ads on network television and online, attacking Upton as a central player in a bill that was panned by major hospital and physician groups, saying it doesn’t guarantee affordable coverage for people with pre-existing illnesses.
In the 6th District, activists have protested at Upton’s offices in Kalamazoo and St. Joseph. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee last week added Upton to the list of Republicans it hopes to knock out in the midterm elections.
No fewer than six Democrats lined up at a recent forum hoping to be the next candidate to take on their longtime congressman.
“It’s unheard of. Most of the time, it’s a matter of twisting someone’s arm to get them to take on Fred Upton,” said Mark Miller, the district’s Democratic chairman.
“It wouldn’t be him on our radar screen if it hadn’t been that his flip-flop to support the bill was so central in its passage.”
Political analysts say the potential for the GOP health care bill to help or hurt Upton could depend on the form that the final bill takes.
“Upton is now one of the architects of a bill that very well could be unpopular next year. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will be, but I think the Republicans have a big sales job to do on this bill, or whatever it is that emerges,” said Kyle Kondik at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Upton, who penned previous bills to repeal the Affordable Care Act, defends his role in the health care negotiations. He says he stood up to President Donald Trump, and the result was $8 billion in additional money for those who face costly premiums in states that seek a waiver from health care regulations under the bill.
“I like to consider myself a legislator versus a partisan finger-pointer,” he said in an interview. “I’m trying to fix a problem — especially after we discovered that folks with pre-existing illnesses were not going to be held harmless. That’s not right.”
From no to yes
Upton came out against the GOP health care bill in the first week of May. The 64-year-old lawmaker wasn’t comfortable with an amendment allowing states to seek a federal waiver for some requirements of the Affordable Care Act, including the rule that insurers may not set premiums based on an individual’s current and past “health status.”
That means that, in states with waivers, insurers could hike premiums for people with underlying conditions who had a lapse in coverage. Gov. Rick Snyder has said Michigan wouldn’t seek a waiver.
In a 20-minute call with Upton, the president raised his voice and cursed, but Upton said he didn’t bend. He explained his concerns, reading back something the president had said on TV days earlier promising the GOP bill would be as strong on protecting those with pre-existing conditions as Obamacare.
“He was a little gruff, to say the least. I was a little gruff back,” Upton recalled. “But I told him, in no uncertain terms, that I could not vote for this bill.”
Hearing no from Upton — who never endorsed Trump during the campaign — was one thing, but hearing the same concerns from Missouri GOP Rep. Billy Long was another. Long was the first Republican in Congress to endorse Trump, back in 2015.
Upton and Long met with Trump the next morning. Upton credits Long with ultimately convincing the president to sign off on his amendment — $8 billion over five years to reduce premiums or out-of-pocket costs for people that face rate hikes in waiver states.
With the amendment, both Upton and Long supported the bill, attracting a few straggling Republicans and giving GOP leadership the final votes they needed to pass the legislation 217-213 on May 4.
Critics said $8 billion over five years was a “pittance.” Democrats said Upton had flip-flopped and sold out to special interests.
“This was a fig leaf, unfortunately, that allowed a few members to vote yes, even though it made no difference in terms of improving the bill,” Stabenow said.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said Wednesday that 23 million more people will be uninsured over 10 years if the bill becomes law. On average, premiums for insurance on the individual market would be lower, in part because the insurance would cover fewer health care costs.
The CBO also expects Upton’s added $8 billion would increase the number of states electing a federal waiver.
Upton defends his fix, saying his aim in helping to overhaul the health care system is to rein in rising premiums and costs and improve access to care.
He speculates that only a “handful” of states might seek a waiver of insurance coverage protections. Also, his amendment calls for double what the Affordable Care Act first set aside for high-risk pools to help sicker patients with costs, he said.
“If it’s not enough money, I’ll be the first in line to go back and ask for more,” Upton said. “Our sense is it’s enough.”
Upton responds to attacks
As Democrats continued their attacks, Upton’s campaign sent out a fundraising plea to supporters this past week that highlighted Republicans’ fulfilling their promise to repeal and replace Obamacare.
“You may have seen the news that liberal D.C. groups are coming after me again. They are the same groups who have thrown millions of dollars into nasty negative advertisements against me over the years and are infamous for distorting the truth. Help us fight back,” the email reads.
Upton was first elected to Congress in 1986 at age 33. He has a record of working with Democrats, including the unveiling of a bipartisan Michigan delegation “action plan” with Stabenow in 2015 that centered on protecting the Great Lakes, preserving defense operations in the state, and boosting medical innovation and therapies.
This year, after chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee for six years, he handed off the gavel in January due to party term limits.
That transition has fueled speculation that Upton might retire or expand his political ambitions beyond his district. Upton said he hasn’t ruled out a run for Senate, but he also has no time line for deciding.
Tom Shields, a Lansing-based Republican consultant, said Upton’s role in the health care bill — including an appearance before TV cameras outside of the White House — could signal that he’s setting himself up for a Senate run.
“It certainly made people wonder if his high profile on this legislation is a prelude to getting into the U.S. Senate race,” Shields said. “It’s not necessarily a normal position for Upton to be in. He’s usually played a more behind-the-scenes type of role on these types of issues.”
The first Republican candidate, Lena Epstein of Bloomfield Hills, entered the Senate race last Monday. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Young Jr. is also considering a run.
“I continue to be flattered by lots of folks who are coming forward and urging me to do it, but we’re a ways away from making a decision,” Upton said.
“For the time being, I’m focused on my job. It seems we just got out of one campaign. I’m not real anxious to get into another.”
Lawmaker’s fundraising power
Michigan political observers note that Upton might need to broaden his name recognition statewide. He’s been in Congress for three decades, but the southwest corner of Michigan is far from the more populous Metro Detroit market.
Fundraising hasn’t been a challenge for Upton, though he could self-finance a campaign. His grandfather helped form home appliance maker Whirlpool Corp., which is based in his district, and Upton has an estimated net worth of $14.3 million, according to Roll Call’s 2015 Wealth of Congress Index.
In the last two cycles, Upton faced Democrat Paul Clements, beating him by 22 percentage points last fall and by 15.5 points in 2014.
Clements, a professor at Western Michigan University, raised record amounts of cash for a Democrat in the 6th District — $1.16 million last cycle. Clements said last week he doesn’t have specific plans to run again, but he hasn’t decided against it.
He helped to organize some of the protests at Upton’s offices during the days leading up to the health care vote.
“I think he realizes he got himself into trouble on this health care bill,” Clements said. “Not only did he vote for it, but he is personally responsible for its passage.”
Two Democrats have announced they’re running: David Benac, 43, of Kalamazoo, a history professor at Western Michigan University; and Eponine Garrod, 23, of Portage, a chemist who works in quality-control testing at Pfizer. Dr. Matt Longjohn, a physician and public health expert living in Portage, is also considering the race.
Upton supporters say voters will recognize that he took the initiative and reached a compromise in a chronically gridlocked chamber.
Scott McGraw, who heads the Kalamazoo County Republican Party, said it will help Upton next election.
“Fred’s always been one to bring people together, and I think he did a good job,” McGraw said. “I’m proud he was able to pull that together and put it forward for the House to pass. I think it would have been a huge disaster for another proposal to go down.”
McGraw was referring to an aborted vote in late March on an earlier version of the bill.
He said Democrats are attacking Upton now because they believe he might challenge Stabenow or retire.
“Personally, I think he’s just going to keep going. He’s like the Energizer bunny,” McGraw said with a laugh.
Victor Fitz, chairman of the Republican’s 6th District committee, said Republicans were pleased that Upton found common ground, calling his ultimate position on the health care bill “Reagan-esque.”
“He recognized that if you can come to a healthy compromise that’s important for the American people, that’s what it’s all about,” said Fitz, the prosecutor for Cass County.
“He did what the people in the election of 2016 asked, which was to repeal Obamacare.”
Hometown: St. Joseph
Political experience: Aide to U.S. Rep. David Stockman, R-Michigan, 1975-81; Office of Management and Budget, 1981-85. Member of Congress since 1987. House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman, 2011-16.