The attacks are flying fast and furious in Michigan’s 7th Congressional district, where Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg and Democratic challenger Gretchen Driskell are exchanging blows over trustworthiness, trade deals and more.
It is one of two congressional races in Michigan being aggressively targeted by national Democrats in an uphill bid to regain control of the Republican-led U.S. House.
The race has quickly turned negative despite the relatively pleasant demeanors of Driskell, a state legislator and former mayor of Saline, and Walberg, a pastor from the small town of Tipton.
Driskell has run more television ads than any candidate in the state, labeling Walberg “trade deal Tim” for votes supporting U.S. agreements with Colombia, South Korea, Panama and Peru. She argues the pacts have cost jobs in a district with strong manufacturing and agricultural bases.
Walberg did vote for the deals but contends Driskell is distorting his record in light of the national debate over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-county trade deal that is not yet ratified. He voted to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority to negotiate TPP but opposes the final product and argues it should be renegotiated.
Congressman Tim Walberg makes re-election pitch for his seat in Michigan's 7th Congressional district.
“She’s attacking me for being a free and fair trader — that I’ve never hidden,” Walberg told The Detroit News at his Jackson campaign office. “We have a global economy. I think she would understand that, and if we don’t compete in the global marketplace, we lose.”
In a response ad, Walberg noted that Driskell called herself a real estate “broker” online and in 2010 committee testimony even though she is a real estate agent without the training required for a state broker’s license. The commercial suggested she “lies about herself.”
Why Democrat Gretchen Driskell thinks voters should elect her to Michigan's 7th Congressional district.
“Gretchen seems to have trouble — just like Ms. Clinton — with telling the truth,” said Walberg, linking the Democrat to her party’s presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.
Driskell, who has held a Michigan real estate salesperson license since 2003, argues the terms “broker” and “agent” are often used interchangeably in the commercial real estate world, a characterization confirmed by the chief executive of the Michigan Commercial Board of Realtors. She said she has never represented herself as a managing or associate broker.
“It’s a national standard, and I think this is just a diversion on really not wanting to talk about the facts of how Mr. Walberg has voted on things,” Driskell told The News at a campaign field office in Dexter.
Driskell said she supports exporting products but not jobs. “Let’s figure out a way to get to that point, and that’ll probably be a lot of the work I do in Congress,” she said.
Through Sept. 19, Driskell had spent an estimated $586,000 on television ads, according to a Michigan Campaign Finance Network analysis of Kantar Media tracking data. Walberg had spent roughly $158,000.
“This race could get even more pricey in the next few weeks if outside groups start spending,” said Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “This could easily be the most expensive race this cycle in Michigan and one of the more expensive nationally in recent cycles.”
The Trump factor
The 7th District race “leans Republican,” according to the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Libertarian Ken Proctor of Charlotte is also on the ballot.
“Democrats were really feeling hopeful this summer because a lot of Republicans and independent women were pretty repulsed by (Republican presidential candidate) Donald Trump,” said Susan Demas, owner of Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “They saw an opening in the 7th, but with Trump’s numbers improving, it’s going to make Driskell’s climb a lot harder.”
Driskell has proven to be a capable fundraiser and been active in knocking on doors, Demas said, but Walberg is good on the stump and is often underestimated.
“Not only is he a good campaigner, he’s not afraid to get dirty,” she said. “He’s a minister, but he’s been a politician for decades, and he knows what he’s doing.”
Walberg has a history of narrow finishes in the district, but boundaries were redrawn ahead of the 2012 election. The move benefited the Republican incumbent, who won by more than 10 percentage points each of the last two cycles.
Walberg was elected to the U.S. House in 2006 after defeating U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz in the Republican primary, but he lost to Democrat Mark Schauer by less than two points in 2008. Two years later, Walberg beat Schauer in a rematch by less than five points and has held the seat since.
The district now includes Branch, Eaton, Hillsdale, Jackson, Lenawee and Monroe counties along with a portion of Washtenaw County. President Barack Obama barely won the district in 2008 and narrowly lost the district in 2012.
“We often joked that we don’t understand how these people can live together in the same communities, because they’re often kind of extreme in the primary and then moderate in the generals,” said John Truscott, a GOP consultant who worked on Schwarz campaigns. “I think it’s competitive, but I also think it’s probably one of the districts where a Trump turnout can probably help Walberg.”
Driskell said some voters who support her have told her they also support Trump, citing conversations she’s had while knocking on doors.
“The issue for a lot of people in the district is the economy and jobs, and feeling there’s a positive future for them and their families,” she said. “Trump speaks to some of those issues, and I feel like Hillary speaks to a lot more, with policy behind her and experience.”
Walberg acknowledged that Trump has “been challenged with speaking all too blatantly” but has made clear he is supporting the Republican nominee.
Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in recent years have sometimes said things with which he disagrees, Walberg said, “but we don’t deal with 100 percent or nothing.”
Moderates and extremes
Both candidates are touting their bipartisan credentials while attempting to paint each other as extremists.
Walberg is running a new ad calling Driskell a “typical liberal politician.” His campaign claims she is an ineffective legislator because she has not sponsored a single bill that has become law in the Republican-led state Legislature.
Driskell, who boasts endorsements from one-time moderate Republicans such as Schwarz and former Gov. William Milliken, said the Legislature is “very partisan right now,” making it difficult for a Democrat to pass bills.
The former mayor noted she has introduced bipartisan legislation and worked with local communities on issues she thinks are ripe for cooperation at the state level, including broadband and last-mile internet access.
“At the end of the day, I do have a track record of doing work in the district, where it counts the most,” Driskell said, adding that she “will just keep plugging away” at finding the tools and resources to address issues.
It’s Walberg who is out of touch, she said.
“When people go to D.C., they tend to become very partisan, and I think Mr. Walberg has a track record of that,” she said. “I think people are really looking for somebody like me who actually has a background of working across the aisle.”
Walberg, an avowed critic of the Obama administration who has repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, has also worked on bipartisan bills that have become law this session.
He introduced legislation with Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield, requiring federal agencies to identify and close expired grant accounts with zero balances.
The dynamics of the district mean that “I have to be reasonable” to win over moderate voters, Walberg said.
“I don’t think my record has changed or my approach has changed, so I would expect that they would be there again, if they look at that record and don’t just listen to rhetoric.”
7th District race
Candidates in Michigan’s 7th Congressional District race:
Professional background: Pastor in Michigan and Indiana. Division manager for Moody Bible Institute.
Political background: Member of Michigan House of Representatives, 1983-99. Member of U.S. House of Representatives, 2007-08 and 2011-now.
Professional background: Commercial real estate agent and former certified public accountant
Political background: Saline city council member, 1994-1999. Mayor of Saline, 1999-2013. Michigan House of Representatives, 2013-now
Professional background: Retired skilled tradesman for General Motors.
Political background: Never elected to public office. Has run for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House.
Source: Detroit News research