Howell — Freshman Rep. Mike Bishop, once considered a shoo-in for a second term, is facing an aggressive challenge from a political newcomer in a congressional race that has turned negative in recent weeks.
Democrat Suzanna Shkreli of Clarkston, a 29-year-old Macomb County assistant prosecutor, has raised more money and outspent Bishop since announcing her candidacy in July. But Bishop, a Rochester Republican, remains the odds-on favorite and enters the home stretch with a significant cash advantage.
Shkreli has been running a series of television attack ads linking Bishop to corporate contributions and lewd comments by GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, whose campaign struggles threaten to drag down other Republicans on the ballot.
Bishop told voters here last week he is “appalled” by sexually aggressive comments that Trump made about women in 2005. But he has not withdrawn his support for the candidate, indicating he wants to focus on economic policies.
“There are too many issues out there to be pulled into the gutter and to continue talking about Donald Trump and what he said,” Bishop said at a candidate forum for the 8th District, which includes Ingham, Livingston and parts of northern Oakland County.
His response drew applause from some in the crowd, including 55-year-old Denise O’Connor of Hartland.
“There was a private conversation between two men. That’s the way I see it,” O’Connor said of the video, in which Trump described getting away with kissing and grabbing women by the genitals because of his celebrity.
But Shkreli says Bishop’s support for Trump is fair game and that voters around the district continue to ask about the presidential race. She said Bishop is trying to “hide” by saying he won’t discuss his party’s nominee.
“If you’re going to endorse him and denounce him, you’re sort of conflicting yourself,” Shkreli said. “And the voters want to know: Are you going to stick by somebody who’s denigrated a war hero, made fun of a disabled reporter, insulted the Gold Star family of a fallen soldier and is now joking about sexual assault?”
Shkreli has proven a capable fundraiser, reporting $411,421 in contributions between July 1 and Sept. 30. Bishop reported $170,264 in donations over the same stretch but he's raised $2.1 million for the cycle and ended the latest quarter with $899,520 in cash reserves, compared with $150,072 for his challenger, meaning he can spend more in the last three weeks.
Through Monday, Shkreli and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had spent $456,210 on broadcast ads and Bishop $241,997, according to a Michigan Campaign Finance Network analysis of Kantar Media tracking data.
Signs of tightening race
The non-partisan Cook Political Report last week changed its rating for Michigan’s 8th District from “solid” to “likely” Republican, noting Democrats are “surprisingly excited” about Shkreli, who was not their first choice.
“This seat includes heavily Democratic Lansing and lots of well-educated Republican suburbs, so Trump may be a drag here,” according to the Cook analysis.
Democrats suffered a setback when actress Melissa Gilbert withdrew from the race for health reasons in late May.
“In general, Democrats believe this is a time to get Bishop, since they weren’t able to put a scare into him last cycle, and now they’re hoping Donald Trump is so toxic it could help them down ballot,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report.
Bishop’s campaign officials say they remain confident in the district he won by more than 12 percentage points in 2014, but last week launched their first attack ad against Shkreli.
Outside conservatives are also stepping in to help defend the seat. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, attended a district fundraiser Oct. 3, later touting Bishop as a “star.”
Also, the American Action Network, a group working to retain the Republican majority, has said it would spend $700,000 on television and digital advertising against Shkreli in the final two weeks of the race.
“That’s probably part of a firewall strategy,” Gonzales said. “I don’t think Republicans believe it is a toss-up race, but they don’t want to wake up on Nov. 7 and realize they have a problem, and it’s too late to do anything about it.”
David Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University, said the sudden escalation in the race likely has to do with potential vulnerability caused by Trump’s recent foibles.
While incumbency is always an advantage, this has proven to be the outsider’s election year. Shkreli “being new to the game could really help her. Being experienced in a year like this isn’t necessarily a bonus,” Dulio said.
However, he added, Bishop has enough money to saturate the airwaves with ads.
“It might not be a ‘safe’ Republican district anymore, but I think the overwhelming favorite is still the Republican,” he said.
Shkreli would be youngest woman
Bishop, 49, spent a decade in the state Legislature and was Senate majority leader until term limits forced him from office at the end of 2010.
In Congress, he has sponsored three resolutions and two bills, including a bipartisan measure signed into law that extended a low-interest loan program for college students with exceptional financial need.
“Two years is a short amount of time, but you do whatever you can to make the difference that you can, and the goal is always to be effective for the constituents you represent,” Bishop said.
Shkreli joined the Michigan bar in 2011 after graduating from Cooley Law School. She admits she has not been “much of a political activist” in the past.
If elected, Shkreli would be the first Albanian-American woman in Congress and the youngest woman to ever serve in the U.S. House. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York, was 30 when she took office in 2015.
“I am 29, but I deal with some pretty consequential issues every day in the courtroom, so I look at it as more of a positive than anything else,” Shkreli said.
She has worked in the Macomb County prosecutor’s office for five years. Late last year, she said she began working in the child protection unit, which handles abuse and sexual assault crimes against youths.
Bishop has accused Shkreli of inflating her professional record and ran an ad suggesting she “can’t tell the truth about her resume.” A news release referred to her as “Macomb County Prosecutor Suzanna Shkreli,” rather than an assistant prosecutor, and her website also omits the “assistant” part of her title.
Shkreli called accusations of resume inflation “completely baseless” and an attempt to deflect her own criticism of Bishop.
“There’s only one Macomb County Prosecutor: That’s Eric Smith,” she said.
On the issues
Bishop argues that federal regulations are crippling job creators and has criticized a pending Obama administration rule that would require businesses to pay overtime to more workers by essentially doubling the salary threshold for eligibility.
The overtime rule “is the most ridiculous rule that I’ve ever seen,” Bishop said, arguing it will ultimately hurt both employers and employees.
Shkreli says she wants to help the county avoid “unfair, job-killing” trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiated by the Obama administration and opposed by labor groups. Bishop also opposes the TPP.
Shkreli has made senior benefits a pillar of her campaign, attacking Bishop for voting for a budget that would have begun partial privatization of Medicare and comments about offering younger people an option to direct a portion of their Social Security tax into retirement.
Bishop said he wants to “preserve, protect and strengthen” both programs. He is not interested in Medicare vouchers, he said, and said he only broached potential changes to Social Security because the trustees have said traditional benefit costs will eventually deplete reserves.
Both candidates agree the Affordable Care Act has problems, but Shkreli says the health care law is worth saving, noting that it prohibits insurance companies from charging women more than men or canceling coverage on people who are already sick.
“I see it firsthand with my folks, who own a small business, that the premiums are high,” said Shkreli, whose family owns two restaurants in Waterford.
Bishop has voted to repeal Obamacare and says he supports Ryan’s Better Way replacement plan, which would scrap mandates and penalties, expand the use of private health savings accounts and allow consumers to purchase insurance policies across state lines.