In southwest Michigan, voters are seeing a rematch in the 6th District, as Democrat Paul Clements again seeks to oust Rep. Fred Upton, one of the most senior Republicans in Congress who has held his seat for nearly 30 years.
Upton, who helmed the influential Energy and Commerce Committee for the last six years, beat Clements by 15.5 percentage points in 2014 and has outspent and outraised Clements this cycle. But political observers expect it to be a closer contest Tuesday, in part because of the presidential election.
Supporters of Upton say the St. Joseph lawmaker has somewhat insulated himself from the uncertainty at the top of the ballot by his choosing not to endorse GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who is trailing Hillary Clinton in the polls in Michigan.
“At the end of the day, I think the 6th District is going to be his seat to keep until he decides to retire,” said Dave Worthams, former chairman of the Kalamazoo County GOP.
Clements, bolstered by an endorsement from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, said his campaign is stronger than his first go-around, and will benefit from the get-out-the-vote efforts of a dozen full-time employees of Clinton’s campaign in the district.
“Until Paul ran, we really had not seen in the 6th District among the Democrats a professional-level modern congressional campaign,” said Mark Miller, the district’s Democratic chair and a board member in Kalamazoo Township.
“He came closer to beating Upton in a non-presidential year than we had seen before.”
Also on the ballot this year is Libertarian Lorence Wenke, a former state House member from Comstock Township in Kalamazoo County. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as “solid Republican.”
Susan Demas, editor and publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter, said Upton recognized Trump as a vulnerability in his moderate-right district, especially in the diverse and Democratic area of Kalamazoo where Clements lives.
“If Upton had run a different campaign, taking things for granted, embracing Trump, it could have been one of those races that caught people off guard,” Demas said. “Upton is an institution. It would just be an unbelievable upset, and I really don’t expect that to happen.”
Elizabeth A. Bennion, political science professor at Indiana University at South Bend, said no one can say to what degree voters will link Upton to Trump, despite Upton’s efforts to distance himself.
“Both are appealing to Democratic and swing voters, suggesting a belief that these voters matter, despite (Upton’s) long incumbency,” Bennion said. “Will they turn on their longtime representative? It’s too early to tell.”
The 6th District includes Allegan, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties. It voted for Barack Obama in 2008 (54 percent) and Mitt Romney in 2012 (50 percent). In those elections, Upton won 59 percent of the vote, and 55 percent, respectively.
“Every election I’ve been in, we have run ahead of the national ticket by a pretty good margin,” said Upton, who describes himself as an independent conservative. “Our internal polling shows we’re in good position.”
Still, Upton is not relaxing. He’s been knocking on doors every week since mid-September and had aired an estimated $858,000 worth of broadcast ads through Oct. 31, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network’s analysis of Kantar Media data.
Clements’ campaign had aired an estimated $595,000 worth of ads through Oct. 31, including one claiming Upton has pushed a “Trump-style agenda,” citing his votes to defund Planned Parenthood.
Other ads summarize Clements’ background teaching economic development at Western Michigan University, serving in the Peace Corps, and growing up overseas as the child of missionaries.
Absent this year is the super political action committee Mayday, which dumped more than $2 million into the last weeks of the 2014 contest, targeting Upton for being cozy with “big-money interests” in Washington.
Upton’s fundraising haul through Oct. 19 topped $2,835,800, of which 28 percent was from individuals. This feeds Clements’ criticism of Upton as beholden to PACs representing out-of-state corporations.
Upton said the outside donations don’t sway his votes, but he accepts them in case of attacks like Mayday’s.
“I’m the Boy Scout: Be prepared,” Upton said. “He’s raised hundreds of thousands against us and proved he could get a super PAC independent expenditure against us just two years ago. I play by the rules.”
Clements has raised record amounts of cash for a Democrat in the district — $1,035,664 as of Oct. 19, and almost entirely from individuals.
His efforts drew the attention of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which added the 6th District contest to its Emerging Races program for competitive campaigns. That designation does not come with financial support.
“I’ve been doing a lot of speaking in all six counties of the district, and there’s some pretty serious Fred Upton fatigue out there,” Clements said. “People see that he used to be a moderate, but as his party has gotten ever more extreme, he’s just gone along with them.”
He said Upton is a climate-science denier doing “everything he can” to block Obama’s climate action program. Clements also blames Upton for being “part of the problem” of the rising cost of prescription drugs, noting his vote against a proposal to allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices.
“He voted 55 times to defund the Affordable Care Act,” Clements said. “Sure, it’s not perfect, but let’s work together to fix it.”
Upton emphasizes his bipartisan efforts — from phasing out plastic microbeads, to helping broker the auto bailout and negotiating the House deal on infrastructure aid for Flint’s water crisis. In his ads, constituents praise Upton’s bills to fight the opioid abuse epidemic and increase funding for medical research.
“I’m one of those that would be viewed by any standard as a governing Republican, versus one that just votes no and hopes things pass,” Upton said.
“I look at my chairmanship, and we have something like 150 different provisions that are now signed into law by President Obama. That wouldn’t happen if they weren’t bipartisan.”