Bishop's re-election fight seen as a bellwether for control of U.S. House

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
Rep. Mike Bishop

Washington — Republican Rep. Mike Bishop’s bid for re-election in a Metro Detroit district is increasingly viewed as a bellwether in the fight for control of the U.S. House.

Republican strategist Corry Bliss says if he could know ahead of time the results of any fall midterm race as an indicator of who wins the majority, he’d look to places like Michigan’s 8th District, where Bishop is running for a third term, and to California’s 45th, held by GOP Rep. Mimi Walters in suburban Los Angeles.

“I think if you can predict those races, you can predict who wins the majority,” said Bliss, director of the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super political action committee that is aligned with GOP House leaders including Speaker Paul Ryan.

“Democrats have made it no secret they will spend millions in both races. These are suburban districts with a slight Republican lean, in tough media markets.”

President Donald Trump won Michigan's 8th District by 7 percentage points in 2016. . 

Hillary Clinton garnered 44 percent of the vote there. Now, another female candidate — political newcomer and former Central Intelligence Agency analyst Elissa Slotkin — is getting a lot of attention in the district, already eclipsing what two-term Rep. Bishop raised for re-election last cycle. 

A Michigan native, Slotkin moved back to her family's farm in Holly from Washington, D.C., over a year ago after her post as a top defense official ended with the Obama administration.

A Democrat hasn't held the seat for 18 years, but the well-educated, largely suburban district has a profile similar to special congressional election contests in recent months where Democrats did well in traditionally Republican strongholds, political analysts say.

The district includes Ingham, Livingston and Clinton counties and northern Oakland County. 

Dave Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, rates the 8th between a toss-up and "leans Republican." 

"Those are the kinds of seats Democrats need to win for this to be a wave election," Wasserman said. 

"This is a district that combines traditionally Republican suburbs with a very liberal city in Lansing, so it’s a test case for whether voters have shifted since the 2016 election in those places."

Michigan native Nate Silver, the statistician who runs the website, has called Michigan's 8th — his home district — a "great benchmark" for which party could end up controlling the House.

Bellwether designation rejected

Bishop disagrees with those using his district as a benchmark. 

“I don’t feel that in my district,” he said. “Everyone seems to have an opinion on what’s going to be the bellwether, what’s going to be the X-factor in all these races. I don’t view Michigan’s 8th as the one to look at to prognosticate.”

Slotkin's campaign manager, Mela Louise Norman, said the Democratic campaign is also not focused on what the national map looks like. 

"We're confident about Elissa's prospects because every day we're hearing from voters across the political spectrum who want to elect a different kind of candidate, someone who has not spent their life in politics," Norman said. 

"Elissa is running a unique campaign that has attracted more than a thousand volunteers. That's what will make the difference in November."

Democrats will have to win at least some "Trump districts" to win the House, and Michigan's 8th is the kind they could "hypothetically" win, said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. 

"I don’t think it’s necessarily a 'must-win' for Democrats. With several dozen competitive Republican seats scattered across the country, there aren’t that many that are truly must-wins," Kondik said. 

"In Michigan, I would rank Michigan's 11th ahead of the 8th as a Democratic pickup opportunity simply because it’s an open seat," where GOP Rep. Dave Trott of Birmingham is retiring. 

Electoral landscape shifting

Democrats need to capture a minimum 23 seats from Republican control to clinch the majority. Party strategists are targeting more than that nationwide, buoyed by surging grassroots enthusiasm. 

But Bliss says polls have shown improvement for incumbent Republicans in the top two tiers of competitive House districts since December, and the generic ballot advantage for Democrats has nearly vanished in these 34 districts

A Real Clear Politics average of polls gave Democrats a 13-point advantage on a generic ballot in late December. That lead has narrowed to 7.6 points by Friday. 

At the California Republican Party convention last month, Walters warned her fellow Republicans to take their challengers seriously and prepare for a tough fight.

“The Democrats think there’s no stopping them this time. They’re not just coming for any one of us, they’re coming for all of us,” the LA Times reported her as saying. “This isn’t going to go the way they think it is.”

Elissa Slotkin

Bishop won his election by nearly 17 percentage points in 2016 and almost 13 points in 2014. But Slotkin has raised more money than him for three quarters in a row.

Her total last quarter, about $801,000, was the most of any Democratic U.S. House candidate in Michigan in during the reporting period.

Slotkin also reported slightly more in cash reserves ($1.34 million) than the Bishop ($1.3 million) as of March 31. Her challenger in the Democratic primary, Christopher Smith, reported $48,646 on hand.

Bliss says incumbents getting outraised by Democratic challengers is "inexcusable." 

“If you’re an incumbent member of Congress and getting outraised, you should either work harder or spend time working on your resume," he said. 

“I think if you’re being outraised, it’s largely just work ethic. I find it very hard to believe this many Republican incumbents were spending 15 hours a week doing all the grunt work to raise money and getting outraised.”

'Campaign of ideas'

Bishop's campaign has tried to frame Slotkin as a carpetbagger who's raising significant money from outside the district from "coastal elites." 

Nearly a third of her contributions over $200 have come from donors in California and New York, according to campaign finance reports. 

"She’s got a network out there, and they’re funding her at record levels. That to me does not translate directly to a win," Bishop said.

"My constituent base wants to know more about what the candidate thinks on issues. I think this is going to be a campaign of ideas and whether or not she can get up to speed on this district and the people who live there — because she’s never been there before."

Slotkin's campaign stresses that she's a third-generation Michiganian who raises most of her money from individual contributors, highlighting Bishop's out-of-state support from corporate PACs — donations that she has sworn off. 

Bliss’ group has been on the ground in Michigan's 8th District for over a year, working phone banks out of its field office and knocking on doors, he said.

It has reserved at least $2.2 million worth of television airtime to support Bishop in the fall. By comparison, the group spent $30,000 in support of Bishop in 2016.

"It's not surprising that Speaker Ryan needs to bring his team into Michigan to try to defend this seat. Rep. Bishop has spent too long in Washington toeing his party's line and doing the business of special interests," said Laura Epstein, spokeswoman for Slotkin's campaign. 

"That's why it's going to be such a tough election for Rep. Bishop, and why the national Republicans will work so hard to keep him in Washington."

Defending Bishop's seat is also a priority for the National Republican Campaign Committee, which has been stepping up criticism of Slotkin. 

“So far, Elissa Slotkin has been able to skate by without taking any concrete positions on anything other than that she disagrees with Mike Bishop," NRCC spokeswoman Maddie Anderson said.