Bishop vs. Slotkin among nation's fiercest House races

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Brighton, and Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly

The ad wars are firing up one of the nation’s hottest congressional races, as Republican Rep. Mike Bishop scrambles to defend his seat against his toughest opponent ever.

Democrat Elissa Slotkin is hawking her national-security credentials and seizing on the issue of health care to make headway in Michigan’s traditionally GOP-leaning 8th District, depicting Bishop as a career politician wedded to the “special interests” who fund his campaigns.

Democrat Elissa Slotkin of Holly addresses a crowd at a house party in Lake Orion on Saturday, September 15, 2018.

Bishop and his allies are painting Slotkin as an outsider from Washington who never got confirmed by the Senate for her last Defense Department post after clashing with Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, on the Obama administration’s Iraq policy.

Slotkin has raised more money than Bishop every quarter. Nonpartisan groups consider the contest a toss-up heading into the last seven weeks before the Nov. 6 election.

The Republican-leaning district includes Livingston County and parts of Ingham and Oakland counties.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, middle, meets members of the Howell Fire Department before the start of the POW/MIA Recognition Ceremony, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018, at the Livingston County Courthouse in Howell, Mich.

“I think Congressman Bishop still holds a slight advantage based on how the district is drawn, but the ads from Slotkin are effective, and they are well done,” said Matt Marsden, a GOP strategist who lives in the district and worked for Bishop when he was Michigan Senate majority leader.

“It speaks volumes that there is some concern over this seat flipping, or you wouldn’t be seeing the expenditure by the National Republican Congressional Committee and other outside groups.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the group End Citizens United released ads this week attacking Bishop's record, while Republican groups, including the NRCC and America First Action — affiliated with President Donald Trump — have ads slamming Slotkin.

“I think the strategy here is very aggressive and very negative on the part of the GOP,” said TJ Bucholz, a Democratic consultant in Lansing.

“They’re already doing personal and bio attacks, which is certainly a worrisome sign for any campaign when you resort to that tactic with this much time on the clock."

'Parachuted into the district'

Some analysts say the Holly Democrat's greatest hurdle might be overcoming the carpetbagger label. 

A radio ad from Bishop this month says Slotkin "just parachuted into the district to run for Congress" and was “recruited by Nancy Pelosi and sent here from Washington.”

“I know the people here,” Bishop said in an interview. “I don’t think my district is going to take kindly to someone who’s never lived here, never owned property in the district, never paid property taxes in the district, and just this year transferred her voter registration to this district.”

The fact-checking site PolitiFact rated Bishop’s ad “half true,” in part because it ignores Slotkin’s upbringing in Michigan and her family’s roots in the state.

Her great-grandfather, a Russian immigrant, founded the family’s meat business, Hygrade Foods, which moved its headquarters to Detroit in 1949 and created the famous Ballpark Franks served at Tiger Stadium.

Both Bishop and Slotkin were born and raised in Michigan.

Bishop, 51,  attended the University of Michigan and then Detroit College of Law (now Michigan State College of Law) before moving back to his hometown of Rochester, starting a real estate business and law firm.

Slotkin, 42, grew up in Oakland County, spending her early years on her family’s  farm in Holly, which is in the 8th District. She went on to Cornell University in New York and later Columbia University for graduate school.

Slotkin was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency while at Columbia and went on to serve three tours in Iraq, serving in intelligence and defense posts during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

She moved back to her family’s farm in Holly about 18 months ago after a Pentagon post ended with the Obama administration.

Slotkin said she was not recruited to run for Congress.

“I had been thinking about running,” Slotkin said in an interview. “Mostly because the tenor and tone in Washington just felt completely dysfunctional and vitriolic … and unbecoming of our country.”    

‘Something inside me broke’

This month, Slotkin told the story of her decision to run for Congress in an emotional TV ad featuring footage of her mother, Judith, who died in 2011.

She'd struggled to get insurance coverage after losing her job in Oakland County in 2002 because of a preexisting condition — breast cancer.  She had no coverage in 2009 when she received a terminal diagnosis of stage-four ovarian cancer.

The ad ends with Slotkin speaking directly to the camera:

“When I saw Congressman Bishop smiling at the White House after voting to gut protections for preexisting conditions, something inside me broke,” she says in the ad.

“I’m running for Congress, and I approve this message because, Mr. Bishop, that’s dereliction of duty. And it’s a fireable offense.”

Bishop says the GOP health care bill the House passed in May 2017 included language intended to protect coverage those with preexisting conditions, including amendments to beef up high-risk pools at the state level for individuals unable to secure other coverage.

“I don’t know how the Democrats across the country are using this as an argument against us when in fact the bill specifically provides for protections for preexisting conditions,” he said.

The amended bill did say insurers could not refuse coverage for those with preexisting conditions.

But health care experts said the bill would have let insurers price premiums based on an individual's current and past "health status,” meaning higher and potentially unaffordable costs for sicker patients.

“I believe what we did was correct and would have provided relief" from rising health care costs, Bishop said.

Medicare plan brouhaha

A pair of TV and radio ads from Bishop last week went after Slotkin on health care, arguing she supports a plan to “end Medicare as we know it.” Slotkin’s campaign called the ad false, as did PolitiFact. .

The ad features a Brighton couple, Ann and Richard, who rely on Medicare, the government health care plan for seniors.

“Slotkin’s plan is to take most everything we have and give it away. We paid into the system. Why would she want to take this away from us?” Richard asks the camera.

A news release from Bishop’s campaign about the ad conflates the proposal for a Medicare buy-in with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for all” plan, suggesting the first is a forerunner to the second. 

Slotkin has said she does not support Medicare for all, which envisions all U.S. residents in a national single-payer program.

Instead, she supports a Medicare-like public plan available to people who are otherwise not eligible for Medicare.

“Slotkin does not support a plan that would change coverage for those currently enrolled in Medicare,” Slotkin spokeswoman Laura Epstein said.

The only change to Medicare that Slotkin supports would be allowing the health secretary to negotiate drug prices in bulk to reduce costs, Epstein added.

“Most of these buy-in proposals create a program separate from Medicare, with separate benefits and financing, and in doing so don’t directly touch the Medicare program,"  said Tricia Neuman, director of the program on Medicare policy at the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation.

Controversial McCain ad

The NRCC planned to spend over $640,000 this month airing a controversial ad using footage of McCain from Slotkin’s 2014 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The ad features a clip of McCain accusing Slotkin of misrepresenting Obama’s decision not to leave behind a residual force of troops in Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal. 

"In all due respect to you, Ms. Slotkin, you either don't know the truth, or you are not telling the truth to this committee, because we could have left a stabilizing force behind," McCain said at the hearing. 

The NRCC released a second Slotkin attack ad Tuesday that also uses the McCain clip as part of an additional $575,000 buy in Detroit, a spokeswoman said. 

After the initial ad aired, the McCain family released a statement saying they were disappointed his words were being "weaponized" in political ads weeks after his death last month from brain cancer. 

The chairman of the NRCC defended the ad Tuesday, saying it’s accurate, relevant “and will make a difference in Michigan 8.”

“I certainly have nothing but respect for Sen. McCain, but they are his words," Rep. Steve Stivers, R-Ohio, said.

"They are 100 percent true, and just as relevant today as they are when he said them.”

Bishop said he had nothing to do with the ads, but the exchange is part of the public record, and Slotkin is “going to have to address that issue at some point in time."

“Obviously, I have great respect for John McCain and for his service to our country. And his words are powerful, no matter when he says them and how he says them," Bishop said.

Slotkin has said McCain was doing his job at the hearing, and she was doing hers.

“I was representing the decisions of the commander-in-chief and keeping my best professional advice to the president in confidence,” Slotkin said.

"To be frank, my personal opinions differed from the president’s at the time, but I took my obligations to my role very seriously."

Slotkin said that, during her career, she briefed McCain “many, many times” in Senate meetings, in hearings and in Iraq.

“He did not bring it up to me again," she said. "It was just something that happened."

The Slotkin campaign's response to the ad featured Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, who served as a senior adviser to Bush and Obama on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and who has endorsed Slotkin.

“When it comes to national security, we’ve got to play it straight. Attacking Elissa Slotkin with video taken out of context is deceitful and wrong,” Lute says in the ad.

"She’s dedicated her life to keeping America safe."