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There is change afoot in southern Michigan, where Democratic challenger Gretchen Driskell is trying to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg in the GOP-leaning 7th Congressional District.

Walberg of Tipton defeated Driskell, a former state representative from Saline, by 15 percentage points in 2016 in a district where President Donald Trump has been popular.

Despite that advantage, she has raised more money than the incumbent this time around and argued that she, like Trump, wants change.

Walberg, one of Michigan's most conservative House members, has been playing up his willingness to work with Democrats and mentioned former President Barack Obama in a commercial.

Whether the 7th District has moved in the right or wrong direction also has emerged as a central theme in the rematch between Walberg, a 67-year-old former pastor, and Driskell, who has a background in accounting and real estate.

The Democrats have frequently targeted Walberg, who lost his first re-election bid in 2008 to Mark Schauer. But Walberg beat Schauer in a 2010 rematch when Republicans experienced their own wave election and retook control of the U.S. House. 

The incumbent has beaten back challenges ever since, especially after the district lines got redrawn in 2012. 

The 7th District, which encompasses four counties such as Monroe along the Ohio border along with three others, is on the "outer fringes of takeover opportunities for Democrats," said Bill Ballenger of the Ballenger Report, a longtime Michigan political observer and former GOP state lawmaker. The Cook Political Report rates the district "likely Republican."

But the possible "blue wave" of female Democrats could potentially sweep Driskell into office, Ballenger said.

"The bottom line is if Walberg loses, it really is a blue wave," he said.

After her 2016 defeat, Driskell said she traveled across the district and asked voters what went wrong. She started in Monroe, where Trump won handily two years ago, then went to Jackson, Eaton and Hillsdale counties. 

"I was trying to figure out what happened," Driskell said. "And I listened to people."

What the 60-year-old Democrat said she heard is that residents are still struggling financially, even though Michigan is called the "comeback state." Many said they're working two jobs and can't make ends meet.  

"Trump was a vote for change and I tell people if they still want that change, they should be voting for me," said Driskell, who added the political climate is "100 percent different" this time around.

Walberg is out of touch, she said, adding that "the median household income hasn't recovered, housing hasn't recovered" from the mortgage meltdown and the Great Recession.

There has been change in the last two years in his district — and it's all been in the right direction, Walberg countered.

Voters "have a choice," he said, sitting in a Right to Life office in downtown Jackson that doubles as his campaign headquarters. "Do you want to change from 4.2 percent GDP last quarter, 3.7 percent unemployment, which is historic? ... Do you want to go away from trade negotiations going our way? Do you want to go away from all of that?"

"That's where we are at," said Walberg, who is seeking a sixth term.

Outside groups pumped millions of dollars into the race in 2016, according to federal campaign reports. But that hasn't been the case in 2018.

Instead, Driskell has raised more money than Walberg this cycle. She brought in over $2.43 million, including $150,000 she loaned her campaign on Oct. 15.  

Driskell reported just over $922,000 on hand as of Oct. 17, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures.

Walberg has raised $2 million and reported nearly $850,800 in cash reserves as of Oct. 17.

A mayoral perspective

Sitting in a quaint coffee shop in Saline's growing downtown, an area Driskell said she helped bring back to life with revitalization efforts when she was mayor, she chuckled at criticism from Walberg that she's a radical liberal.

The divorced mom of three and grandmother to one says she's always worked with both Republicans and Democrats to get things accomplished as an elected official.

"As mayor, you don't just work with one group. You work with everyone and collaborate," said Driskell, who grew up in New York but moved to Michigan with her ex-husband. "When I was mayor of Saline, I didn't know who was a Democrat or a Republican." 

Michigan needs to do more to bring young people back to the state, which means investing in communities, schools and skilled trade programs, she said. Driskell said she supports secure borders without necessarily building a wall, which Trump considers a must.

"I hear it from businesses and agriculture — they need workers – and comprehensive immigration reform is a path to doing that," she said.

On the Affordable Care Act, she supports the federal law as a way to increase access to health care, but it has flaws. Driskell said she lived for 10 years without health insurance.

She said she disagrees with Walberg's support of repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with a more market-driven system.

"I know what it's like to raise kids and not have the money to pay for health care," she said. "It’s really scary."

A bipartisan approach needs to be taken to fix the Affordable Care Act, Driskell said. She wouldn't offer specifics but said a group like the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group, should work on it.

"It's very complicated legislation," she said.

Defending Walberg record

Walberg defended his record, pointing to an improved economy resulting from fewer regulations, a tax cut and better trade deals.

A staunch conservative, Walberg says he still reaches across the aisle and has sponsored more bipartisan legislation this term than any other member of the Michigan delegation. Two bills he sponsored to address the opioid crisis have been signed into law by Trump.  

The opioid crisis "affects so many across my seven-county district," he said.

As an example of his bipartisanship, Walberg often does joint events in Michigan with Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, who represents the neighboring 12th District. 

Although more Michigan residents have health care coverage under the Affordable Care Act, he stands by his votes to repeal what he calls a "train wreck of legislation."

Walberg said he prefers a patient-centered approach that would give people more choices and options in their health insurance. 

The Affordable Care Act "doesn't work," he said. "It's not affordable. ... Yes, it's absolutely true more people have health insurance because of Obamacare. But does it work? Most people found out it doesn't."

Democrats have criticized the House Republican repeal-and-replace plan, saying it would have jeopardized affordable coverage for those with pre-existing health conditions.

Walberg called the criticism "such a big lie." People only would have been penalized with more expensive coverage if they let their health plans lapse, he said.

On immigration, he said the nation's borders must be secured — "any way possible. It doesn't have to be a wall" — and adults who came here illegally as children should be given legal status for a probationary period.

He quoted former President Ronald Reagan on his immigration philosophy: "Make sure we have gates that swing wide and free to people who yearn to be free and live the American dream," Walberg said.

"But come across and sign our guest book, abide by our laws and speak our language. That's all we are asking."

The country is so divided now because liberals still can't accept that Trump won the presidency, he said. Conservative protesters such as tea partyers never acted as liberals have in town halls over the last two years, Walberg said.

"We didn't have committee meetings taken over with shouting and all of that," he said. "We haven't seen that. I absolutely blame the left."

In the end, Walberg says the country needs to move on.

"At some point," he said, "you have to say, 'Doggone it, I'm an American, and I may not have voted for that person but hey, let's go on and make American great.'"

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

(313) 223-4686

Twitter: @mfeighan

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