Benishek won’t seek fourth term in Congress

David Shepardson and Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Rep. Dan Benishek, the Upper Peninsula surgeon who initially planned to seek a fourth term in Congress, reversed course Tuesday and said he will not run again.

When Benishek first ran for office in 2010, he pledged to serve just three terms and came under criticism from Democrats this year for initially opting to run for re-election in 2016.

The 1st Congressional District leans Republican even in presidential years, but an open seat creates uncertainty and gives the Democrats a better chance of winning it, said Kyle Kondik, who follows Congress for the University of Virginia Center for Politics and now rates the 2016 race a “toss-up.”

“I wonder if the replacement would be an improvement over Benishek since he almost lost in 2012, and he didn’t perform particularly well in 2014 compared with how well Republicans did all over the country,” Kondik said.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report said the rural district’s trend line “favors the GOP,” noting Benishek’s early announcement gives his party time to find a strong candidate.

Party insiders named Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba; former Sen. Jason Allen; and state Rep. Peter Petallia, R-Presque Isle, among Benishek’s potential successors.

Also mentioned was Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, who praised Benishek’s service Tuesday but wouldn’t comment on his interest. “Who knows what the future holds?” Schmidt said.

Petallia said he is “seriously” looking at the seat and was considering a primary run against Benishek when he initially broke his term-limits pledge.

“My name ID in that district is good. We’d certainly have to work at getting that up, but just to have somebody jump out such as they have on the Democratic side, has a long way to go to get a name ID when the counties are that many,” Petallia said.

Former Kalkaska County Sheriff Jerry Cannon, who was Benishek’s Democratic opponent in 2014, is challenging former Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson of Kalkaska for the Democratic nomination.

“I want to thank Congressman Benishek for his service to our country,” said Johnson, who has received the endorsement of the Michigan Democratic congressional delegation.

“I’m focused on building upon the grassroots momentum I’ve already received in order to make the U.P. and Northern Michigan a place where our families can stay and succeed.”

Cannon, who came within 7 percentage points last year of defeating Benishek, said Benishek is doing the “right thing” for his constituents.

“People like straight talk, and if you say you’re going to do something you should do it,” Cannon said.

Republicans said Tuesday they remain optimistic that they will hold the seat.

“The liberal policies of Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi remain incredibly unpopular in Northern Michigan, and we will continue reminding the voters that Democrats Lon Johnson and Jerry Cannon are a rubber stamp for those failed policies,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Chris Pack said. “We are confident this Northern Michigan district will remain in the GOP column.”

Democrats also are targeting Reps. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, in the 7th Congressional District and Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, in the 8th District. The national Republican committee has pledged campaign support for Walberg and Bishop, who face state Rep. Gretchen Driskell, D-Saline, and actress Melissa Gilbert of Livington County, respectively.

The Crystal Falls Republican said in a statement that dropping his re-election bid “will allow me to focus my time and attention on helping our veterans and working to make things better for the families and workers throughout Northern Michigan, and devote more time to my family.”

Benishek added there are “a lot of talented individuals that care about the people up here and our nation that will step forward to look at serving in Congress. There is a lot of work still to be done, and I’m looking forward to these last sixteen months to continue representing the families and veterans of Northern Michigan.”

The 1st Congressional District has a base of about 53 percent Republican voters and includes the Upper Peninsula and 17 counties in the northern Lower Peninsula.

Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel praised Benishek’s service.

“I am so thankful to Congressman Benishek for his years of dedicated service to our state and our nation. I appreciate Dr. Dan’s common-sense approach to governing, his leadership on veterans issues, and his passion for the Great Lakes and for our state," she said.

Benishek is on the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Veterans Affairs committees — and has taken a big role in military issues. He has worked with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., on efforts to fight sexual assault in the military. He is the father of a daughter who is a veteran.

Benishek originally ran for office after being outraged by the $800 billion stimulus bill approved in 2009. He went from a political unknown to appearing on Fox News’ Sean Hannity television show, bashing the federal health care legislation supported by his predecessor, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee.

Benishek, with the backing of tea party enthusiasts, upset state Sen. Jason Allen by 15 votes out of 57,000 votes cast in the 2010 GOP primary. In 2012, Benishek defeated Democratic challenger Gary McDowell by fewer than 2,300 votes.

Before Benishek, only Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, has said she won’t run again in 2016 in the Michigan congressional delegation. Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, said in June will seek re-election.

Detroit News Staff Writer Chad Livengood contributed.