Michigan GOP fights to keep edge in Congress

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau
  • Republicans are fighting to defend two Michigan congressional seats in perennial swing districts
  • Democrats hope strong voter turnout could help them win the seats and narrow the House GOP majority
  • Political analysts said incumbents in Michigan’s other GOP U.S. House strongholds are likely safe
  • “It’s hard to gauge Trump’s popularity or toxicity,” said Brian Began, a Republican elections expert

Republicans are fighting to defend congressional seats in two of Michigan’s perennial swing districts, as Democrats hope a strong voter turnout could help flip both in their favor and narrow the House Republican majority.

Voters in Michigan’s 1st and 7th districts have sent Democrats to represent them in Congress in the past decade, but political handicappers say both districts tend to lean Republican.

In the sprawling 1st District, which includes the Upper Peninsula and the northern Lower Peninsula, former state Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson of Kalkaska and the Republican nominee, retired Marine Lt. Gen. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet, are seeking to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Dan Benishek of Crystal Falls.

The 7th District, which covers a swath of south-central Michigan, is represented by Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, who faces a challenge from Democratic state Rep. Gretchen Driskell, the former mayor of Saline.

GOP strategists worry that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s sometimes unpredictable campaign might hurt party candidates further down the ballot, especially because Democrat Hillary Clinton has led in most Michigan polls.

But political analysts said incumbents in Michigan’s Republican strongholds are likely safe though the dynamics of the presidential race could shift. The GOP holds a 9-5 advantage in Michigan U.S. House seats.

“If Trump only got like a third of the vote, then there might be enough of a drag. But these congressmen have all done what they needed to do and don’t have any real competition,” said Brian Began, a Republican and director of elections and research at Grassroots Midwest, a bipartisan consulting firm in Lansing.

“It’s hard to gauge Trump’s popularity or toxicity. We know so little about the Trump voter or the Trump effect.”

Michigan's 1st and 7th districts are the types of races that Democrats need to win to regain the House, but the districts have been drawn to favor Republicans, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the political newsletter Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“Michigan is a good example of the problems the Democrats have in the House. Michigan leans Democratic in presidential years – (George H.W.) Bush was the last Republican to carry it. Yet Republicans control the House delegation,” Kondik said.

“You wonder why Democrats have such a big hole in the House, and a lot of it was because they were on the wrong side of redistricting.”

If Democrats succeed in winning the 1st and 7th district seats, it would eliminate the GOP’s majority in the House delegation and turn it into a 7-7 split.

Both races have received attention from national Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the California Democrat. Pelosi’s House Majority PAC has reserved $623,000 for advertising in both the Traverse City and Marquette markets in the 1st District, and $330,000 in the Lansing market for the 7th District.

District 1

Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter rates the Johnson-Bergman race a toss-up, in part because it is an open seat. During Michigan's presidential primary in March, Trump handily won 40 percent of the district, which covers roughly 32 counties.

Based on the district’s profile – mostly white, non-college-educated voters with lower median incomes – Kondik expects Trump to win there in November. In that case, Johnson would have to get more votes than Clinton in the district to prevail.

“Look at who made it through the Republican primary – the outsider. I do think that’s a little predictive of what’s going on there,” GOP consultant John Truscott said of the northern Michigan district.

But Bergman is a first-time candidate running against a longtime political operative with experience in state and national fundraising and campaigning.

Johnson has his weaknesses as well. He lost a 2012 race for state representative in Michigan’s House District 103. As party chairman, he was criticized for letting Republicans expand their political power in the 2014 elections despite his reputation for technology-savvy voter outreach.

Johnson has raised significantly more money, $1.27 million, compared with Bergman, who brought in about $346,000, according to campaign finance reports.

The National Republican Campaign Committee backed Jason Allen and Tom Casperson in the primary but is now working to help Bergman, attacking Johnson as a supporter of President Barack Obama’s policies.

The NRCC has reserved $1.5 million in advertising air time in 1st District media markets, buying nearly $145,000 worth of ads in Marquette and Traverse City starting Tuesday.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this week has placed a total of $484,000 in the Traverse City and Marquette markets. Johnson has emphasized that he wants to keep the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan “both beautiful and profitable” in part by banning hydraulic fracturing drilling and building a new Soo Lock.

District 7

At this time, neither the DCCC nor NRCC have ad reservations in the 7th District, which includes rural, conservative communities such as Hillsdale and Coldwater. The district also has the city of Jackson and the more liberal bedroom communities of the University of Michigan, Michigan State University and the seat of state government in Lansing.

“This is one where the Trump factor might benefit Walberg. It’s too tough to tell,” Truscott said.

The last time a GOP presidential candidate had a poor showing in Michigan – Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain in 2008 – two Republican congressmen, Walberg and Joe Knollenberg, lost their seats.

“If all of a sudden you have extra people turning out in places like parts of western Washtenaw County, the city of Jackson and Delta Township just outside Lansing, that could start to eat into his base a bit, and Driskell would only have to flip a few more,” Began said.

“But a fair amount of people might vote against Trump but still vote for Walberg, who’s had a chance to establish himself a bit more.”

Walberg has narrowly outraised Driskell, bringing in $1.64 million to her nearly $1.5 million. The incumbent had slightly more cash on hand ($1.48 million) as of July, compared with just over $1 million for Driskell, according to campaign finance reports.

Driskell’s first TV ad, which began airing last week, attacks “Trade Deal Tim” on his record of supporting “bad foreign trade deals that have hurt hardworking Michigan families.”

“We have a lot of empty plants here in the 7th District,” Driskell said in an interview. “Mr. Walberg hasn’t been representing the people here but the funders of special interests.”

Walberg said the deals that Driskell references or infers “were supported in a bipartisan fashion with bipartisan presidents supporting those, with unions supporting certain of those as well, and people she’ll represent here in this district – if she’s given the opportunity – such as farmers, manufacturers,” he said.

Walberg said he intends to continue his winning strategy of “being a voice of reason, not hiding the fact that I’m a conservative in the traditional sense of the word.”

“But I also understand that I represent a diverse district that is purple,” he said. “I don’t think my record has changed or my approach has changed, so I would expect that they would be there again, if they look at that record, and don’t just listen to rhetoric.”

Staff writer Jonathan Oosting contributed