Marine vets vie for U.S. House seat in northern Michigan, U.P.
In a relatively sleepy race, two Marine veterans of different generations are vying for the U.S. House seat representing northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
Freshman Rep. Jack Bergman, a retired three-star general from Watersmeet, has rarely split with President Donald Trump, embracing his tariffs, border wall and the GOP tax reform bill. He wants to repeal the federal health care law and scale back regulations.
Democrat Matt Morgan of Traverse City, an Iraq veteran and political newcomer, has campaigned on single-payer universal health care, infrastructure upgrades and immigration reform. He says Trump's tax reform has had no "meaningful" effect on worker wages.
"People often say, he's a Marine, you're a Marine. What's the difference between the two of you? The biggest difference is who's funding our campaigns," Morgan said.
"He accepts corporate political action committee money, and I believe it has a direct impact on his decision-making and votes in Washington."
Bergman "supports policies that have brought the lowest unemployment to the U.P. in decades, and his efforts are creating tens of thousands of jobs with a new Soo Lock," said John Yob, a Bergman consultant.
"Matt Morgan is a desperate and failing candidate who hypocritically attacks job providers, while simultaneously raising money with Hollywood and East Coast liberals like Michael Moore and Elizabeth Warren."
In contrast to 2016, the contest has garnered little interest from outside groups or either party. Most handicappers rate Michigan's 1st District as a "solid" or "likely" Republican win. Trump clinched the district by 21 percentage points in 2016.
The district has always elected Yoopers to represent them in Congress, rather than someone from the lower peninsula like Morgan.
But not long ago, the seat was held by a moderate Democrat for 18 years — Rep. Bart Stupak of Menominee — until he retired in 2010.
Chances for an upset?
Morgan ran a successful write-in effort across the 32-county district in the August primary, garnering 30,000 votes after getting kicked off the ballot for a technical deficiency. He needed 3,570 certified write-ins to qualify.
"It's amazing how many people wrote his name in. They want a change," said Carolyn Hietamaki of Gwinn, who chairs the 1st District Democratic Party.
Morgan raised more money than Bergman last quarter, but the incumbent has brought in slightly more overall this cycle — $1.32 million to Morgan's $1.23 million. Bergman also held a cash edge as of Oct. 17 with $180,720 in the bank to Morgan's $131,360.
"I will suggest to you my experience level shows that I'm the better of the two candidates by far because I've been there, done that and get things done. Look at the Soo Locks," Bergman said, referring to the long-delayed lock upgrade that Congress reauthorized.
The congressman was one of three Michigan GOP House members who lobbied President Donald Trump about the need for modernizing the Soo Locks during a late April drive from Selfridge Air Force Base to a rally in Macomb County.
The president unexpectedly embraced the Soo Locks, helping to result in congressional authorization for $922 million in funding, but still requiring an appropriation of money.
Jesse Osmer of Alpena, chair of the 1st District Republican Party, said, "Frankly, we've already won this seat. Now, it's just about turning out the vote."
An incumbent hasn't lost the district since 1966, with the seat only changing hands when a lawmaker retires, said Bill Ballenger, a former GOP state lawmaker and longtime observer of Michigan politics.
"It’s Trump country up there. Trump won every county in the Upper Peninsula except Marquette," Ballenger said.
Still, Morgan is optimistic, noting the residents he's met who support Trump "think Congress needs to get it together."
"I don’t know that presidential politics has much impact on people coming out to vote for their congressman," Morgan said. "I like to believe that people being seen and having a relationship with their congressman. That’s what seems to matter here."
Morgan, 47,retired from the Marine Corps in 2013 as a lieutenant colonel after more than 20 years, spending his last four years in service as director of public affairs for the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Command out of Norfolk, Virginia.
Morgan previously served as a strategic communications officer in the office of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, he said.
He spent 18 months on the ground in Iraq, in addition to time in the Horn of Africa, he said.
He and wife Angie returned to her native Michigan in 2013 to raise their family. He worked as an independent writer and film consultant, advising on films such as “American Sniper” and “Arrival.”
Morgan wants Congress to repeal the post-Sept. 11 authorization for use of military force that presidents have used for 17 years to justify military interventions worldwide. The initial authorization was intended to target those responsible for Sept. 11.
"It's come at an extreme cost to Americans, both in terms of the American lives we've lost and the money spent there," Morgan said.
"We have to open it back up to debate in Congress because if we're just writing a blank check, there's no debate, and the American people don't have a voice."
He supports decommissioning Line 5, the oil pipeline that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac and was dented by an anchor strike this year.
"It just poses too great a risk — a 50-year-old line lying in the open water," Morgan said.
He's open to a utility tunnel in its place but is skeptical of the proposed details.
Morgan slammed a recent attack ad by Bergman that claims he wants to get rid of the Immigration and Custom Enforcement agency and allow police to take guns away. He does not.
"I understand the need for border security. I am a Marine. But I don’t think the border wall — the physical wall — is by any means the answer," Morgan said. "It seems to me that leveraging technology would be the right way to do this and probably the most cost effective."
And as a hunter and gun owner, Morgan said the suggestion that he wants to seize guns from law-abiding citizens is "absurd."
If law enforcement seeks to take weapons from someone who poses a threat due to mental illness, a judge should be involved to ensure due process, he said.
Morgan's campaign has the backing of labor groups and endorsements from Stupak, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Bergman, 71, flew a helicopter in the Vietnam War and later worked as a commercial airline pilot for Northwest. He spent 40 years in the Marines, commanding the Marine Forces Reserve at his retirement in 2009.
Bergman defeated Democrat Lon Johnson by nearly 15 percentage points in 2016 to succeed Rep. Dan Benishek of Crystal Falls, who retired.
Bergman sits on the Veterans Affairs, Budget and Natural Resources committees and served as president of the freshman class, among whom he fostered a "bipartisan atmosphere," he said.
He counts among his top achievements passage of a bill to reform the VA's troubled Choice Program by changing how the VA pays for private care and expanding the caregiver program.
Bergman opposed Trump's proposal to zero out the Great Lakes cleanup program, which was ultimately funded.
That was a "minor" disagreement on priorities, Bergman said. Overall, he's been happy with what the administration has done for the business and national security environments.
On the role of U.S. military intervention overseas, Bergman said that decision is up to the president and defense secretary in consultation with Congress.
"Because by the time you say ‘reduce,’ a threat could pop up, so you have to increase," Bergman said. "So to just make that predetermined decision to reduce (our footprint), reflects no understanding of how war-fighting really works."
Bergman said his take on Line 5 hasn't changed since 2016: "If it’s safe, keep it safe. If it’s not safe, shut it down," he said.
The recent deal to build a tunnel under the straits is "long overdue," he added.
Bergman won't rule out spending on Trump's promised border wall but says the solution could be more broader — from a wall to fences to surveillance techniques.
"I support spending that ensures that our borders are secure," he said. "As much as we’d like to think that everyone coming here is a good person, they really aren’t."