Orion Twp. supervisor mulls GOP challenge to U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

The Republican supervisor in Orion Township says he is seriously mulling a run for Congress to represent Michigan's new 9th District in what would be a GOP primary challenge to Trump-backed U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain.

Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett has run the day-to-day business of the municipality of 38,000 since his first election in 2012 and was recently chosen by his peers to chair the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments. He is also president of the Oakland County Association of Township Supervisors.

"I love serving the people in Orion. But my phone started ringing when the new district lines came out," Barnett said in an interview. "I started getting a lot of encouragement from colleagues, other electeds that are in the district, saying I should consider it."

Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett, shown at the announcement by General Motors Co. on Jan. 25, 2022, that it will invest $7 billion in electric vehicle and battery production in Michigan, says he is seriously mulling a run for Congress to represent Michigan's new 9th District in what would be a GOP primary challenge to Trump-backed U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain.

Barnett, 44, said he intends to make a decision soon. He noted that, following the redistricting process, Oakland County is now the largest county by population in the GOP-heavy 9th District, which also covers northern Macomb County and the Thumb.

"It used to be a more Macomb-strong district," he said. "Now, it's a new district." 

If he runs, Barnett said he would stress political civility over the partisan rancor that has dominated Washington in recent years, saying the focus should be on working together to get things done.

"Frankly, I think that it's time time for us to do that, to serve our residents and focus on what we're we're supposed to do there — a little more like public service and a little less like WWE," he said. 

Barnett, the younger brother of Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett, would likely face a tough fight from McClain.

The freshman lawmaker has announced her intent to run for a second term in the 9th District and was endorsed this month by former President Donald Trump, whom she has strongly supported.

The former businesswoman from Bruce Township became the only Republican woman in the Michigan delegation last year when she succeeded the late Rep. Paul Mitchell of Dryden Township. She sits on the Armed Services and Education and Labor panels. 

As a first time candidate in 2020, McClain ran as a conservative outsider and won a competitive primary in the current 10th District with 42% of the vote over state Rep. Shane Hernandez (36%) and former Selfridge Air National Guard Base commander Doug Slocum (22%). She went on to defeat Democrat Kimberly Bizon 66% to 34% in the November election.

"Lisa McClain has a track record of being a true conservative who is the best representative possible for Michigan's new 9th Congressional District," spokeswoman Stacey Daniels said in a statement.

"She fights for Michigan families and their freedoms every single day. Not only is Lisa endorsed by President Trump, she has a 100% voting record with the Heritage Foundation and has overwhelming support in the district."

Days after taking office, McClain was one of the three Michigan Republican lawmakers who objected Jan. 6, 2021, to the electoral tallies that made President Joe Biden’s victory official, along with U.S. Reps. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet and Tim Walberg of Tipton. 

Biden won Michigan's 2020 presidential election by 154,000 votes or 3 percentage points over Trump, but McClain wouldn't affirm that when asked that on WDIV Local 4's Flashpoint, saying "there's a lot of doubts" and calling for a review of the election. 

"There were a lot of irregularities. I think there were a lot of inconsistencies," she said.

Barnett said he voted for Trump but signaled his desire to move beyond the 2020 election, saying no one in the district thinks the results are going to be "undone." 

"The Republican-led state Legislature did an investigation and found no fraud, so I am not in a position to further question it," Barnett said. "If there were evidence, I'm assuming that Republican legislators in Michigan would be screaming from the rooftops — as would I. I would join them."

Barnett said he's been "friendly" with the former president and was among a dozen state and local officials at the White House in December 2020 for the administration's rollout of Operation Warp Speed — the effort to push to quickly make COVID-19 vaccines available. 

In this redistricting year, McClain would not the first Michigan Republican incumbent in Congress to get a challenger from within the GOP amid party infighting.

U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer of Grand Rapids Township is getting a challenge from his right from John Gibbs, a former Trump housing official. U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar of Midland is facing a challenge from Tom Norton of Ada, a former village president in Sand Lake who previously targeted Meijer.

And state Rep. Steve Carra, R-Three Rivers, is running in the new 4th District against GOP U.S. Reps. Bill Huizenga of Holland and Fred Upton of St. Joseph, who were drawn together under the new congressional map. Upton has not said whether he's running for another term.

McClain partially self-funded her first campaign and reported just over $400,500 in cash reserves as of Dec. 31. Self-funding is not something that Barnett can afford, he said, adding he would rely on supporters' contributions. 

"If I decided to run, and I'm so lucky to represent the people of the 9th District, I won't let them down. I will be a tireless workhorse for our region," Barnett said.

"And honestly, I think that's missing from what I can see," he added. "I'm not just digging on Lisa. I'm just saying, in general, I think people sometimes go to serve their own interests, unfortunately."

Orion Township recently got a major boost with General Motors Co.'s announcement last month that it plans to invest $4 billion at its Orion Assembly facility to transition it for electric pickup production. The move is expected to create more than 2,350 new jobs at Orion and retain about 1,000 jobs when the plant is fully operational.

“He’s been hailed for the job he’s done in managing growth in the community, particularly bringing jobs to Orion Township. Also, how he handled the tragedy in Oxford," said Jamie Roe, a Republican consultant who is familiar with the new district.

"He proved himself as a leader. Ultimately, whether that translates to success running against a Republican incumbent is a question I don't know the answer to right now."

One Democrat so far, Brian Jaye, has filed for the 9th District race. 

mburke@detroitnews.com