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Lansing — Michigan Democratic Party chairman Lon Johnson is launching a campaign to unseat Republican Rep. Dan Benishek in northern Michigan’s 1st Congressional District.

Johnson, 44, plans to resign his post as party chairman July 11, when the Democratic State Central Committee plans to meet in Port Huron to choose a successor.

State Rep. Brandon Dillon of Grand Rapids has emerged as the favorite to succeed Johnson in a possible power-sharing partnership with Oakland County Deputy Clerk Lavora Barnes.

Johnson, who has a home in Kalkaska and an apartment in Detroit, is wading into one of Michigan’s most competitive congressional seats, which has a base of about 53 percent Republican voters. Democrats have strongholds across the Upper Peninsula and in Traverse City and Petoskey. Democrat Bart Stupak of Menominee held the seat from 1993 to 2011.

Johnson is targeting Benishek for breaking a pledge to serve only three terms in Congress, supporting changes to Medicare, voting against programs for veterans and backing a free trade deal.

“What we’ve seen out of Congressman Benishek is broken promises,” Johnson said in a telephone interview Thursday evening after announcing his candidacy at the Marquette County Democratic Party’s annual Summer Sizzle in Ishpeming. “Benishek has gone to Washington and become part of the partisan bickering.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee plans to fiercely defend Benishek, spokesman Chris Pack said.

Johnson’s wife, Julianna Smoot, was President Barack Obama’s deputy campaign manager in 2012. He remains close to national Democrats, which could prove useful in raising campaign cash.

Republicans plan to use Johnson’s ties to Obama against him.

“He offers a treasure trove of hits,” Pack said Thursday. “Any chance we get, we’ll be tying Lon Johnson to Barack Obama and Barack Obama’s failed policies.”

On Thursday, Johnson sought to distance himself from Obama on one recent issue – the president’s request for fast-track authority from Congress to negotiate free trade deals. Benishek voted for the legislation last week, while Democrats and their allies in organized labor oppose it.

“I’m not the one who just voted with the president in support of a trade deal that will ship thousands of jobs overseas,” Johnson told The Detroit News.

Republicans contend Johnson’s liberal social views won’t jibe with the conservative Democrats of the 1st District, which includes the entire Upper Peninsula and 17 counties in the northern Lower Peninsula.

“The difference between Stupak and Lon Johnson is I think Stupak was a little more conservative than the chief political hack at the Michigan Democratic Party,” Pack said. “There’s a big difference between a conservative Democrat and Lon Johnson.”

State Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, said Upper Peninsula residents are “looking for a workhorse” and he believes Johnson will impress voters.

“Definitely people are going to accept him because of his work ethic,” said Dianda, who serves as a regional vice chairman for the state party. “They’re going to be able to see a candidate who’s capable of having a great political discussion, having a great ground game.”

“It’s not about the political parties up here all of the time,” Dianda added. “Anybody who’s talking to people in the Upper Peninsula has got to talk about how you’re going to create jobs and how you’re going to make a better quality of life up here. For people in the Upper Peninsula, it’s about having money in your pocket and having a job.”

Johnson has been party chairman for less than 2 1/2 two and a half years after unseating longtime chairman Mark Brewer in 2013. A Downriver native with four generations of family ties to northern Michigan, Johnson lost a race for the state House’s 103rd District in 2012.

In February, Michigan Democrats unanimously re-elected Johnson to a second two-year term without any challenge, despite grumblings among some party insiders about the Democratic Party’s 2014 losses in the statewide races for governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

Dillon said Thursday if he’s elected chairman, he would hire Barnes as chief operating officer.

The Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative political group, on Thursday called for Dillon to resign if he is elected Democratic Party chairman, which is a full-time job. There’s no state law that says Dillon has to forfeit his House seat.

“I’m not going to make any decisions about that until there’s actually been an election for chair,” Dillon said.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood

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