Lennox: Intra-party battle for Congress in Mich.’s U.P.

Dennis Lennox

Voters in northern and upper Michigan are about to find themselves in the midst of an intra-party war that is set to be the state’s most competitive campaign of 2016.

U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, the surgeon from tiny Crystal Falls who with tea party help stunned the chattering class in 2010, set up a battle royal after backtracking on his decision to seek a fourth term.

The lines are finally formed as Jason Allen, who lost the 2010 Republican nomination to Benishek by 15 votes, prepares to announce his candidacy.

The Traverse City haberdasher, who served 12 years in the Legislature and is finishing up as senior deputy director of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, will face state Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba.

The 1st Congressional District is a massive constituency that starts in Mason County and runs north to Traverse City, east to the Lake Huron coast and then up the shore from Harrisville to Mackinaw City, where it crosses the Straits of Mackinac and covers the Upper Peninsula. Casperson is a familiar name after being the Republican standard-bearer in 2008, when he was crushed by then-Democratic incumbent Bart Stupak.

Complicating things for Casperson is the fact that he’s cast thousands of votes in the Legislature — such as voting against right to work — that now he now must defend before the GOP’s true believers.

This also haunts state Rep. Pete Pettalia, who’s using his House Transportation Committee post to campaign without having to formally declare later next year. Pettalia’s long record will also draw scrutiny from ideologically motivated national groups.

By contrast, Allen hasn’t cast a vote since Jennifer Granholm was governor. While an appointee of Gov. Rick Snyder, his position is removed from the ideological tussles found elsewhere in state government.

Casperson’s best hope rests in the parochial tendencies of the congressional district’s electorate.

Yet the reality is the Upper Peninsula’s declining population and generally, albeit culturally conservative, Democratic tilt means more GOP primary voters are trolls than yoopers.

The biggest factor working against Allen is freshman state Rep. Lee Chatfield, of Levering, who hasn’t ruled out a run. Chatfield is a folk hero for the GOP’s evangelical-dominated base after upsetting an establishment-backed incumbent in the 2014 primaries.

It’s difficult to see either Chatfield or Pettalia winning, although they could play spoiler by mustering up enough partisans that might otherwise fall into line behind Allen.

This could be enough for Casperson to win and face in the general election either Lon Johnson, former Michigan Democratic Party chairman, or retired Army Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, the 2014 nominee.

Dennis Lennox is a freelance columnist.