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Commentary

Michigan's Hottest Race

Jack Lessenberry

Here’s one safe political prediction: the race in Michigan’s First Congressional district is going to be a lot more expensive than anyone thought two days ago.

  Republican Congressman Dan Benishek abruptly announced yesterday that he had decided to keep his three-term pledge after all, and retire after this term. A few months ago he had changed his mind, but is now changing it back.

Which means a race that was already competitive just got red-hot. Suddenly, lights may have been burning in several Republican homes, as politicians tried to persuade their families this was a race worth making.

"Suddenly, lights may have been burning in several Republican homes, as politicians tried to persuade their families this was a race worth making."

State Senator Tom Casperson of Escanaba is perhaps the most likely to run. But he may be challenged in the GOP primary by State Representative Peter Pettalia of Presque Isle, and former State Senator Jason Allen, of Traverse City.

The man who succeeded Allen in the Senate, Wayne Schmidt, could run too. Democrats already have a primary race, one that hasn’t gotten nasty yet, but which could. Two years ago, then-State Party Chair Lon Johnson recruited Jerry Cannon, the former sheriff of Kalkaska County, to run for the seat. Cannon lost, but wants to try again this year.

But he has an opponent for the nomination -- Johnson himself, who abruptly resigned as party chair early this summer. Johnson grew up south of Detroit and then lived in several other states, but has a family home near Kalkaska.

His wife was a renowned fundraiser for President Obama, and Johnson is expected to have access to lots of campaign cash. But he may be billed as a carpetbagger.

Michigan’s First Congressional District is a unique place, one of the geographically biggest districts in the eastern United States. The sparsely populated Upper Peninsula makes up more than half the district’s space, but less than half its population.

The First District also includes almost a third of the northern Lower Peninsula. Until now, this district always has been represented by a Yooper – but that could change.

Most of the likeliest candidates (and the population) are from the Lower Peninsula. 

"Politically, the district has divided loyalties. Economically, it is poorer than average, which is good for Democrats. But socially, it's more conservative, which helps Republicans."

Politically, the district has divided loyalties. Economically, it is poorer than average, which is good for Democrats. But socially, it’s more conservative, which helps Republicans.

Socially conservative Democrats like former Congressman Bart Stupak traditionally do well here; he represented the district for eighteen years. When Tom Casperson tried to take him on seven years ago, Stupak beat him two to one. 

But Stupak then retired, and was replaced by Benishek, a favorite of the Tea Party. Benishek won pretty easily in 2010 and 2014. But he nearly lost three years ago, finally edging out former State Rep. Gary McDowell by less than one percent.

Presidential election years are harder for Republican candidates in Michigan, and with no incumbent, Democrats think this is their chance.

We’ll have to see. To some extent, it may depend on the presidential contest. If Democrats win Michigan easily and the turnout is large, it is bound to help their candidate here.

What we do know is that millions will now be spent on this race, largely for TV advertising. It would be nice if that money could be spent on creating jobs there instead. But that, after all, is what the candidates will promise to do.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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