Michigan’s Eleventh Congressional District is, on paper, what used to be thought of as a pretty conventional place. It includes a bunch of white-collar suburbs in Wayne and Oakland Counties, places like Birmingham and Troy; Livonia and Plymouth.
Back in the day, much of this turf was represented for nearly forty years by Bill Broomfield, a moderate Republican who never made waves, rocked a boat or faced a difficult November election.
Well, times have changed. For the last decade, the Eleventh was represented by the maverick Thad McCotter, who played the guitar, quoted John Lennon and got himself noticed for occasionally flamboyant behavior. Last year he heard a voice telling him to run for President. Trouble was, nobody else heard that voice.
After that campaign collapsed, McCotter seemed to have something of a political nervous breakdown. He ended up not qualifying for the ballot and quitting before his term was up.
That left the establishment all shook up, and the primary shook things even more. As a result, the district’s voters have a choice between two unusual candidates. Kerry Bentivolio, the Republican, is a reindeer farmer who seems to be more of a Libertarian.
He wants to close down all military bases overseas and bring all the troops home, a philosophy that used to be called isolationism. Additionally, he wants to repeal the century-old Constitutional Amendment that provides for the direct election of U.S. senators.
He wants to go back to having the legislature, not the citizens pick senators, and he seems to oppose the Federal Reserve system. Why Bentivolio thinks that way isn’t clear, partly because he almost never talks to the press. He doesn’t talk to supporters much either, but prefers to have aides do that, or post things on Facebook.
The Democrat, on the other hand, is more conventional, and might be seen as an attractive candidate. A popular doctor and former chief of medicine at Oakwood Hospital, Syed Taj is a supporter of President Obama and his health care plan, but says education, jobs and boosting the economy are his biggest goals. A few years ago, he ran for township trustee in heavily Republican Canton, and got more votes than anyone else. “People know they can trust their doctor,“ Taj told me with a chuckle. He notes that though the district leans Republican, it has voted for Democrats like Presidents Obama and Clinton.
What’s not clear is whether Taj will be handicapped by his lilting Indian accent, his Muslim faith, or the fact that he came here as an adult, and has only been a naturalized citizen for about twenty years.
Who wins may, in the end, depend on outside money. Democrats, who didn’t expect to have a shot here, now are considering whether to pump national dollars into this race.
Republicans have to decide how much they want to win with a candidate so far out of their mainstream. Are they going to put him on the same stage as Mitt Romney? They actually tried to defeat Bentivolio with a write-in campaign that flopped badly.
Instead, a Texas-based Super PAC linked to Ron Paul came in and spent six hundred thousand to help Bentivolio. If you are looking for a fascinating race this fall, this one ought to be it.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.