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DCCC pulls plug on four Democrats, but there may still be an upset in Kalamazoo

Oct 15, 2014

Last week, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee irritated many Michigan Democrats when they canceled plans to buy advertising in four congressional races. These are seats now held by Republicans, but where Democrats believed that with hard work and strong candidates, they had a chance at an upset. Some think they still do.

However, national Democratic strategists made the purely political calculation that with dozens of seats on the line, their money would be better invested elsewhere. But there’s another seat that virtually no one thought would be in play, but which suddenly looks like the surprise sleeper race of 2014.

More than a year ago, a man told me I should get to know Paul Clements, who he said was going to beat Congressman Fred Upton in the Sixth Congressional District, which is based in Kalamazoo.

I was polite, but didn’t take him seriously. Upton, now 61, the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, has been in Congress 28 years. He’s an heir to the Whirlpool fortune, and hasn’t had a tough race since he won a tough primary back in 1986.

Yet two things have been happening in this district. Upton, once a moderate known for bipartisan cooperation, has moved steadily to the right, while the district has become more moderate.

Two years ago, Upton was challenged by Mike O’Brien, an office furniture company manager. Upton outspent him by more than 13 to 1. But O’Brien held him to 55%, by far the lowest margin of his career.

Weeks later, Paul Clements, a 53-year-old political science professor from Western Michigan University, announced he would run this year. Clements is a specialist on international development and institutions like the World Bank.

If you think that’s an unlikely pedigree for a congressman, consider this: 30-some years ago, another Western professor with very similar credentials ran for Congress here and was elected seven times.

Paul Clements, an understated, soft-spoken man, has been plugging away for nearly two years, telling voters that Upton is out of touch with his district, and that he’s interested in making government work better. He’s raised $700,000, mainly in small contributions, more than any Democrat has here before.

And last week, a stunning thing happened. Mayday, a crowd-funded political action committee announced it was going to throw a million and half dollars into this race to try to defeat Upton.

Suddenly, this may have turned into a contest. I talked to Clements last weekend. He told me that he got into this because he wants to try to make the ideas he’s studied in theory work in practice.

His top priorities are high-tech manufacturing and jobs, making education more affordable, and the environment. Clements is still an underdog; Upton spent $4 million in his last campaign, and has plenty available this time.

But upsets do happen. Years ago, a plucky Democrat named Bob Carr took on another long-time incumbent in a Lansing district. Carr lost – but the race was so close that the next time, his rival decided to retire. Carr then went to Congress.

I don’t know who’ll be the next congressman from Kalamazoo. But that alone is reason enough to keep your eye on this race.

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