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Michigan's 1st congressional district race is a 'toss-up'

Oct 3, 2016

Most Michigan congressional districts are drawn to favor one party over another.

But there’s one district that’s considered a “toss-up” in November.

And the winner may determine the balance of power in Washington.  

Democrat Lon Johnson speaks to an anti-line 5 rally in Mackinaw City Labor Day weekend
Credit Steve Carmody

Cindy Tatro may personify Michigan’s 1st congressional district. She’s 76 and lives near Elk Rapids. Tatro leans Republican, but she hasn’t decided who she’ll vote for for congress in November. 

“I won’t always vote a straight ticket,” says Tatro, “I try to evaluate what the people stand for. And what their beliefs are compared with mine.”

The first district covers all of the Upper Peninsula and the upper third of the lower peninsula (see map above).   

The seat is open since Republican incumbent Dan Benishek is stepping down after three terms. Republican Jack Bergman and Democrat Lon Johnson are hoping to fill the vacant seat. There are also two third party candidates (Libertarian Diane Bostow and Green Ellis Boal).   

The district is seen as politically moderate, which makes it makes it a prime election battleground district.  

Republican Jack Bergman defeated 2 veteran GOP politicians in the primary. He is now battling a long-time Democratic Party leader for Michigan's 1st district congressional seat
Credit Steve Carmody / Michigan Radio

Kyle Kondik is the managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.           He lists Michigan’s 1st district as one of a handful of “toss-up” congressional races. Kondik says the district is critical to Democrats’ hopes of taking control the House.

“Michigan 1 is a little different from the other Democratic targets because again its more Republican at the presidential level,” says Kondik. “But as Democrats try to scrounge together potential options to win the House back, this seat has definitely gotten a lot of attention from them.”

National groups have stepped up spending on campaign ads in northern Michigan.

Craig Mauger is the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. He says Michigan’s other congressional races haven’t seen much outside spending.  

But in the first, Mauger says national groups have spent more than $1.6 million on TV ads. He says most of the outside spending has been by Republican groups hoping to hold on to the seat. 

“Spending is not being driven by candidates in this instance,” says Mauger. “It’s being driven by outside groups who have little connection to the district, but simply have a desire that their candidate wins.”

On the Saturday before Labor Day, a small crowd gathered at a band shell in Mackinaw City. They listened to a mix of music and speeches, including one from one of the candidates for Michigan’s 1st district congressional seat.

Democrat Lon Johnson sits in his campaign RV with his dog
Credit Steve Carmody

Democrat Lon Johnson spent Labor Day weekend talking to voters in Mackinaw City. For months, he’s been crisscrossing the district in a 30-year-old RV with his dog.

Johnson is campaigning on disconnecting the oil pipeline under the Mackinac Straits and promoting economic development in the mainly rural district. He says first district voters expect their representative to work with both sides in Washington.

“This is a very fifty-fifty district,” says Johnson, “I think the member of Congress here needs to be prepared to go to Congress and in the district to work with both parties to get things done.”

While Johnson is a former state Democratic Party chair, his Republican opponent is definitely a political outsider.

Republican candidate Jack Bergman is a retired Marine Lt. General, who defeated two veteran GOP politicians to win his party’s nomination.

But despite his primary win, these days Bergman’s still introducing himself to first district voters.

One night last month, Bergman met with a crowd mainly composed of retired veterans and their spouses in an Elk Rapids meeting hall. 

Bergman talks about changing Social Security and the need to put another conservative justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

But like Johnson, Bergman stresses the need to work with the other side in Congress.

“I will argue philosophies all day long or intellectual viewpoints, because that’s how you make progress,” says Bergman. “I will respect you as a person for who you are, but not make it personal with you.”

On election night, people in Michigan, as well as national leaders, will likely have to stay up late to learn which side will win Michigan’s first district.