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Michigan's Hottest Congressional Race

Jun 15, 2016

If you don’t like being on the road, don’t run for Congress in Michigan’s First Congressional District. It is geographically huge, because so few people live up there. The district spans the entire Upper Peninsula, and about the top quarter of the Northern Lower Peninsula.

That amounts to 44 percent of Michigan’s total land area. That’s two and a half times the entire state of Massachusetts – and it includes only about 700,000 people.

This year, it is shaping up to be Michigan’s hottest congressional race – and may finally make or break Democrat Lon Johnson’s political career. Michigan currently has nine Republican congressmen and five Democrats.

The district boundaries have been skillfully drawn to give Republicans an absolute lock on six seats. All five Democratic seats are entirely safe, which leaves only three districts, all now held by Republicans, which could conceivably change hands.

Democrats self-destructed in one of these, the Eighth, when the Hollywood actress they recruited turned out to be a hopelessly flawed candidate.

Gretchen Driskell may give Congressman Tim Walberg a battle in south-central Michigan. But the First District is entirely open, since after waffling, Dan Benishek decided to keep a pledge to retire after three terms.

This district leans Republican, but Bart Stupak, a conservative Democrat from the UP, held it easily for eighteen years before retiring in 2010. Benishek very nearly lost his seat four years ago. Now there’s a battle in both parties to win the nominations to run for Congress in the primary August 2nd. It’s especially hot on the Republican side, where former State Senator Jason Allen of Traverse City is fighting against current State Senator Tom Casperson of Escanaba.

There’s a sleeper candidate too – a retired three-star U.S. Marine general named Jack Bergman, who now lives in the western UP, and who says “Marines come to win.”

On the Democratic side, Lon Johnson, the former state party chair, is the favorite, though he first has the awkward task of beating the man he originally recruited to run in this district, two years ago, retired Kalkaska sheriff Jerry Cannon.

Cannon, who lost last time, is bitter that Johnson has pulled the rug out from under him, but there are few signs that Cannon is raising the kind of money needed to be competitive in either the primary or the general election. But whether Johnson can win in November isn’t clear.

Four years ago, Johnson, now 44, tried to win a state house seat in Kalkaska, but lost despite outspending his opponent. He then served a little over two years as state party chair, to mixed reviews. Though his candidate for governor gave Rick Snyder a close race, he lost. Johnson also spent heavily on a scheme to boost turnout via absentee ballots, which failed.

This year, however, he has raised far more cash and has more on hand than any of his opponents. He’s already bought lots of TV ad time for the fall, and is campaigning like a dervish, living in and campaigning from a 1985 GMC Motorhome he recently bought.

Opponents say he’s a carpetbagger. But Johnson argues his considerable connections will enable him to do more for the district in terms of attracting jobs and rebuilding infrastructure.

This race will be one to watch right down to Election Day.

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.