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Political silliness in Congressional race between Mike Bishop and Melissa Gilbert

Apr 14, 2016

I assume there are probably some real issues facing the voters in Michigan’s 8th Congressional District, which is anchored by Lansing in the bottom middle of the state.

After all, a lot of folks here used to work for Oldsmobile, which was, you may remember, a mighty division of General Motors before going extinct a dozen years ago.

Only about 10% of the population is black or Latino, which puts Democrats at a disadvantage, but there are a lot of government workers and suburbanites trying to put their kids through school.

Overall the district votes Republican, but not overwhelmingly so. It includes one Democratic county -- Ingham -- one Republican one -- Livingston, and the Republican northern chunk of Oakland.

This year, Democrats would dearly love to pick up this seat in Congress.

The incumbent is freshman Mike Bishop, was state senate majority leader during the Granholm era.

He won a solid victory two years ago, with 55%, but that wasn’t nearly as solid as it might have been. That was a huge Republican year, and Bishop had a little-known and underfunded opponent.

That won’t be the case this year.

Democrats have recruited actress Melissa Gilbert, once the child star of Little House on the Prairie, and her Hollywood friends have been kicking in for her campaign, though they haven’t come close to matching the contributions Bishop is getting from various Republican-supporting Super PACS.

Expect to see millions spent here, in a battle for a two-year seat in Congress. Democrats think their presidential candidate might win Michigan by a million-vote landslide, given the Republican disarray, and privately, Republicans fear they may not be wrong.

So there is increased focus on anything resembling swing seats in Congress. Both candidates start with some baggage. Gilbert owes back taxes to the IRS, and may be seen as a glamorous carpetbagger.

Bishop, on the other hand, was a symbol of sterile obstructionism during his years in Lansing.

There is also a legitimate case to be made that Bishop has been far more interested in doing the bidding of Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun, long one of his major donors, than in looking after his constituents.

You might think the major issue in this race would be how best to help the 700,000 people who live in the district.

But you’d be wrong.

Right now, it’s all about remarks Gilbert made on a silly daytime TV talk show seven years ago, when she appeared to question how severely director Roman Polanski should have been punished for having sex with an underage girl 40 years ago.

Republicans are screaming this was an outrage and hinting the Democrat supports child rape. For her part, Gilbert has been abjectly apologizing and blaming it on the format of the show.

Well, I indeed never thought Roman Polanski would be an issue in a Lansing congressional race, but in the age of Trump, I suppose anything can happen.

By the way, someone else has come forward to say Polanski has been punished enough, should be forgiven, and that the event had been blown out of proportion: The now middle-aged girl he had sex with.

This campaign has more than half a year to go. I just can’t wait to see what great issues come up next.

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.