CRYSTAL FALLS –– Things are quiet in the 1st congressional district. A little too quiet.
Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve traversed more than half of the 32 counties that compose the sprawling MI-1 –– both above and below the Mackinac Bridge. I will admit this was not a difficult assignment. Between the Porcupine Mountains, Sleeping Bear Dunes and dozens of Upper Peninsula waterfalls, the district is overflowing with natural beauty –– and easily boasts more of it than any other in the Midwest.
There’s a month to go before the Aug. 2 primary election. This seat is wide-open, thanks to U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Crystal Falls) stepping down. Not only is this the most competitive congressional election in Michigan, but it’s one of the most closely watched races nationally.
But even in Benishek’s hometown, I was struck by the fact that no one was really engaged by the race. Many voters I talked to struggled to remember the name of even one of the candidates on the ballot. And I only came across a handful of lawn signs.
In my time in the 1st, I didn’t see or hear any ads, although state Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) did release a web video shortly after I finished my swing through northern Lower Michigan last week. But at least as of the first fundraising quarter, this hasn’t been a big-money contest. That should change this fall, as outside groups are preparing to go on a spending spree.
So what did voters want to talk about? Donald Trump. Sure, a few people wanted to discuss guns, right after the Orlando shooting that killed 50 people. And a couple brought up abortion. But it was pretty much the Trump show.
Many citizens lauded him for “not being afraid” to say “things you’re not supposed to” about immigration and President Obama. Although most people’s praise was tempered by criticism of some of the Republican's positions or acknowledgments that “sometimes he goes too far,” what they really admired was his attitude. Trump’s trucker-hat slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was a big hit.
That’s not a promising sign for Democrats in a district that Inside Michigan Politics rates as having a 54.4-percent GOP base. Mitt Romney beat Obama by 8 points there in 2012, which helped Benishek hang onto his seat by a scant 1.3-point margin.
But the Dems will probably have an all-star fundraiser as their nominee, former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson of Kalkaska. His wife, Julianna Smoot, was Obama’s fundraising whiz. Johnson is expected to win his primary by double digits, as he had 85,000 times the cash on hand his rival, former Kalkaska County Sheriff Jerry Cannon, did as of the first quarter.
There’s an awkward, soap-opera-style history in this race. Johnson recruited Cannon to run in 2014 and propped him up this cycle, before jumping in himself. The Michigan Operating Engineers is playing hard, launching a “Protect Northern Michigan” website showing Johnson in traditional Middle East garb while he was working in Iraq. One of the union’s spokesmen is Josh Pugh, who chafed with Johnson as his MDP communications director.
Then there’s the three-way Republican matchup between Casperson, former state Sen. Jason Allen (R-Traverse City) and retired Marine Gen. Jack Bergman of Watersmeet (whose role will only be a potential spoiler).
The odds favor the frequently bow-tied Allen, who was term-limited in 2010 and has since served in the state Military and Veterans Affairs Department. He’s a tireless, smart campaigner and his numbers look good below the bridge (which is where the population base is now).
Casperson’s votes against Right to Work and to increase the gas tax would normally spell certain death in a GOP primary, but he looks the part of the blue-collar district, down to his strong Yooper accent. He’ll certainly take the U.P., which he’s represented for over five years, but it may not be enough to win the nomination.
As for November, Casperson would be in fine shape to keep the district red against Johnson, thanks to his crossover appeal.
A Johnson-Allen matchup would be a true tossup, however. It’s worth noting that both men have similar backgrounds. Both have extensive experience in the private sector –– Allen as the owner of Captain’s Quarters in Traverse City and Johnson in venture capital. Both are “trolls” hailing from recent additions to the MI-1. And both are halves of political power couples (Suzanne Miller Allen served as chief of staff to several legislative leaders).
How would Trump-obsessed voters in the MI-1 feel about a choice between two establishment non-Yoopers? That’s one reason why this seat is one to watch.
Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.