TRAVERSE CITY –– Can a Democrat still win in the 1st congressional district?
That’s an open question –– and one that’s plagued the party for the last six years. And that’s partly why I made my third trip up north this summer.
This seat, left open by retiring U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Crystal Falls), represents the Democrats’ best prospect in Michigan this year. In fact, the matchup between former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson and Lt. Gen. Jack Bergman could be a top 10 race nationally.
The Dems’ woes go beyond the fact that a Republican has held the seat encompassing the entire Upper Peninsula and now a good chunk of the northern Lower Peninsula since 2010.
In 2012, President Barack Obama lost the MI-1 by 8 points to Mitt Romney after edging out John McCain by 1.3 points in 2008. And now polling shows Hillary Clinton decisively losing to Donald Trump there, even as she leads statewide.
It’s true that conservative Democrat Bart Stupak represented the district for the 18 years prior to Benishek. But the district is larger and more conservative now than when Stupak was in office.
The MI-1 now spans 32 counties, thanks to the fact that Michigan lost a seat in the last redistricting. Republicans, who completely controlled the 2011 process, lopped on plenty of GOP-friendly territory south of the Mackinac Bridge. Inside Michigan Politics rates the district as now having a 54.4 percent GOP base.
The sprawling northern Michigan fiefdom is home to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which is now teeming with tourists from across the country, thanks to “Good Morning America” naming it the “Most Beautiful Place in America” back in 2011.
The Upper Peninsula also has its fair share of spectacular scenery, including Tahquamenon Falls and the Porcupine Mountains. But its remoteness (it’s an eight-hour drive from Lansing to the Porkies) has made the U.P. insular.
And the district’s natural beauty masks some of its economic pain. Counties in the MI-1 have long been plagued by some of the highest unemployment rates in the state, especially when summer tourists skedaddle. Despite the economic recovery, Mackinac County (home to fabled Mackinac Island) still saw its jobless rate spike above 20 percent in March.
It’s not surprising that Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is resonating. This is the uncertain backdrop for this critical congressional race.
The MI-1 used to be a haven for socially conservative voters whose views were tempered by economic liberalism, i.e. support for the social safety net (especially Social Security and Medicare) and yes, government pork (it’s tough to make it up there, where the snow can start to fall in September and linger well into May).
Now voters are more willing to roll the dice on candidates who backed big cuts to the welfare state (even Social Security), like Benishek and Romney. And cultural conservatism is ascendent, with anti-abortion billboards and mom-and-pop gun shops dotting the lush countryside.
It’s rough territory for Lon Johnson, who’s pro-choice, pro-LGBT rights and has spent years working in politics and venture capital outside Michigan. He also happens to be married to one of Obama’s chief fundraisers, Julianna Smoot, which symbolizes his political insider status.
In contrast, Bergman is an outsider –– which is how he toppled two long-serving state senators in the GOP primary. He’s also lived outside Michigan, but Republicans are banking on his military service to blunt “carpetbagger” charges.
But Johnson is a frenetic campaigner who’s clearly outworking Bergman. His ability to raise money sets him apart from most Democrats in the region –– and has allowed him to go up on TV early and often.
In the end, the two issues that might save him are the environment and gun rights. It’s safe to say that many downstate Democrats are comfortable with the former, but not the latter.
Johnson has come out swinging against Enbridge’s aging Line 5 pipeline running below the Straits of Mackinac. He’s appealed to northern Michiganders’ pride in their natural surroundings and fear of another drinking water disaster á la Flint. That’s the smart play for voters who are deeply wary of government overreach.
He’s also donning his hunting fatigues in ads, which isn’t for show. Johnson has been sitting in northern Michigan deer blinds since he was a kid and will talk your ear off about his adventures.
Both he and Bergman sport “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association. But some Republicans inadvertently did the Democrat a solid in the rough-and-tumble primary by slamming Bergman for supporting background checks and waiting periods “like Obama.”
There’s been grumbling from Dems (who don’t live anywhere near the MI-1) that Johnson shouldn’t be running to a Republican’s right on guns. It’s the same folks who don’t support pro-life Democrats running in northern and western Michigan, even though that’s what voters demand.
It’s a valid ideological debate. But if Johnson’s pro-gun stance helps the Dems finally take back a key congressional seat, are liberals really going to complain?
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.