2012-08-11 / Columnists

Michigan Politics

Benishek-McDowell U.S. House Race Called ‘Toss-Up’
By George Weeks

With the general election about upon us, Michigan’s most competitive congressional contest appears to be in the sprawling 1st District, where freshman Representative Dan Benishek (R-Crystal Falls) faces a rematch with ex-state representative Gary McDowell (D-Rudyard), who lost in 2010.

Inside Michigan Politics newsletter on July 2 proclaimed the race “lean GOP”—the nearest thing at the time to a projected competitive general election race among Michigan’s nine Republican seats and five Democratic seats.

More recently, the latest national Cook Political Report calls it Michigan’s only “toss up” congressional race. Democrats proclaim it one of 14 such races against House GOP incumbents across the land.

The New York Times’ assessment:

“Republican Dan Benishek, a surgeon and Tea Party favorite, stormed to victory in 2010 in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula after its long-time Democratic representative, Bart Stupak, retired with health care furor ringing in his ear.

“But Benishek’s maiden term in the House has not cemented his hold on the district, and he faces Democrat Gary McDowell in a rematch. The area has a large share of senior citizens, and Mr. McDowell can be expected to hammer Mr. Benishek on his votes for the Ryan budget, which will be framed as votes to end traditional Medicare.

“The district, although slightly more Republican after redistricting, did vote for Barack Obama in 2008.”

On July 30, Inside Michigan Politics weighed in again on the race, citing it along with the 3rd and 11th districts having “any possibility of change”— but adding, “even that’s unlikely.”

The 3rd, now one of the two most Republican districts in Michigan (including the 2nd District farther north in West Michigan) is represented by Representative Justin Amash (R-Grand Rapids).

A real muddle was left in the 11th when Representative Thaddeus McCotter (R-Livonia), in a bizarre sequence, abandoned a presidential bid, failed to file enough signatures to qualify for reelection, and then abruptly resigned.

In the 1st District, Benishek and McDowell, a farmer, had early primary opposition but their opponents withdrew—Republican Larry Inman, chairman of the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners, to seek reelection, and Democratic Derek Bailey, former chairman of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, to run for the state House in the 101st District.

Benishek so far has outraised McDowell $1,274,042 to $920,358, and vastly out-spent him $771,549 to $305,530. No wonder: Benishek has been advertising heavily and effectively in the Traverse City TV market—key to the redrawn district across the northern Lower Peninsula.

McDowell leads in all-important cash-on-hand—$620,358 to $498,279. His campaign won’t say when he’ll start tapping the war chest for TV ads, but it’s unlikely to be this week.

Given keen focus of the national parties on the Benishek- McDowell race, look for the parties and political action committees to open wallets wide in remaining weeks. So far, Benishek has received 49% of his money from PACs; McDowell 32%.

Look also for prominent figures from both parties to fly in to tout the candidates.

Benishek scheduled Monday appearances in Traverse City with former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani including a visit to a small business (M22) that brings to 93 the number of stops on Benishek’s “100-in-100” days tour of businesses.

He said: ”At every visit, I’m hearing more of the same—that high taxes, overregulation, the increasing health care costs are hindering job creation and that the federal government is only making matters worse.”

McDowell is in the midst of his “Our Lakes, Our Livelihood” tour. In Marquette last week, he contended Benishek “is not looking out for our lakes or our economy. I’ll change that.”

Given Benishek’s 11-point win in 2010, subsequent redistricting favorable to him in the Grand Traverse Region, and his TV blitz in the region, odds may now favor him.

But stay tuned to what political pundits expect to be a highly competitive, and expensive, race.

McDowell already has raised more than the $838,208 that he spent in 2010, and Benishek has raised close to the total $1,388,629 he spent to get elected.

George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was the political columnist for The Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.

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