Gaylord, Mich. — Northern Michigan voters might be wondering if they will see much of their next congressman.
The state’s mostly hotly contested congressional race has seen a barrage of negative TV ads that accuse Democrat Lon Johnson and Republican Jack Bergman of not really residing full-time in the 1st District.
“I live in Kalkaska, right just south of here. I’m the fifth generation of my family to live in northern Michigan — not come up on weekends, to live here,” Johnson, a former Michigan Democratic Party chairman and private equity firm executive, told a crowd at a recent candidate forum in Gaylord, denying accusations that he lives in Detroit. “We have a problem in our politics, and it’s people not addressing the issues.”
Bergman, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant general and airline pilot who owns a medical imaging equipment business, has faced allegations that he mostly lives in Louisiana. The political newcomer said he was sent there to command the Marine Forces Reserve and, upon retiring, was “able to come back to my home” in Watersmeet and keep a winter house in Louisiana.
The election — one of two competitive U.S. House races in Michigan — may turn on which candidate’s profile is a better fit for a sprawling seat that stretches from the western Upper Peninsula to near Ludington in the Lower Peninsula.
Third-term GOP Rep. Dan Benishek is retiring, and Democrats want to win back the Republican-leaning seat that former Rep. Bart Stupak, a moderate Democrat, had for 18 years before retiring.
Both men say a priority is pushing the federal government to fund reconstruction and expansion of the Soo Locks. They say too many residents have left to find work.
Bergman, 69, whose primary win was a surprise, said his work experience qualifies him to make good decisions at the national level.
“Political insiders,” he said, cannot “see things as they really are, not as they hoped they would be. Hope is not a course of action.”
Johnson, 45, is criticizing Bergman’s support for privatizing Social Security for younger workers in a district with the 10th-highest number of beneficiaries in the country.
“When you want to move Social Security to Wall Street … you’re not one of us,” he said.
After GOP redistricting, the seat remains socially conservative but voters may be more skeptical of safety net programs than when it was represented by Stupak, who decided against seeking re-election in 2010 after helping rescue Obama’s health care plan, said Susan Demas, publisher and editor of Inside Michigan Politics. Republicans are criticizing Johnson’s support of the law and say his pro-gun ad promising to uphold Second Amendment rights is “all an act.”
Both of Michigan’s most competitive races are in some of the nation’s more rural districts, where it has become harder for Democrats to compete since the parties began splitting more on social issues, said David Hopkins, an assistant political science professor at Boston College who studies the geographical polarization of American elections.
In the 7th District, which runs southeast from the Lansing area to the Indiana border, fourth-term Republican Rep. Tim Walberg of Tipton faces a challenge from state Rep. Gretchen Driskell of Saline.
The 58-year-old Driskell is criticizing “trade deal Tim” for his support for deals that cost Michigan jobs. Walberg, 65, calls her a “typical liberal” who backed tax hikes for road repairs. He also touts his work to expand vocational training and fight fatal drug overdoses.
Demas expressed some surprise that Driskell has made trade a dominant issue since not all residents work in manufacturing, but she said it is a proxy message to characterize Walberg “as not caring about the district.”
Walberg won by 10 points in the last presidential election. But Driskell is a bigger threat, and the Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump contest’s impact is being watched closely.
“Walberg is a seasoned campaigner and should be able to win a fifth term, due in no small part to the GOP bent of the district, which includes social conservatives who consistently turn out,” Demas said. “However, Driskell’s strong fundraising and relentless TV ads, coupled with women being disgusted by Trump, could be enough to put her over the top — if current polling holds.”