Jake Davison: Yoopers, Trolls and Politicos, Oh My: The Race for the Open MI-1

Lon Johnson

Lon Johnson

The following is a column by Jake Davison, president of Advantage Associates, a Michigan-based campaign consulting and public relations firm. Davison ran as a Republican last year for the HD-82.

Twenty-five thousand square miles. Thirty-one-and-a-half counties. Larger than West Virginia. Five television media markets (Traverse City-Cadillac; Marquette; Alpena; Green Bay, Wis.; and even Duluth, Minn.). Two time zones.

That’s Michigan’s 1st Congressional District. In fact, it take as long to drive to Tennessee from Mason County in the district’s southwest corner as it does to reach Gogebic in the northwest pocket.

The open seat has a base 54.6% GOP base, according to Inside Michigan Politics. The MI-1 has been safely in Republican hands since it was last open in 2010 with the retirement of U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Menominee). Democrats are eager for a pickup, even as they face near-impossible odds to flip the U.S. House this year. But Republicans have a strong shot of keeping the seat in their arsenal.

Though the 2016 GOP primary is technically just underway, the two current candidates have both been hard at work for a number of years.

State Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) and former state Sen. Jason Allen (R-Traverse City) are competing to replace U.S. Rep.Dan Benishek (R-Crystal Falls), who (belatedly) decided to honor this three-term pledge in September. Casperson then immediately declared his campaign and has since received Benishek’s endorsement.

Unlike last cycle, when outgoing U.S. Rep. Dave Camp endorsed now-U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar (R-Midland) in the MI-4 and retiring U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers did the same for now-U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) in the MI-8, Benishek’s endorsement is not expected to carry nearly as much weight. Unlike Camp (12 terms) and Rogers (six terms), Benishek has only served three terms and never blew away his competition as his colleagues did in all of their re-election campaigns. In fact, Benishek has a reputation for not working the district hard and, until late in 2014, was considered a poor campaigner, in general.

Casperson’s entire state Senate district lies in the congressional district (and entirely in the U.P.). He was comfortably re-elected in 2014 after winning the seat in 2010. Previously, the Escanaba native was elected to the state House in 2002, 2004, 2006 and ran unsuccessfully against Stupak in 2008.

Allen, on the other hand, hasn’t appeared on a ballot or been in office since 2010, when he lost to Benishek by 15 votes in the Republican primary (when the district didn’t include Allen’s Grand Traverse County). This came at the end of Allen’s state legislative career. He was elected to represent Traverse City in the state House in 1998 and 2002. In 2002 and 2006, Allen carried elections to represent a seven-county state Senate district stretching up to Sault Ste. Marie.

Upon being termed-out in 2010, Gov. Rick Snyder appointed Allen, who had served in the National Guard, to a key role in the Military and Veterans Affairs Department. This was the perfect job for Allen, since the MI-1 has, by far, the most veterans in Michigan. While Allen only quit this job and declared his intention to run last month, we can assume he’s been planning to do so for years. His wife,Suzanne Miller Allen, has long been a Republican power broker, as a former chief of staff to then-Senate Majority Leader Ken Sikkema (R-Wyoming) and then-House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall).

Both Republicans will try to paint the other as not conservative enough. Casperson can point to Allen breaking his “no tax increase” pledge to increase cigarette taxes and claim he supported the SEIU’s unionization of home health care workers (something Allen denies). Meanwhile, Allen could highlight Casperson’s vote to raise the gas tax and opposition to Right to Work.1 (The latter could be a great position for the general, but will probably make conservative voters see red in a primary).

In the money race, Casperson can point to recently raising $150,000 in 50 days. While Allen did raise large sums in just four months in 2010 (Stupak dropped out that April), he was a senator at the time, making fundraising far easier than it will be now.

Then there’s Tea Party wild card Jack Bergman, who’s expected to announce around March 1. The retired three-star marine general calls Watersmeet in the western U.P. home and has a plan to out-conservative Allen and Casperson by winning the backing of grassroots GOP groups and casting the two career politicians as, well, career politicians. But whether Bergman can translate the endorsement of the numerous energetic grassroots groups into nearly enough money to compete seems doubtful. He’ll have five months to make himself known in a district that takes nine hours to drive across (without stopping for a pasty).

State Rep. Peter Pettalia (R-Presque Isle) is still allowing his name to be bandied about, but would be foolish to abandon a safe legislative seat to go up against Allen, Casperson and their consultants (Grand River Strategies and WWP Strategies, respectively). Fellow Rep. Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) has announced he will not seek the MI-1.

Whoever wins the GOP primary will almost certainly face Lon Johnson in the general. He was just into his second term as Michigan Democratic Party chair (knocking off eight-term heavyweight Mark Brewer in 2013). Johnson resigned in July, before Benishek dropped out.2

Republicans will attempt to paint Johnson as a carpetbagging political hack from Downriver. But he has family roots in Kalkaska, has a house there and nearly won a state House seat representing the area in 2012. Johnson, an impressive fundraiser, lost 52.8% to 47.2% to incumbent Bruce Rendon (R-Lake City) in a district containing two counties in the MI-1 (losing Kalkaska and winning Crawford).

Though GOP insiders mention tying him to President Barack Obama via his wife, Julianna Smoot (who was the president’s fundraiser), this would seem to be more of a benefit than a detriment to his campaign overall, especially in terms of funding. Also, what would such an ad say? “Don’t vote for Johnson, his wife is a Democrat, too?” Besides, Allen and Casperson can hardly claim to be outsiders.

Jerry Cannon was the Dem nominee in 2014, losing 52.1% to 45.3% in a strong GOP year. He’s running again, but is not expected to have the funds to force Johnson into a contest of who can be more progressive, allowing Johnson to stress general election themes throughout.

Though the MI-1 has a marginal GOP base, you have to remember the unique political culture here. If the Democrat embraces guns and opposes abortion, things can change dramatically (just ask anyone who tried to beat Stupak). Johnson says he’s in line with the district on guns, but he's pro-choice.

Don’t be surprised if whoever wins the GOP primary emerges broke with just three months to campaign against a flush Johnson. But since this has long been considered a top-tier race nationally by both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) –– even before Benishek withdrew –– both groups can be expected to spend heavily. After all, whoever triumphs might only be term-limited by old age –– decades from now.

1 Edited, 7:58a.m., Feb. 22, 2016, to include Casperson's gas tax increase vote last fall.

2 Corrected, 1:52 p.m., Feb. 26, 2016, on when Johnson entered the race.

Contact Jake Davison at jd@youradvantage.org or 517-285-9659.