April 16 2014 12:00 AM

Conservative McMillin is Democrats’ dream Republican candidate for 8th District seat

In a gubernatorial year with Republican incumbents on the ballot and the negative publicity surrounding Obamacare sucking wind out of the Democrats’ talking points, will conservatives breeze to victory in the open 8th Congressional District race?

For starters, the district — made up of Ingham, Livingston and northern Oakland County — has a 54 percent Republican base. That may benefit Democrats in a presidential election with higher turnout, but perhaps not in 2014.

Another issue is the fact that the latest configuration of the 8th doesn’t make Ingham County the center of the universe. More votes came out of Oakland in 2012 than Ingham, meaning a well-known Lansing candidate no longer comes with a geographic advantage.

However, the Washington D.C.-based Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is interested in playing in three Michigan seats this cycle. Before U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers’ announcement that he’s not seeking reelection in the 8th, those districts appeared set with the Northern Michigan 1st, the Eaton County 7th and the Southeast Michigan 11th.

But that formula could change, MIRS has learned, if a Democrat candidate in the 8th can raise money, garner support and make an impact on the polls. The final dynamic is state Rep. Tom McMillin, who is seeking the seat along with at least two other Republicans, Democratic insiders say.

McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, is a controversial political figure of the so-called “liberty” movement. He has joined former Senate Majority Leader Mike Bishop, of Rochester, and Rochester Hills Mayor Barnett as Republicans interested in Rogers’ seat.

A polarizing social conservative, McMillin has reached across the aisle on government transparency and Freedom of Information Act issues recently, but McMillin’s anti-gay, anti-abortion antics — including bankrolling a postcard in ‘03 bearing a graphic description of an abortion procedure — are well documented.

His views earn him a strong support from the “liberty” movement within the Republican Party, including from U.S Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, of the Ron Paul ilk, for example. The same can’t be said for the independent, moderate voter who could tip the scales for Democrats under the right circumstances, said Ed Sarpolus of Target Insyght.

In his last run in the 45th House District, McMillin received 56 percent of the vote in a district that has a 60 percent GOP base, underperforming by 4 percent — an unusual result for a two-term incumbent.

Behind the scenes, Michigan Senate Democrats were rooting for McMillin to win the GOP primary in the 13th state Senate District this year. Now that McMillin is abandoning those efforts to run for Congress, it’s the DCCC picking up the pompoms.

“He would be a dream come true,” one Democratic insider told MIRS about the possibility of McMillin winning the GOP nomination.

And it could happen. McMillin won a seat in the state House by surviving a four-way GOP primary in 2008. This time around, he has the inside track with Tea Party conservatives, of which Livingston County has plenty.

In fact, McMillin conceded last week he likely wouldn’t have bothered with the race had state Sen. Joe Hune of Livingston, one of the state’s most conservative lawmakers, gotten in. Hune’s getting out helps McMillin with the Livingston County crowd and with Northern Oakland Tea Party crowd.

Meanwhile, the Oakland County GOP establishment is split between Barnett — who has the backing of Executive Brooks Patterson and Sheriff Mike Bouchard —and Bishop, the favorite of Rogers, himself.

Sarpolus said if Democrats had the money and a stronger candidate in 2012, they could have beaten another “liberty candidate” in the 11th Congressional when Amash-backed Kerry Bentivolio was the GOP nominee.

“Now you have a Bentivolio-like candidate in the 8th and an opportunity for Democrats with a strong candidate,” he said.

And on that note for Democratic candidates: Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum is out. Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing is in. Michigan State Board of Education Vice President Casandra Ulbrich is out. Jeffrey Hank, who sought to fill a vacant East Lansing City Council position in 2012, is in.

Days before the candidate filing deadline next Tuesday, the field of candidates seeking to replace Rogers is taking shape around four Lansing-based Democrats and the three Rochester-area Republicans.

Schertzing, the county’s treasurer for the last 13 years, and Hank, who led marijuana decriminalization efforts in Lansing and East Lansing, are collecting the 1,000 valid signatures needed to join Central Michigan University Professor Susan Grettenberger and former state demographer Ken Darga on the Democratic side.

Other candidates could appear to replace Rogers, who is leaving elected politics at the end of the year to headline a national radio show on the Cumulus Media network, but collecting the 1,000 valid signatures of registered voters living in Ingham, Livingston and northern Oakland County by 4 p.m. is no easy task, said Schertzing.

“It keeps me up at night,” smiled Schertzing outside the downtown Lansing Post Office on Monday, a clipboard in hand.

Schertzing said he could end up paying professional circulators to hit the maximum 2,000 signatures state law requires for aspiring candidates. He doesn’t want to end up like former Republican U.S. Senate candidate Pete Konetchy and other candidates who showed up with just over 1,000 signatures and then was kicked off the ballot because too many of them were ruled invalid.

Meanwhile, Hank spent the weekend around the Capitol, Michigan State University and East Lansing gathering about 800 signatures. He said he feels confident he’ll get the rest by next Tuesday.

Hank and Schertzing and the entire Republican field didn’t get started with a campaign until after Rogers announced on March 28 he wasn’t seeking a seventh term. From there, a significant shuffling out of candidates ensued.