Nov. 4 2015 03:35 PM

Bishop vs. Gilbert race rated an eyecatcher in Michigan

The way Mark Grebner of Practical Political Consultants sees it, Democrats have the same lethal attraction to Michigan's 8th Congressional District as moths do to candles.

The closer they get, the more likely they are to get burned.

Ingham County's congressional district isn't like the one Democrat Debbie Stabenow won in 1997. Republican-led legislatures have redrawn the 8th Congressional District into a 30-yard head start for their nominee, meaning only an appealing candidate running under appealing circumstances have a shot.

Actress Melissa Gilbert may be that right person in the right place. Michigan Democrats have the 8th Congressional District among the top 3 they're watching in Michigan, and it could move up considering how well Gilbert catches in her first bid for public office.

Known for playing Laura Ingalls Wilder on NBC's “Little House on the Prairie” from 1973-1983, the 51-year-old Los Angeles native moved to Livingston County in 2013 with her new husband, East Lansing native and actor Timothy Busfield.

Last year, she was visible in Mark Schauer's gubernatorial campaign, giving the Democrat $1,000, filming a "public service segment" for him and showing up at a Flint campaign stop.

The political activity comes after the Los Angeles-born Gilbert served as president of the 100,000-member Screen Actors Guild from 2001 to 2005, earning her a spot on the national AFL-CIO Executive Council. Her visibility isn't unusual either.

Gilbert and Busfield quickly embraced their roles as Howell's resident celebrities — serving as grand marshals to the 2014 "Fantasy of Lights Parade" and promoting local small business through her book, "My Prairie Cookbook."

"I feel like I've found the home I was meant to have," Gilbert told WDIV in one of the few media interviews she's done since announcing her candidacy.

Her selectivity hasn't equaled light press coverage. CNN, USA Today, TIME and The Wall Street Journal are among the national outlets covering Gilbert's candidacy, creating a national buzz. Local Democrats hope that equals the campaign cash that will keep the deep-pocketed Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee interested.

Gilbert has raised $200,372 since announcing on Aug. 11, a notable sum considering she started halfway through the July-September 3rd quarter federal reporting cycle. Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Garner, Rosie O'Donnell and Kiefer Sutherland are among actors who have kicked money her way.

Her first fundraiser was thrown by her mom in California, but Gilbert has since held an event at Begger's Banquet in East Lansing. She's received support from local types, like Ingham County Commissioner Brian McGrain, former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, attorney Steve Liedel and former 8th Congressional candidate Susan Grettenberger.

Democrats also hope Gilbert's timing will work in her favor. President Barack Obama won the 8th with 52.9 percent of the vote and Stabenow won it in her 2012 Senate reelection race with 54.2 percent. The 2016 campaign may turn out to be a big year for Democratic women with Hillary Clinton presumably at the top of this ticket and Michigan not voting for a GOP presidential candidate since 1988.

It's still a long shot.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, stepped in for Rep. Mike Rogers without much drama in 2014, beating Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing, 55 to 42 percent. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sniffed around the 8th District for a few months, but with Democrats suffering heavy losses nationally, the D.C. dollars needed to win competitive races went to protect incumbents elsewhere.

A former Michigan Senate majority leader, Bishop recently told the Lansing Rotary Club he was the freshman class' member on the House Republican Steering Committee, a notable honor.

Outside of his legislation like a mobile workforce bill, Bishop is lobbying behind the scenes to get a direct flight to Washington, D.C., back to the Lansing airport, said adviser Stu Sandler.

"I was down in D.C. last week and there is definitely a view that Bishop is in a strong position to win re-election," Sandler said.

The 8th District's 55 percent Republican base tells Grebner that even if Clinton wins Michigan in a blowout, Gilbert needs 65 percent of the ticket-splitters to go her way to knock off the first-term incumbent.

At least at this early stage, both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee are keeping an eye on the developing race.

Bishop is in the Republican Patriot Program, which essentially sets fundraising, public appearance and messaging expectations for around 20 potential vulnerable incumbents.

Democrats hit Bishop on his participation because the GOP asked their incumbents to write out their "legislative strategy" in their three-page agreements, a clear mingling of political and professional duties. But Bishop has dodged the commotion by saying he didn't fill out an answer to that question.

Democrats scored a Detroit News story in August on Bishop's temporarily using federal money to pay for his chief of staff 's D.C. lodging, which is allowed under the House rules. They see his political connections to Ambassador Bridge owner Matty Moroun and his family as being questionable based on how he sided with the billionaire during his time in the Senate.

"Melissa Gilbert is the right person to take on Congressman Mike Bishop, who has a record of taking campaign cash from special interests and billionaire families like the Morouns and then doing their bidding, and who since coming to Congress has voted to slash funding for students paying for college, privatize Medicare, all while charging taxpayers for his staffer’s luxury Washington apartment," said DCCC spokesperson Sacha Haworth.

But Republicans may be holding the biggest club in this race.

Gilbert and Busfield are paying more than $470,000 to settle outstanding federal and state liens by 2024, a circumstance she claims was caused by the poor economy and her acting role requests drying up.

"As a woman of a certain age, the roles were becoming fewer and farther between but my salary was being compressed," she told WDIV.

Her financial disclosure statement showed her making around $70,000 last year for acting and appearances and another $79,000 so far this year. She did report at least $60,000 in credit card debt. But with between $818,000 and $1.7 million in reported total assets, NRCC spokesman Chris Pack has been asking, "Why does Gilbert need 8.5 years to pay back (what she owes)?"

Gilbert's personal finances make her an easy political target, especially when her husband donated $5,400 recently to her campaign.

"Melissa Gilbert and her husband need to pay their taxes, not give thousands to their own campaign to help secure a government paycheck," said Michigan Republican Party Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel. "Families across the 8th district work hard to pay their taxes. Gilbert needs to do the same."

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