U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (far right) attending a Democratic candidate forum at the MSU Union in support of Elissa Slotkin (first from left). Joining them were U.S. Sen. Debbi Stabenow, D-Lansing, and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint.
Something is different. It started in the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 2016. The world woke up to a stunning reality. Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States of America.
Politics wasn’t just the same old, same old political back and forth anymore. This real estate mogul won the world’s highest office the same way he made his fortune — by marketing his name to be synonymous with promised first-class products.
The Macomb County and rural Michigan working class saw in Trump a bit of their own personality mixed with what they always dreamed for themselves. A blunt, common sense, tell-it-like-itis billionaire with the swagger and cockiness to tell whoever didn’t like him to piss off. He was going to make America great again. Damn it.
College-educated, otherwise political agnostic women saw something different. How on God’s green earth did a misogynist pig who casually flaunted his sexual conquests become the most powerful man on earth? This. Is. Bullshit.
It’s against this backdrop that mid-Michigan is seeing a pair of hotly contested congressional races in the fall of 2018. On one side are two female Democrats pushed by up-until-now disengaged American citizens, who feel empowered in their seemingly growing numbers.
On the other side are two male Republican incumbents whose previously hard-right stances have moderated to match not only that of the president, but also the swatch of electorate who will decide their future.
It is different in 2018. U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, and 8 th Congressional District challenger Elissa Slotkin can feel it. U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Tipton, and 7 th Congressional District challenger Gretchen Driskell can, too.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before, whether it’s politics or religion or gender or whatever it is,” said Bishop, who has held office 16 of the last 20 years. “It’s the politics of division that is driving fear. It’s driving hatred. It’s commanding the dialogue out there right.”
Slotkin, a 42-year-old former national security official, is making her first political run, but she said she’s feeling something must be different. More than half of her volunteers “have never done anything political in their entire lives.”
“If you have people who are 70 years old and they’ve never once volunteered for a campaign or donated to a campaign and now they’re doing it. It’s different,” she said.
Afternoon political rallies on a college campus typically aren’t what you’d consider a big draw. A couple hundred showed up Slotkin’s event last month inside the MSU Union with U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow and U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III. Among them was law student Margot Staebler, who had switched her voter registration from Ann Arbor to Lansing.
Her only reason: to vote for Slotkin. “She’s dynamic. She’s exciting. I can’t wait to vote for her,” she said.
Everything about the 8 th Congressional District race is different. Never before have outside groups treated this Ingham-Livingston-northern Oakland County District as a true battleground seat. American First Action SuperPac. End Citizens United. The national Republican and Democratic congressional campaign committees.
They all sent money, and lots of it. Along with the candidates themselves, they’ve spent $9.2 million on ads, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, making it the state’s most expensive congressional race ever. And they’re not done.
Slotkin reported $2.45 million on Monday, raised over the last three months of the summer. Overall, she’s raised likely a record $5.49 million. In just the third quarter of 2016, the former CIA Middle East analyst raised twice as much as the previous eight Democratic campaigns for the 8 th Congressional District combined.
She’s raised twice what Dianne Byrum raised when she lost by a handful of votes to Mike Rogers in 2000.
When Slotkin and Bishop, 51, sparred on the “Morning WakeUp” on 1320-AM WILS on Tuesday, the incumbent talked about how his challenger was “vacuuming up the elitist money” from folks like Michael Bloomberg and George Soros. He claimed 90 percent of her haul came from outside the district.
For any other candidate, Bishop’s $3.65 million would be a figure worth celebrating. This year, he’s playing catch up. He’s trying to defuse a story on how the SuperPAC connected to U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan canceled $2.1 million in media buys for him.
Congressional Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to flip the House, and Michigan’s 8 th District is in play. Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight website has the race basically a 50/50 tossup. On Tuesday, he gave Slotkin a 52.6 percent chance of winning. Last week, a New York Times poll had Bishop up three points.
It’s a different feeling than years past. Not too long ago, it was the neighboring 7 th District sucking up the attention from Washington, D.C. Reams of mailers flooded mailboxes in Eaton and Jackson counties. The Walberg and Mark Schauer TV ads were continuous on WILX and WLNS.
It’s not that way this year. Vying for attention are Republican Tom Barrett and Democrat Kelly Rossman-McKinney in the state Senate race and Democrat Angela Witwer and Republican Christine Barnes in the state House race.
That’s OK with Driskell, a former two-term House member and Saline mayor. She said she feels more confident this year without all the hubbub than she did in 2016 when gobs of outside money was spent in support and in opposition of her and her opponent.
“It’s not about me or about the attention,” she said before a minority business roundtable in Jackson. “I know what’s going on out there. If it was about having the most money, I wouldn’t have beaten (her Republican state House opponent) in 2012. It’s not about money. It’s about having the energy on the ground. We have that. We feel it.”
For her sake, it must be different. Trump won the 7 th District, stretching through Monroe County to Lake Erie, by 17 points two years ago.
She didn’t plan to run again against Walberg, the five-term incumbent, after her 15-point loss in 2016.
It was the conversations Driskell, 60, had later. They talked about the grassroots emergence of Voters Not Politicians, the redistricting commission ballot proposal. The economy still not working for local residents. Home foreclosures. Exploding health care skyrocketing.
She felt the topics that had dominated 2016 were shifting. This wasn’t fair trade and Trump populism fueling just about every discussion. Driskell said she felt something different.
“It’s an economic struggle for people.
They’re frustrated. They feel they don’t have anyone in Washington D.C. who understands them,” she said. “People are very unhappy with their representation in the 7 th.”
It is a different time in the 7 th. Walberg, the former Christian pastor and 16-year state legislator, rose to Congress on the back of Club for Growth, the national pro-growth, limited-government PAC that supports only the most conservative congressional candidates.
At one point, Walberg raised impeaching former President Barack Obama for not releasing his birth certificate. As recently as last year, Walberg had a front row seat on the Republicans’ train to repeal and replace “Obamacare,” voting to kill the Affordable Care Act 60 times by Driskell’s count.
Nowadays, Walberg is touting his bipartisan work with U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Detroit, on the opioid epidemic. He and an Ohio Democrat are creating a special postage stamp to raise money for Great Lakes restoration projects.
Walberg’s most recent ad touts how Obama signed one of his bills, “investing in cures for diseases like diabetes and fast-tracking federal approval for cancer medicines. I’m working with Republicans and Democrats to improve job and skilled trades training.”
He’s not advertising his lifetime voting record of 90.46 percent from the American Conservative Union, the highest among Michigan’s congressional delegation.
In shedding his reputation as a rightwing ideologue, Walberg touts a record of accomplishment and accessibility. Nobody in the Michigan delegation has had more bills signed into law, he said. Only nine members of Congress have held more town halls in the 2017-‘18 election cycle.
None of the town halls have been shut down, he said. However, a gathering in Tecumseh last year got chippy when he told a gathering to “get a life” if anyone thought Trump’s tweets were grounds for impeachment.
“I think that gives a hope and certainty to my district residents that even though this guy is a Republican, he stands for traditional conservative values and principles while still representing this district,” he said on “Michigan’s Big Show.”
It’s not being sprayed with the same intensity of money as the 8 th , but the numbers show a competitive race in the 7 th . Walberg and Driskell reported Monday night having just about the same amount of cash on hand after the 3 rd quarter — $1.2 million a piece. They have both raised right around $2 million.
The public polling here is scant.
However, Silver gives the 67-yearold Walberg a 57.5 percent chance of winning. The FiveThirtyEight projected margin at this point is a slim 50.7 to 49.3 percent The traditional Republican base here is 59 percent.
The 2018 election is different. The Democrats’ predominant issue is different. In recent weeks it’s all about health care. Slotkin and Driskell are making affordable care for people with pre-existing conditions the touchstones of their campaigns.
They’re not alone. Protect Our Care, a pro-Affordable Care Act group fueled by organized labor money, rolled its bus into Lansing earlier this month. It used the Capitol as a backdrop to a general condemnation of Bishop’s support of the U.S. House Republicans’ proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act.
Cancer survivor Amanda Itliong gave emotional testimony about how the certainty of the ACA has helped her get through the challenges of her multiple bouts with cancer and the anxiety that comes with worrying about losing her health insurance. She fingered Bishop and House Republicans for wanting to gut the law.
“Mike Bishop is my representative, but he doesn’t represent me,” Itliong said.
Meanwhile, Slotkin repeatedly speaks about the plight of her late mother, whose bout with cancer was the driving reason for the Holly native’s return to Oakland County. Her mom needed an advocate in dealing with insurance companies in her last months of life, and Elissa was it.
She says her congressional run began when she watched a grinning Bishop on the White House lawn supporting a repeal and replace ACA plan. According to the independent fact-checking website Politifact if the Republicans’ American Health Care Act had passed, it would allow for people with pre-existing conditions to be charged more per year for their insurance coverage — possibly to the tune of thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars more per year.
“I’m running for Congress because Mike Bishop voted to gut protections for every one of his 300,000 constituents with a pre-existing condition,” Slotkin says in her new ad. “Mr. Bishop, the health of our families should be more important than partisan politics.”
The subject frustrates Bishop. In the state Legislature, he voted three times on legislation to guarantee patients can’t be tossed off health care for having a pre-existing condition. His wife was born with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, a pre-existing condition.
Here’s the problem, in his words: Skyrocketing health care costs are bankrupting America’s health care system, he said. Bishop wants to open up the market to more private sector options. Slotkin’s Medicare buy-in idea is a “one-size-fits-all” government health care scheme that will “hasten” the program’s descent into insolvency.
“Seniors live on a fixed income. They can’t afford it anymore,” he said. “We need a system that will control the cost of health care, bring back the ability of patients and families to pick their own health care and not be required by government to have a certain type of health care.”
Driskell is hearing about health care, too. One constituent talked about how her inhaler went from $70 a month to $900 a month. Some patients are finding it cheaper to purchase certain medicines and services out of pocket as opposed to running it through their insurance. Scrapping the ACA isn’t answer, she said.
As for Walberg, the first subject that pops up on his congressional website? It’s health care related. The aforementioned bipartisan “Jessie’s Law,” named after Jessie Grubb, who died of an opioid overdose in 2016. The bill lets doctors look into a patient’s addiction history. It also gives hospices the power to dispose of unused medicines.
His 300-word press release on the topic used the word “bipartisan” five times.
There’s no shortage of other issues.
Bishop says Slotkin is a Nancy Pelosi recruit “parachuted into this district with a suitcase full of money.” (She has countered she will not support Pelosi for another term as speaker.) He’s born and raised in this district. She doesn’t own a property in Michigan. She hasn’t voted here until she voted for herself in the primary.
“People know me. They trust me. They know I’m accessible. They know they can work with me,” he said.
If Bishop is so well known and so accessible, Slotkin wonders why so many independent and Republican women are pledging their vote to her. Why are they volunteering for her? Why are they appearing in Internet videos for her? Bishop removed the Lansing congressional office that former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers had. She plans to bring it back.
The late U.S. Sen. John McCain criticized Slotkin during her confirmation as being “unqualified” to be the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Slotkin has since had former U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a former Republican U.S. senator from Nebraska, cosign a pro-Slotkin letter with other former security officials in the Bush and Obama administrations.
Bishop is being framed as a tool for drug and insurance companies for accepting campaign funds from “Big Pharma.” Slotkin is framed as a Pelosi put-up flown out to California to shake down deep-pocketed liberals like Tom Steyer.
Driskell is traveling the bipartisan road in her first ad. It says she “worked with Republicans and Democrats” to balance budgets in her time as Saline’s mayor.
“In his over 20 years in office, Walberg has added over $5 trillion to the debt,” according to the ad.
The back and forth is only expected to accelerate as Election Day nears, but the candidates’ back and forth may prove secondary to the “different” mood that’s taking shape in 2018. Some have called it a “Blue Wave,” although most establishment Democrats avoid this forecast until it comes true.
However groups like For Our Future, a 501(c)4 SuperPAC are trying to motivate disenfranchised 2016 Democratic voters in larger counties like Ingham, Oakland and Washtenaw. Their goal: To find out what is on people’s minds and sell them on why the Democratic ticket is the one for them.
More people are showing an interest in voting. Mark Grebner projected 4.25 million voters showing up on Election Day, which would be a record for a nonpresidential election. Typically, a little more than 3 million show up on election day. He told “The Friday Morning Podcast” that he projects a net benefit of 150,000 to 200,000 votes for Democrats amid this universe of 1.25 million “new voters.”
“We’re going to see people of all ages,” Grebner said. “We’re going to see people with inconsistent voting records stray more toward voting than not voting. Overall, this group of people is more Democratic than the rest of the electorate.”
This is different. Is it different enough to mean two Democratic members of Congress for mid-Michigan?
(Kyle Melinn, of the Capitol news service MIRS, is at firstname.lastname@example.org.)