Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 14, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Dems fail to see an opportunity

By Jack Lessenberry, Local columnist
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---- — Six years ago, when Democrats triumphantly recaptured both houses of Congress, few noticed that the national party blew an easy chance to win another seat in Michigan.

This year, they may be risking that once again.

First, flash back to six years ago, when Tim Walberg, a very conservative former state representative and fundamentalist minister, beat U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz in a GOP primary in the Seventh District, which stretched roughly from Battle Creek to Ann Arbor.

Democrats nominated an engaging, if slightly quirky, organic farmer named Sharon Renier, who argued that while the district leaned Republican, it was not nearly as conservative as Walberg.

Nevertheless, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, then being run by Rahm Emmanuel, wouldn't give her any money. She was able to spend only $55,794.

Walberg, who won the primary thanks to more than $1 million in contributions from the shadowy, Manhattan-based group Club for Growth, spent more than a million more on the general election, outspending his rival by more than 20 to 1.

Nevertheless, the vote was stunningly close; Walberg 122,348; Renier, 112,665.

"A few TV ads (for Renier) would have made all the difference," outgoing congressman Joe Schwarz said.

This year, Democrats may be again failing to capitalize on a unique opportunity, this time in a race in the Detroit area.

There, a newly redrawn 11th district is shaped like an irregular spiral, taking in a collection of mostly white, mostly moderately affluent Wayne and Oakland county suburbs. It stretches from Novi and Livonia though Birmingham and Troy.

This was a district designed for U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, R-Livonia, who was first elected a decade ago. Nobody thought he'd have much trouble until he famously self-destructed this summer.

After running a spectacularly unsuccessful campaign for president (essentially, nobody noticed) he lost interest in his job, failed to qualify for the primary ballot after his staff submitted bogus signatures, and then abruptly resigned from Congress.

That left Republicans with only one name on the ballot — Kerry Bentivolio, 61, a controversial teacher and reindeer trainer who holds a number of near-libertarian views. For example, he wants the United States to close all its foreign military bases, and thinks Michigan needs tough right-to-work legislation to break the power of unions.

Though he tends to avoid debates or the press, the GOP nominee has other beliefs at odds with most in his party, such as "the federal government should get out of regulating narcotics," and "Gay marriage is legal, just not recognized by the government," according to postings he made on a website.

While the district largely tends to vote Republican, it supported President Obama in 2008, and its voters also tend to be uncomfortable with right-wing positions on social issues. Oakland County voters have re-elected their staunchly pro-growth GOP county executive L. Brooks Patterson by large margins every four years.

But Democratic presidential nominees have carried Oakland in every election since 1992, and GOP leaders were dismayed — to put it mildly — at the prospect of Bentivolio as their candidate.

They quickly threw themselves into an effort to get primary voters to write in former State Sen. Nancy Cassis. But this fizzled badly, and Bentivolio easily won the nomination.

Democrats, meanwhile, picked one of the strongest candidates they've run in recent years: Dr. Syed Taj, the former chief of medicine at Oakwood Hospital. A native of India who still speaks with that country's lilting accents, he has a charismatic personality and an infectious grin. A mainstream Democrat, he is an enthusiastic supporter of President Obama's health care reforms.

"Who better to trust than your own doctor?" he tells voters, though mostly he says he wants to help enact pro-small business policies. Four years ago, running as a Democrat, he was easily elected township trustee in solidly Republican Canton.

Yet the national party has done little here, except for helping the Taj campaign with some funds for mailings. I asked Natalie Mosher, his campaign manager, whether it seemed like the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) was neglecting what had suddenly become a winnable race.

"I think that is pretty accurate," Mosher, who herself ran against McCotter two years ago. "I never had a chance, but Dr. Taj really can win this," she told me earlier this summer.

This week, the Taj campaign sent a memo to the DCCC arguing strongly that "this race is winnable, and (our) poll shows that with a little help, particularly in exposing Bentivolio's extreme positions," they "are within striking distance of turning the 11th blue."

That poll, commissioned by Practical Political Consulting of East Lansing, showed the Democrat less than two points behind.

Whether the national party will make an effort isn't clear.

What is clear is that over in the 7th District, Democrats are paying a price for their failure to stop Walberg six years ago. Though he did lose his seat in 2008, he won it back two years later.

This year, Democrats are not seriously contesting the race. The question is how much effort they will make to stop Bentivolio from running next time as an incumbent.

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.