Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 30, 2012

Weeks: 09/30/2012


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---- — With just over a month to go before the vote between 1st District freshman U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, and Democratic challenger Gary McDowell of Rudyard, this is the situation in their highly competitive and nationally-watched rematch in the sprawling district that is the second-largest east of the Mississippi:

n There's quite a mudslide across the district's 32 counties. Attack ads abound, with each contender, and swarms of PAC ads run on their behalf, accusing the other of assorted evils.

Benishek, a surgeon, calls ex-state Rep. McDowell, a hay farmer, a high-tax "career politician." The Benishek camp says McDowell voted in Lansing for $1.3 billion in tax hikes during the administration of Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm. The McDowell camp says Benishek voted on Capitol Hill against interests of seniors.

To link McDowell with Granholm, Benishek has a clever TV ad with a photo of McDowell's head atop a cartoon drawing of him bouncing across the screen with a silent video in the background of Granholm's fist-pumping, arm-swinging speech at the Democratic National Convention. It ends with Dr. Dan, in hospital garb, approving the ad.

(Granholm, who has her own TV show, is on a national TV roll. She was interviewed Saturday on CNN about her book and call for a "job creation competition.")

My nod for the best TV ad visual in the race so far: McDowell driving a huge tractor cutting hay, with seagulls circling aloft, as he spouts anti-Benishek comments on waste in government. At the end, an aerial view of a field shows a giant "Cut Waste" image (in reality, created by computer, not carved by McDowell's tractor.)

Negative ads long have been standard fare in political campaigns. These ads although prolific, are relatively tame compared to some past Michigan campaigns.

n In their 2010 campaign for the seat of retiring nine-term Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, Benishek won by 11 points over McDowell. Redistricting, which added counties in the Grand Traverse area, has made the district more favorable to Republicans on paper.

However, the national parties have deemed it one of the top 15 or so 2012 House races in the country; The Hill publication rates the race a "toss-up"; and some polling gives McDowell an edge.

A new Democratic poll has Benishek trailing McDowell by nine points. Conducted by the pro-Democratic House Majority PAC, AFSCME and the League of Conservation voters (All of whom are running pro-McDowell ads), it has McDowell leading Benishek by 49 to 40 percent. The Hill said: "Though partisan polls should be viewed with some skepticism, that's a big shift from a two-point advantage Benishek had in an early poll conducted for the three groups."

The Sept 18-20 poll of 402 likely voters was conducted by Democratic pollster Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group and has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

According to a Sept. 25-27 Practical Political Consultants survey of 623 voters commissioned by Lansing-based MIRS, McDowell is up by 3 percentage points, within the margin of error, over Benishek by 51 to 48 percent.

n In 2010, combined spending by Benishek and McDowell totaled $2,226,837. Rich Robinson of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network expects the total 2012 spending to exceed that just for TV ads.

Last week, while watching a one-hour local newscast in the Traverse City market, there were six commercials about the 1st District race, four of them by the candidates themselves. There also were four ads on ballot propositions, as well as one for Sen. Debbie Stabenow and 26 that were non-political.

Working against Benishek and other incumbents in close, high-profile races is the low esteem voters have for Congress. As the National Journal noted Sept. 22 in reporting on a variety of assessments, "there is no avoiding the conclusion"¦that this Congress has been one of the least productive since the 1940s."

McDowell Campaign Manager Zack Knowling said, "Gary believes that no one in Washington is looking out for Northern Michigan--some Democrats don't want to cut the spending and it seems like Republicans don't care what happens to regular people who work for a living."

n While the air war is important to outcome of campaigns, the ground war — the tours across the district — are more important in direct contact with voters.

Both Benishek and McDowell promote various tours. For example, Benishek's current gig is "House calls with Dr. Dan." On one day last week in Manistee, he toured a hospital, a small business and met with local supporters and members of the VFW.

George Weeks, a member of the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame, for 22 years was the political columnist for the Detroit News and previously with UPI as Lansing bureau chief and foreign editor in Washington. His weekly Michigan Politics column is syndicated by Superior Features.