One of most heavily targeted congressional races in all of the country can be found in Michigan between Republican incumbent Dan Benishek and Democratic challenger Gary McDowell. Both are seeking the seat covering the gigantic 1st Congressional District, which runs from the border with Wisconsin through the Straits of Mackinac and across 17 counties in cottage country.The full column will be posted once the newspaper publishes.
If those names sound familiar it’s because they ran against each two years ago, when Democrat Bart Stupak retired in the wake of his controversial vote in support of Obamacare. Though Benishek handily won, McDowell is back in large part because the Democratic front bench in this region, where most voters are to the right on God, guns and abortion, is rather thin.
But the conservative inclinations of most voters mask several contradictions that can be found in the district writ-large.
A strong populist — think Buchanan and Perot — streak can be found across the district. There are also old-school trade union socialists, whose forefathers emigrated from Finland, Sweden and Norway to work in Upper Peninsula mines 100-plus years ago.
At the same time, the district’s demographics have changed from 2010.
In the once-a-decade redistricting process, blue-collar counties along Lake Huron that lean Democratic but have a history of swinging back and forth were dropped for a swath of counties in northwestern lower Michigan running from Traverse City to just north of Ludington. These counties have a Republican pedigree dating to the Civil War, but contain a lot of moderates in the mold of former Gov. William Milliken.
Above all else, the district is rooted in a mild-mannered, plain-spoken, no-nonsense, flag-waving culture. This is what propelled Benishek, a little known surgeon from Crystal Falls with no prior political experience, to victory over McDowell the first time.
— Dennis Lennox