Will Democrats aid a Mich. campaign or repeat 2006 failure?


NOVI, Mich. — 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 again.

Flash back to 2006, when Tim Walberg, a conservative former state representative and fundamentalist minister, beat U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz in a GOP primary in Michigan's 7th U.S. House District, which stretched roughly from Battle Creek to Ann Arbor.

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

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

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

The vote was stunningly close: Mr. Walberg, 122,348; Ms. Renier, 112,665.

“A few TV ads [for Ms. Renier] would have made all the difference,” Mr. Schwarz said afterward.

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

The newly redrawn 11th U.S. House District is shaped like an irregular spiral, taking in a collection of mostly white, moderately affluent Wayne and Oakland county suburbs. The new district 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 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 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. He wants the United States to close all its foreign military bases and says Michigan needs tough right-to-work legislation to break the power of unions.

Though he tends to avoid debates and the media, the GOP nominee is known to have other beliefs at odds with most in his party. According to postings on a Web site, Mr. Bentivolio says: “The federal government should get out of regulating narcotics,” and “Gay marriage is legal, just not recognized by the government.”

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

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

They quickly threw themselves into an effort to get primary voters to write the name of former state Sen. Nancy Cassis. This fizzled badly. Mr. 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 a lilting accent, 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 asks voters, though mostly he says he wants to help enact policies that favor small businesses. Four years ago, running as a Democrat, he was easily elected a trustee in Canton Township, which is solidly Republican.

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

“I think that is pretty accurate,” Ms. Mosher, who ran against Mr. McCotter two years ago, said. “I never had a chance, but Dr. Taj really can win this.” This week, the Taj campaign sent a memo to the Democratic committee arguing that “this race is winnable, and [our] poll shows that with a little help, particularly in exposing Bentivolio's extreme positions,” the candidate is “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 the Republican.

Whether the Democratic 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 Mr. Walberg six years ago. Though he lost 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 Democrats will make to stop Mr. Bentivolio from running next time as an incumbent.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com