Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Big U.S. House races in Michigan; time for another Bush?


Jack Lessenberry.


DETROIT —Voters elected the entire current U.S. House of Representatives less than a year ago. Yet politicians are already hard at work planning next year’s campaigns.

That’s not surprising, given what’s at stake and the money candidates need to be competitive.

Democrats know that gaining the 18 seats they’d need to take back control of the House is an extremely long shot, especially given the historical trend that the party holding the White House tends to lose seats in off-year elections.

But they are determined to try, especially after the government shutdown and the possibility of default on the national debt.

So there’s a nationwide battle for what few swing seats are thought to exist. In Michigan, you might expect attention would center on the state’s 1st Congressional District, which includes the entire sparsely populated Upper Peninsula and a big chunk of the northern Lower Peninsula.

There, freshman U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, a Republican, won re-election by fewer than 2,000 votes out of the nearly 400,000 that were cast.

The new chairman of the Michigan Democratic Party, Lon Johnson, has recruited a man he believes is a strong challenger: Jerry Cannon, a Vietnam veteran and county sheriff. But Mr. Benishek has taken some steps to move toward the center. For example, last week he supported the deal to fund the government and end the shutdown.

Surprisingly, all the real action so far — in both parties — has centered on Michigan’s 11th Congressional District, which includes mainly middle-class and affluent Detroit-area suburbs. Things were thrown into turmoil last year when former U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter failed to qualify for the ballot, because many of his petition signatures were illegally photocopied. He abruptly quit the race.

That left “Krazy Kerry” Bentivolio, a reindeer trainer and ex-high school teacher whose Tea Party views were seen as extreme. Establishment Republicans tried, and failed, to beat him with a write-in candidate in the primary.

Democrats made an effort, but their candidate, Syed Taj, a physician and township trustee, had several handicaps. Though likable and competent, he was a Muslim with an unfamiliar name, whose voice was rich with the accent of his native India. Mr. Bentivolio won last November, 51 to 44 percent.

Mr. Bentivolio hasn’t satisfied mainstream Republicans in the district and elsewhere, who are opening their checkbooks to support David Trott, a foreclosure attorney who is running as an establishment conservative.

After declaring he would be a candidate in the GOP primary, Mr. Trott raised nearly $650,000 in less than a month, including checks from heavy hitters such as Detroit pizza and sports baron Mike Ilitch.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bentivolio raised a mere $59,000 in three months. That does not mean, however, that he is a sure loser.

Incumbency is a powerful tool. Few voters are likely to turn out for the primary next August, especially if, as seems likely, there are no contested statewide races.

It is also possible that groups such as the Club for Growth, or the Koch brothers, could ride to Mr. Bentivolio’s rescue with immense cash reserves.

This race may be about to get more interesting. Jocelyn Benson, a 35-year-old powerhouse who is the interim dean of Wayne State University’s law school, is reportedly interested in the Democratic nomination for the 11th District seat.

Ms. Benson was the Democratic candidate for secretary of state in 2010. She lost, but did considerably better than the party’s candidates for governor and attorney general. She was widely expected to seek a rematch with GOP incumbent Ruth Johnson next year, but now is reportedly thinking of Congress instead.

The dean is a charismatic candidate, but taking on this race would pose risks. Losing two elections in a row might be irreparably damaging to her political career. This race will be one to watch.

In any event, it is clear that it will take hard work and a lucky break for Michigan Democrats to gain any seats in Congress.

● Time for a Bush? There’s evidence that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would like to run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016. But so far, few seem excited about the prospect.

Most embarrassingly, his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, said this year that “there are other people out there who are very qualified, and we‘ve had enough Bushes.”

His brother, George W. Bush, was hugely unpopular when he left the White House in 2009. His father, George H.W. Bush, was the last U.S. president defeated for re-election, in 1992.

But if history is any guide, Republicans need to nominate Mr. Bush next time. After 1972, every winning GOP presidential ticket has had a Bush on it, either for president or vice president. Bushes were nominees in 1980, 1984, 1988, 2000, and 2004.

When Bushes weren’t on the ticket — 1976, 1996, 2008, and 2012, Democrats were elected president. The only time a ticket with a Bush on it lost was in 1992, when independent candidate H. Ross Perot split GOP support.

Five out of six is pretty good odds. And consider: Until Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 — with a Bush as running mate — every winning Republican ticket after 1928 included a man named Richard Nixon.

My guess is that nobody in the GOP — or anywhere else — has yet thought of nominating Jeb Bush for president and Michigan budget director John Nixon for vice president. But if Republicans want to win, maybe they should.

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.

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