Freshman Rep. Kerry Bentivolio by his own words, came to Congress in 2012 through "something akin to divine intervention." Now the Republican from Michigan faces a spirited primary challenge in which the factional lines of the national GOP are blurred.
Bentivolio, 62, faces attorney and businessman David Trott, a well-connected figure within the Oakland County Republican Party. Both are conservatives who disagree on relatively little — except who should be the congressman.
The result is perhaps the most unusual Republican congressional contest of 2014.
Initially elected with support from tea partiers in Michigan's 11th District, which covers Oakland and Wayne Counties, and with the support of Ron Paul, Bentivolio disappointed some backers when he voted to extend the debt ceiling. More recently, he spoke out against any U.S. action in Syria and was one of 62 House Republicans to oppose the Ryan-Murray bipartisan budget agreement.
His tea party pedigree notwithstanding, Bentivolio has the strong backing of Speaker John Boehner and all of the House GOP leaders. Five of the six state Republican Party officers are in his camp, as is Republican National Committeeman Dave Agema.
However, more than 140 local elected officials have weighed in for challenger Trott. So have former State Attorney General Mike Cox and the most powerful Republican of all in Oakland County, County Executive Brooks Patterson.
More interestingly, some conservative activists who one might think of as natural allies of Bentivolio have come out for Trott. Among them are Jennifer Gratz, founder of the XIV Foundation and a leader in placing an anti-affirmative action initiative on the state ballot in 2006, and Terry Bowman, founder of Union Conservatives and winner of the Everett Dirksen Award of the National Right to Work Committee.
There is a feeling among many party activists that Bentivolio was an "interloper" who got into office last year because of flukish circumstances.
Indeed, the U.S. Army veteran and businessman-farmer who never held office before freely admits he didn't expected to win when he decided to challenge then-Rep. Thad McCotter for renomination in 2012.
"I didn't enter the race with any hope of winning, but only to try to move Thad McCotter to the right a bit," Bentivolio said in January, recalling how conservatives were growing upset with the six-term incumbent after he co-sponsored a bill favored by organized labor, and measures to outlaw discrimination against gays in the military.
Then a state attorney's general's probe concluded that 85% of the signatures on McCotter's nominating petitions were forged and he was stricken from the ballot in June and, disgruntled, he resigned from office
a month later.
So, with the filing deadline over, Bentivolio's was the lone name left on the Republican ballot in the 11th District. He easily overcame a well financed write-in opponent in the primary and was elected to Congress in November.
Some Republicans activists in the 11th District are still somewhat uncomfortable with Bentivolio as their congressman. Trott, they note, was always on the short list of possible Republican successors to McCotter when the congressman was thought ready to give up his seat to make a long-shot bid for president in 2012.
As a result, some party officials opt for neutrality rather than choosing sides between challenger Trott and incumbent Bentivolio.
"I never endorse anyone during a primary campaign," State Sen. Patrick Colbeck of Wayne County told Newsmax during the Oakland County Lincoln Day dinner earlier this year.
Fellow State Sen. Mike Kowall of Oakland County, who beat Bentivolio in a primary for state senate, took a similar stance. He told us he felt Bentivolio "has not done a bad job" but stopped short of endorsing the congressman.
With ten months to go before voting, the contest has already started to get personal. Bentivolio's team has made it clear it will pull no punches when it comes to Trott's work in a major law firm dealing with foreclosures.
"If David Trott needs to ease his burdened conscience through public service, he should open a homeless shelter for all of the people whose lives he helped destroy," a Bentivolio spokesman told Newsmax. "The 11th district isn't for sale to the highest bidder."
The Trott campaign, in turn, is already bringing up the collapse of a business Bentivolio was a partner in before he was in Congress.
"Whether it is Congressman Bentivolio's vote to raise the debt ceiling, his failed business record which bilked small businesspeople out of hundreds of thousands of dollars or running up his own personal campaign debt, Bentivolio has no problem being careless with other people's monies," said Trott consultant Stu Sandler,.
Until the tea party movement took off in 2010 and, Republican incumbents in the House were rarely denied renomination except in cases involving scandal. But this has not been the case in Michigan. In 1986, first-time candidate Fred Upton defeated then-Rep. Mark Siljander in the Republican primary in the state's 6th District after a campaign focused largely on the incumbent's absence from the district and constituent service. In 1992, political unknown Pete Hoekstra defeated veteran Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, who rarely came back to his Western Michigan district during many years as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee. In 2006, Tim Walberg ousted one-term Rep. Joe Schwartz in the Battle Creek-area 7th District.
In all three cases, "over the fence" campaigning made the difference for the winning challengers.
Whether that will happen again in Michigan's 11th District next August is unclear. For now, it can be said that the primary between Kerry Bentivolio and David Trott will surely be one of the most unusual nomination fights anywhere in '14. It is sure to be watched nationally.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
© 2014 Newsmax. All rights reserved.