No sooner had Rep. Dan Benishek announced Tuesday morning that he would keep his promise of only three terms and retire in 2016 than discussion began about his 1st District being a likely pickup for Democrats next year.
Since the physician and first-time candidate known as “Dr. Dan” was nominated to Congress as a “tea party Republican” in 2010, he has always had close races in November.
He narrowly defeated Democratic State Rep. Gary McDowell in 2010 and, in a rematch two years later, Benishek defeated McDowell by about 2,500 votes.
But there's a strong candidate for Republicans, too: In the 1st District, talk is primarily centered on the man who was almost nominated five years ago: Jason Allen, former state senator and stalwart conservative, who lost the primary to Benishek by a mere 15 votes out of more than 58,000 cast.
Rather than pursue a costly recount, Allen promptly conceded to Benishek and won a residue of good will among area Republicans.
Still, some insiders are worried about a turnover. Last fall, while Republicans were sweeping Michigan, Benishek managed only 52 percent of the vote against Kalkaska County Sheriff Jerry Cannon.
And before Benishek said he was stepping down, Cannon had made clear he was running in 2016. In addition, former Democratic State Chairman Lon Johnson has signaled that he, too, is a candidate.
“But I wouldn’t necessarily say that Democrats have an advantage in an open 1st District,” Bill Ballenger, editor of the “Inside Michigan Politics” newsletter, told me hours after Benishek’s announcement, “Remember, in 2011, the [Republican-controlled] state legislature made the 1st District slightly more Republican than it was.
“And Rep. Benishek had sent out strong signs he would break his term limit pledge and run again. The Democrats were going to make ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘misleading the voters’ a major issue. Now that he kept his word, where’s the outrage?”
Ballenger and other observers were quick to note that Allen’s hometown of Traverse City (where the Allen family’s Captain’s Quarters haberdashery has been a fixture for half-a-century) is now the largest Republican hub in the 1st District.
Were this the case before redistricting, Allen would almost surely have won the primary for Congress in 2010.
Now senior policy adviser at the Michigan Department of Veterans Affairs, Allen told me that “[wife] Suzanne and I are talking about this, praying, and deciding what is best for our country.”
“And we are grateful for the work Congressman Benishek has done,” he added, referring to the lawmaker’s efforts to assist veterans and reform the Veterans Administration.
The other Republican most frequently discussed as a candidate is State Sen. Tom Casperson of Escanaba. Now in his second term representing a traditionally Democratic district, Casperson would be vulnerable in a primary for casting some non-conservative votes: against right-to-work and for joining the Medicaid exchange.
Two state representatives mentioned for the Republican nomination are Pete Petallia, a tea party favorite who considered challenging Benishek if the congressman violated his term limit pledge, and Lee Chatfield, who is in his 20s and a favorite of evangelical conservatives.
“And the 1st District is the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi except for one in Maine,” noted Ballenger, “It stretches all the way from the Upper Peninsula to Traverse City. To run here, a candidate has to love to campaign!”
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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