ST. IGNACE, Mich. — Proudly wielding the Winchester hunting rifle his grandfather passed along to him, Democrat Lon Johnson promises in TV ads to “stand up” to his own party and protect Second Amendment rights for small-town voters across northern Michigan.
His pitch is calibrated for one of the country’s most rural congressional districts, the type of seat that Democrats rarely hold now due to redistricting and the countryside’s shift toward the GOP. With the vast 1st District open due to third-term Republican Rep. Dan Benishek’s retirement, Democrats have a shot at retaking what was in their hands for nearly two decades until the 2010 tea party wave.
Johnson, a former state Democratic Party chairman, faces retired Marine Lt. Gen. Jack Bergman in the November election. Their campaigns and parties are flooding the airwaves to condemn the other candidate as a carpetbagger with thin ties to the area and policy proposals that make him “not one of us.”
If Johnson is successful, he’ll end up in a very small club in Washington. After losing races in Georgia, North Carolina and West Virginia, Democrats represent only three of the country’s 34 districts where at least half the population is defined as rural: Maine’s 1st District and two Minnesota seats. Democrats are hoping to pick up Maine’s neighboring 2nd District, where freshman GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin is vulnerable. Republicans, meanwhile, are trying hard to unseat Democratic Rep. Rick Nolan in Minnesota’s 8th District.
In Michigan’s 1st District, which stretches 530 miles and encompasses the entire Upper Peninsula and the top half of the Lower Peninsula, Johnson has pledged to protect entitlement programs and veteran services — significant issues in a Republican-leaning district with more than 200,000 Social Security beneficiaries, 10th-highest in the United States.
“What we need is someone who’s going to protect what we’ve earned and go out there and create a place where our families can stay and succeed. … My opponent just wants to privatize everything,” the 45-year-old said after a recent campaign stop at a cafe in St. Ignace, a city of 2,400 just north of the Mackinac Bridge, a 5-mile span connecting the peninsulas.
Bergman, a 69-year-old political newcomer who bills himself as a “straight-talking” Marine, was the surprise primary winner, besting current and former state senators. His outsider message resonated, not unlike billionaire businessman and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s — minus the bombast. In a nod to Trump’s popularity in northern Michigan, Democrats are not tethering Bergman to Trump.
Alarmed that Social Security only has enough money to pay full benefits until 2034, Bergman said he wants to “personalize” the program so young workers can choose how the money they give to the government is invested.
“People want choice in their lives,” Bergman said. “Let’s face it. We’re a country of unprecedented individual freedoms.”
That’s a message that could resonate with the district’s residents, who are known for their independence. Those from the Upper Peninsula are “Yoopers.” People south of the Mackinac Bridge are “trolls.”
Democrats are optimistic because while Mitt Romney outpaced President Barack Obama by 8 percentage points in the district in 2012, the incumbent GOP congressman — Benishek — won re-election by half a percentage point, or 1,881 votes. Johnson, whose wife was a top campaign fundraiser for Obama, has the financial edge.
Republicans are criticizing Johnson’s support for Obama’s health law, which was unpopular enough in the area that, after helping rescue it, former Rep. Bart Stupak, an anti-abortion Democrat, didn’t seek re-election in 2010.
With the parties more divided on social issues, voters are less likely to distinguish between a party’s presidential nominee and congressional candidate, Boston College political scientist David Hopkins said.
“Rural voters really see the Republicans as the party of people like them,” he said.
Barb Wilkins, of St. Ignace, works 25 hours a week at a shoe store across the bridge in Mackinaw City.
Unemployment rates swing widely up here — Michigan’s lowest in summer tourism months, but highest in the offseason. She supports Bergman, but is angry that state Republicans cut unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 20 weeks, which she said hurts seasonal workers already struggling with low wages.
“Jack Bergman seems to be more upstanding because of his service time. That seems to be where he’s credible,” said Wilkins, 45.
Joe Durm, a Democrat who owns restaurants in St. Ignace, said he likes Johnson’s aggressiveness despite being frustrated over his gun ad.
“I don’t think we’re doing anything wrong,” the 73-year-old said of Democrats’ gun-control proposals. He conceded, though, that a Democrat must pass muster with the National Rifle Association to win the district.
“I’m probably the only one in this town that doesn’t have a gun,” he said.
Bergman’s support for privatizing Social Security is a “huge issue,” Durm said, because the population is older. “Our county, everybody leaves. All the kids leave.”