Could Lon Johnson be happy in Congress?
Only in the unlikely event Democrats regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. Otherwise, he’ll be in for a miserable two years.
But let’s back up. Who is Lon Johnson, anyway? He’s the 45-year-old Democratic nominee in Michigan’s First Congressional District, the second-largest land mass CD east of the Mississippi River, covering all of the Upper Peninsula and the top third of the Lower Peninsula extending down through Traverse City. He’s also a former state Democratic Party chairman whose wife raises campaign cash for President Barack Obama. Lon owns a hunting cabin in Kalkaska County, just south of the Mackinac Bridge. He says he’s the fifth generation of his family to reside or own property in what is now the 1st District, although he’s lived the vast majority oi his life downstate, mainly in Wayne County.
Lon is running against a retired Marine Lieutenant General, Jack Bergman, 69, who pulled off a shocking upset win over two better-known rivals in the Aug. 2 GOP primary, state Senator Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) and ex-state Senator Jason Allen (R-Traverse City). Bergman claims residence since 1998 in Watersmeet in Gogebic County in the far western U.P., although he’s spent a large amount of his time over the past 18 years in Louisiana, sometimes angling for redfish in the Gulf of Mexico.
As noted by Dave Eggert of the Associated Press (Lansing State Journal, Oct. 14), Johnson will join a very small club if he’s victorious next Tuesday — U.S. House Democrats represent only three of the country’s 34 districts where at least half the population is defined as rural (the other three are in Maine and Minnesota).
Michigan’s First is about a 55% Republican district, so if Johnson is elected he’ll occupy one of the most heavily GOP seats represented by a Democrat in the next Congress. If Republicans retain control of the U.S. House in Nov. 8 general election voting, Johnson will enter the chamber as a member of the minority party. As such, he will not get any legislation passed or even considered. More than that, majority Republicans will make sure he has to cast a huge number of difficult votes on controversial measures that, depending on what he decides, will expose him as either “out of sync” with his constituents, or a “sell-out” on most major issues that his party has strong positions on. In terms of political survival beyond 2018, Johnson would be wiser to simply announce on Day One that he’s no longer a Democrat and will caucus with Republicans. That’s not going to happen.
Polls show the contest is close. Johnson won’t get any help from the top of his party’s ticket. Even in the best of Democratic years, the Republican presidential nominee would be expected to carry this district (Mitt Romney won it in 2012 even while losing the state as a whole by nearly 10 points). This year, all surveys show Donald Trump popular in the 1st CD, while Hillary Clinton is not. Still, Johnson has run an energetic campaign for more than a year, raised lots of money, and has neutralized Bergman on the issues of residency and gun rights.
If Johnson is elected, it may be because roughly 60% of the vote will come from south of the Mackinac Bridge, which he should be able to count on as “home turf” provided Trolls consider him “one of us.” Bergman, who doesn’t have natural roots in the U.P., can hope for support from Yoopers who don’t want to yield representation of the 1st to a Troll, but the question is: do Yoopers consider Bergman “one of us”? Even if they don’t, Bergman would at least be able to claim residence in an area which, for a century and a half, has been accustomed to producing Congressmen to represent it in Washington, D.C.
Some say Johnson shouldn’t have any more trouble representing the 1st in Washington than did Bart Stupak (D-Menominee), who served nine straight terms before retiring in 2010. But Stupak, after a term in the state House, was a true Yooper and had the advantage of running for Congress for the first time in 1992, when Democrats still controlled the chamber (as they had for 38 straight years). Majority Democrats like John Dingell, Sander Levin and David Bonior took Stupak under their wings and nurtured him past his first re-election bid in 1994, after which date re-elections became much easier, even with Republicans in the majority (the district wasn’t as Republican then as it is now, either). Johnson won’t have that advantage in the next Congress if his party doesn’t control.
Republicans should look at it this way: for the “long haul,” either it’s Jack Bergman now, or Tom Casperson after 2018.