How did Michigan’s proud 1st Congressional District — home of defiant Yoopers and self-reliant Trolls — produce two major party nominees this year who have only tenuous connections to their respective peninsulas?
How did Lt. Gen. (ret.) Jack Bergman of Watersmeet, a complete political unknown at the start of the year who had spent four decades in the U.S. Marine Corps outside the district, manage to knock off two well-known, popular politicians who had deep roots in their home towns and had been re-elected countless times in major parts of the enclave, in the Republican primary?
The Upper Peninsula, which before 1965 constituted TWO Congressional districts all by itself, now produces less than half the vote in the 1st CD, which is a sprawling land mass (second-largest east of the Mississippi River) that encompasses all or parts of 32 counties, most of them south of the Mackinac Bridge. The district is considered to have a roughly 55% GOP base.
This year’s major party candidates were, on the Republican side, Bergman; state Senator Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba); and former state legislator Jason Allen (R-Traverse City). For the Democrats, it was ex-Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson and former sheriff/Iraq war major general Jerry Cannon, both of Kalkaska.
Final results? Johnson over Cannon, about 72%-28%, for the Democrats; Bergman, 38%, Casperson, 33%, and Allen, 29% for the Republicans.
Much is known among political junkies about Allen and Casperson, Bergman not so much. In analyzing what happened Aug. 2, here are some interesting tidbits to consider:
— The Upper Peninsula produced only 32% of the total Republican vote in the August 2 primary. Casperson carried the U.P. portion of the district with 56% of the vote, followed by Bergman with 30% and Allen (who represented the eastern portion of the peninsula for four years) with 13%.
— In the Lower Peninsula (the heart of Allen’s turf when he served for a decade in the state Legislature), it was Bergman, 43%; Allen, 37%; and Casperson, 20%.
— For the Democrats, the U.P. comprised a far larger portion of the primary vote than it did for the GOP (54%). Johnson won the U.P. over Cannon, 74%-26%, and the Lower Peninsula, 69%-31%.
— Not surprisingly, Allen didn’t get as much as 10% of the vote in any U.P. county west of Luce. Bergman didn’t do all that well in the U.P., either. In most counties surrounding the Marquette TV market, where he advertised heavily, he carried only about 20% of the vote. Observers say this was because Casperson was so strong in these environs but also because there may have been some suspicion about whether Bergman was a true Yooper. Evidently, Bergman listed his address as in Louisiana when he gave a campaign contribution on July 31 to Alan Arcand, who was running for the GOP nomination in the 108th state House district encompassing Dickinson, Delta and Menominee counties. (Arcand lost). There are doubts Bergman can run as well in the general election in the U.P. as Casperson, who is very popular in his district.
— Casperson loaned his campaign $25,000 in the campaign’s final days, and he won a majority of the vote in every county he ever represented, however briefly, Still, he wasn’t able to expand his base south of the Bridge. He also finished a poor third in Chippewa (Sault Ste. Marie), and didn’t get above 29% in any Troll county. His endorsement by the outgoing incumbent, U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Crystal Falls) didn’t seem to help him that much. Instead of attacking Bergman as a “lobbyist” during the final week of the campaign, Casperson probably should have hammered the former military officer as an “outsider” who hadn’t lived in the district long enough to represent it properly.
— Allen put $60,000 of his own money into the campaign in the final days, and he had nine members of the DeVos family max out for him in contributions. But Allen suffered from not having run for office since 2010, when he lost the GOP primary to Benishek by a measly 15 votes. In politics, out of sight can be out of mind. Allen won Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties, the heart of his old state House district, but he didn’t win either Chippewa or Mackinac counties (although he came close), both of which he represented in the state senate. Allen also trailed badly in Emmet, Charlevoix and Cheboygan counties, all of which were in his Senate fiefdom. His endorsement by state Rep. Pete Pettalia (R-Alpena) and state Senator Jim Stamas (R-Midland) didn’t seem to help him that much because he finished second to Bergman in the Alpena media market. Some argue Allen didn’t seem to realize Bergman was his main threat until the final week-end, although that argument overlooks the fact that a SuperPac funded by unions (Defending Main Street) bombarded the district with $220,000 of “contrast” ads and direct mail lambasting Allen and highlighting Casperson starting 10 days before the election. A counter-PAC responded with a straight negative on Casperson but with nothing positive about Allen during the final five days — this had the effect of helping Bergman more than anyone since the SMS SuperPac was attacking Allen. Additionally, Benishek was on TV and automated phones blasting Allen, and U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-MI 2) was doing his best to stop money getting to Allen. All this opened the door for Bergman.
— Bergman spent the most of all three candidates, and he wasn’t attacked until the final days of the campaign, and even then ineffectively. Bergman proved to be a strong campaigner, and his “Send a Marine” to Washington battle cry has a ring to it (Bergman is supposedly one of only five lieutenants general in the entire 180,000-member Marine corps). Some believe Bergman was recruited, or at least encouraged, to enter the race by the same conservative groups that once explored the possibility of persuading ex-state Rep. Dave Agema (R-Grandville), the controversial former Michigan Republican National Committeeman, to enter the race. Bergman was the only alternative to two “insider” establishment candidates, and he apparently spent some $350,000 of his own cash to at least match what Allen and Casperson came up with. In the last 10 days of the campaign, three different interest groups launched independent ad campaigns, two of which were anti-Casperson and one anti-Allen.
Was Democrat Johnson helped for the general election by Bergman’s unexpected victory? Yes, if the alternative was Casperson, whose popularity in the U.P would have been hard to overcome. Sure, the total U.P. vote on Nov. 8 will be less than in the L.P. portion of the district, but not by as staggering a margin as in the GOP primary (probably about 60%-40% advantage L.P.). The L.P. segment is just as heavily Republican as north of the Bridge, and Casperson would have been the Republican on the ballot in an area where Donald Trump as the party’s presidential nominee is not a liability.
One thing Bergman might consider, however — do what Johnson has been doing for more than a year, and introduce yourself in earnest to your prospective Congressional district.