For political junkies and those who follow Congressional races closely, the GOP primary in Michigan’s 7th district presents perhaps one of the most intriguing matchups of the 2010 cycle: a former Member of Congress versus the brother of a current Member.
Former Rep. Tim Walberg (R), who was ousted by Rep. Mark Schauer (D) in 2008, is hoping for a rematch this November, but first he must get past attorney Brian Rooney, a Marine Corps veteran and recent district transplant.
Rooney is the younger brother of freshman Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fla.) and the grandson of Pittsburgh Steelers founder Art Rooney.
Last year, Brian Rooney relocated from the adjoining 11th district to Dexter, and he launched his campaign in October.
Walberg holds the automatic advantage in name recognition and campaign skills, while Rooney is a first-time candidate and a district newcomer.
Walberg also has the endorsement of two former colleagues in the Michigan GOP delegation: Reps. Candice Miller and Dave Camp.
But a Roll Call survey of the remaining Michigan GOP Members left little hope of further endorsements. Rep. Pete Hoekstra is running for governor, and all the remaining Wolverine State Republicans indicated they intend to keep their powder dry and will not endorse.
“We’ve got a very robust primary going on in Michigan 7,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said. “We’re very blessed with lots of really good talent. I’m going to see how that progresses. The good news is I think that seat will go Republican.”
Similarly, retiring Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) plans to stay out of the endorsement business: “The battle is amongst the Democrats, and I’m a Republican, so I would not get involved in that race,” he said. “They’re both good Republicans, and they’ll do a good job.”
Rep. Thaddeus McCotter (R-Mich.) emphasized that the primary is of exclusive concern to district voters: “I think the people of the district should be able to decide,” he said. “As we’re seeing across the country, people tend to like to make their own decisions.”
Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), a regional representative for the National Republican Congressional Committee, likewise expressed confidence that the race would be among the most hotly contested in the country regardless of who wins the primary.
“I think it’ll be very competitive,” he said. “I think by anyone’s respect this is going to be a top 15 race in the country. … They’re all working hard. No one is taking this race for granted.”
As far as issues and ideological perspective, there is very little that separates Rooney and Walberg.
“Both are conservative candidates and are basically very close on the issues,” said Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party from 2005 to 2009. “It will come down to a difference of style: Who do I think is the most electable?”
Schauer defeated Walberg 49 percent to 46 percent in 2008, as President Barack Obama was carrying the district with 52 percent.
The south-central Michigan district usually leans Republican — George W. Bush and Bill Clinton twice carried it — and the 7th has a rural, urban mix that includes the cities of Battle Creek, Jackson and Hillsdale.
“The campaign continues to go really well,” said Joe Wicks, a spokesman for Walberg. “The voters are looking forward to voting for Tim. He’s out every night campaigning and meeting with voters. … Tim is proven and tested. People know that he’s tested.”
Walberg has reached “Contender” status in the NRCC’s “Young Guns” fundraising program.
The Rooney campaign sees the first-quarter fundraising reports due on April 15 as key and anticipates that it will move from “On the Radar” to “Contender” status with Young Guns after the new numbers become public. As of Dec. 31, Rooney had $179,000 in cash on hand.
Although his recent move to the district is already being highlighted by the Walberg campaign, Rooney’s campaign is quick to brush off the carpetbagging label.
“The value of the carpetbagger message is it takes your opponent off message,” said Jason Roe, a consultant for Rooney. “Where I don’t think it helps Tim is that one of the reasons Brian was a carpetbagger’ is that he was in the military.”
Meanwhile, Rooney is getting some brotherly support and advice from his brother Tom, whom he talks to every night about the campaign. Tom Rooney said in an interview that he often gives political advice to his brother, and he gives other interested Members updates about the campaign. Tom Rooney has also helped fundraise for his brother in Florida.
Walberg released a poll in January taken by National Research Inc. that showed him leading Schauer 46 percent to 37 percent. The same poll showed Schauer leading Rooney 39 percent to 31 percent.
But even though Walberg slightly outperformed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, the former lawmaker has never gained a majority of the vote in either of his appearances on the November ballot.
The Rooney campaign intends on capitalizing on that vulnerability and is trying to reach out to voters who may feel alienated by Walberg’s black-and-white style or who might remain sour over Walberg’s 2006 defeat of then-Rep. Joe Schwarz (R), a moderate, in a heated primary.
In the meantime, Schauer is stockpiling campaign cash and doesn’t plan on going down to either Walberg or Rooney without a fight. The lawmaker listed more than $1 million in cash on hand at the end of 2009 and is a member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Frontline” program.