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Michigan’s Benishek Gets a Democratic Challenger — or Two

Benishek now has a credible Democratic challenger. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Benishek now has a credible Democratic challenger. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Republicans have a new defensive responsibility in their quest to maintain their House majority.  

Michigan Rep. Dan Benishek, who has represented the 1st District for three terms, not only faces potential primary threats for breaking his term-limit pledge , but now also has a credible Democratic challenger.  

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson plans to announce his candidacy Thursday evening at a Marquette County Democrats picnic.  

But he’s not the only Michigan Democrat making an announcement tonight: Retired Army Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon, who lost to Benishek by 7 points in 2014, is reportedly announcing the formation of his exploratory committee Thursday night.  

Johnson, 44, has spoken publicly in recent weeks about considering a bid, and he has been in conversation with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.  

National Democrats are excited about Johnson’s candidacy because of his prominence within the state as a twice-elected party chairman who lost a state House race by just 6 points in 2012. Johnson’s got “relationships up the wazoo,” one Democratic operative said.  

But even more important than his state connections is the fact Johnson is married to President Barack Obama’s 2012 deputy campaign manager, Julianna Smoot, who’s also served as national finance director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Democrats hope that tie will boost Johnson’s fundraising efforts and attract some national notoriety.  

The same can’t be said for Cannon, who failed to build a competitive coffer last cycle. Late last cycle, the DCCC and House Majority PAC cut their ad buys in the state’s Upper Peninsula, signaling they’d lost confidence in flipping the district. Canon “really fit the part” on paper, one Democratic source said, but he didn’t “put the work in in the end.”  

“The fact that he’s forming an exploratory committee, which isn’t really done in congressional races, just shows that he’s not very savvy,” said a Democrat who’s worked in Michigan politics. The timing of Canon’s announcement, he added, is likely “a little bit of retaliation against Lon.”  

Republicans agree that Johnson will be a strong candidate, but they’re adamant that he’s out of touch with the district.  

“He’s certainly credible because he’s going to be very well funded,” said one Republican operative working in Michigan politics, but “he has to be very well funded to overcome the issues that he has.”  

Those issues, according to the NRCC, come down to his support for the president.  

“Lon Johnson obviously didn’t learn that forcing Barack Obama’s failed policies on Michigan families is a losing formula,” NRCC spokesman Chris Pack said in a statement Thursday afternoon.  

But national Democrats, who have long made this seat a target, think it’s an even more viable pickup opportunity in a presidential year, especially if there’s a GOP primary. Benishek had originally pledged to serve only three terms, but his announcement earlier this year that he’d seek a fourth term has provoked conservative ire in the district as well as radio attack ads from the DCCC.  

The National Republican Congressional Committee added Benishek to its Patriot Program , which helps defend vulnerable members, in May. In the first quarter of this year, the third-term congressman raised only about $115,000.  

While the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call rates Benishek’s race as Leans Republican, the northern Michigan district is not exactly safe Republican turf. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried it by 8 points in 2012, while Obama carried it by 1 point in 2008. And while Benishek had a safer victory in 2014, running what Republican operatives dubbed one of the “most improved” campaigns, he squeaked by with only a half-point margin in 2012.  

Before Benishek, the seat was in Democrat hands, with former Rep. Bart Stupak serving nine terms before resigning in 2010 in the wake of casting one of the deciding votes on the Affordable Care Act.  

But even if Johnson doesn’t win, his entry into the race will likely force Republicans to spend more money in this district that they would have preferred to have saved for races elsewhere in the country.  

“We’ll be hitting Johnson early and often,” the NRCC’s Pack told CQ Roll Call on Thursday.  


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