Dems used to hold the 1st Congressional District. Do they stand a chance now?

By: and - May 30, 2019 5:20 am

U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman at the 2019 Mackinac Policy Conference | Andrew Roth

WASHINGTON — Sophomore GOP U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman cruised to reelection last fall. And as Michigan’s political class has descended on his 1st Congressional District for the vaunted annual Mackinac Policy Conference this week, few are abuzz about a competitive 2020 race up there.

It wasn’t that long ago, however, that the sprawling northern Michigan district encompassing 32 counties — and much of the state’s pristine vacation destinations — was in Democratic hands. Moderate Bart Stupak, represented the 1st for almost two decades before he retired in 2010 and the seat was captured by the GOP.

Since then, the district routinely made the list of targets for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the House Democrats’ campaign arm, but fell off in 2018 as the area has turned increasingly red.

Democrats say they aren’t giving up in 2020 on the seat that envelopes the Upper Peninsula and the upper hand of the Michigan mitten.

But the DCCC noticeably did not include the 1st on its initial list of 33 target House seats, which it released in January, although the district could be added later.

U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman with members of the Michigan congressional delegation at the 2019 Mackinac Policy Conference | Andrew Roth

“Following a record-breaking cycle in 2018 that saw Democrats take back the House through victories in every corner of the country, the DCCC is remaining on the offense in 2020 and is actively targeting vulnerable Republicans like Congressman Bergman,” DCCC spokesperson Mike Gwin said.

Bergman, for his part, is not surprised that Democrats say he’s vulnerable — and doesn’t seem concerned about it, either.

“I’m a Marine; I was targeted before,” the Watersmeet Republican told the Advance in a brief interview this month in Washington, D.C.

Bob Salera, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), said Democrats won’t go after Bergman “because even they’d be embarrassed to pretend” that the district is competitive.  

The NRCC also did not include the second-term congressman on its initial list of incumbents it anticipates will find themselves in the Democratic crosshairs, such as U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph).

Solidly red

Jessica Taylor, a political reporter and analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, agreed that the 1st will not be competitive in 2020, barring some unforeseen circumstance. After all, the seat netted an R+9 rating in the Cook Partisan Voting Index — tying for the second-reddest in the state.

“It’s a Republican district, bottom line,” Taylor told the Advance.

Indeed, now-President Donald Trump carried the district by a 21-point margin in 2016. That year, Bergman, a retired lieutenant general and political novice, trounced his opponent, Lon Johnson, by 15 points — in spite of the fact that the former Michigan Democratic Party chair was a prodigious fundraiser and played up his long hunting history.

And in 2018, despite the blue wave that carried Democratic candidates to a House majority, Bergman won a second term with 56 percent of the vote — almost 13 points ahead of Democrat Matthew Morgan.

Democrats had more luck much further south of the Mackinac Bridge, with now-U.S. Reps. Haley Stevens of Rochester and Elissa Slotkin of Holly flipping two seats.

Sen. Ed McBroom | Michael Gerstein

But in northern Michigan, there were alarming signs for Democrats up and down the ballot. Although Democrat Gretchen Whitmer defeated Republican Bill Schuette for governor by 9 points statewide, she only won three counties in the 1st District.

Republicans maintained the highly targeted 38th state Senate District that they had captured in 2010, with now-state Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) besting now-former Rep. Scott Dianda (D-Calumet).

And although Democrats netted five seats in the state House in 2018, they actually lost the 110th District in the U.P. With Dianda term-limited, the seat was left open and now-Rep. Greg Markkanen (R-Hancock) narrowly defeated Democrat Ken Summers.

Back when it was blue

The U.P. used to be synonymous with the ultra-powerful state House Appropriations chair, Dominic Jacobetti (D-Negaunee), who served from 1955 until his death in 1994.

“The Godfather of the U.P.” always made sure that Michiganders who resided above the Mackinac Bridge weren’t forgotten in the budget.

Jacobetti was succeeded in the Michigan House by Mike Prusi (D-Ishpeming), who went on to serve in the Senate and became the mentor of now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Prusi now serves as her northern Michigan director.

But his seat, the 38th, slid into the red column in 2010, first with now-former state Sen. Tom Casperson (R-Escanaba) and now with McBroom.

Bart Stupak

The U.P. used to dominate that 1st Congressional District. But as Michigan has shed congressional seats due to stagnant population, more and more of the upper Lower Peninsula has crept into the district — and Republicans who controlled the redistricting process made sure red areas made the cut. That helped Republicans flip the seat, as the Upper Peninsula used to be more Dem-friendly.

Now the 1st is the second-largest congressional district by land mass east of the Mississippi River, behind Maine’s 2nd District.

Stupak, a former state trooper from Menominee, was a good fit for the white, blue-collar district. Like many northern Dems, Stupak was pro-gun and anti-abortion. He won an open seat after the 1992 redistricting, succeeding GOP U.S. Rep. Robert Davis.

When the Democrat stepped down after a bruising fight to get the Affordable Care Act passed — which included a battle over abortion funding known as the Stupak amendment — he was replaced by a Republican, Dr. Dan Benishek of Crystal Falls.

Benishek barely held onto his seat in a 2012 rematch with former state Rep. Gary McDowell (D-Rudyard), who’s now Michigan Agriculture and Rural Development director. The Republican survived one more election in 2014 before retiring.

Dan Benishek

That paved the way in 2016 for Bergman, who won both his elections by double digits, as Democrats’ foothold in the region continues to slip.

Democrats maintain that the district — which was won in 2008 by now-former President Barack Obama won in 2008 (albeit narrowly) — may not be as solidly Republican as it may appear.

But Taylor of the Cook Political Report said the district’s recent elections are more indicative of its future than are elections of the more distant past — and that recent GOP wins in many rural districts reflect a larger cultural and political realignment.

“There’s a rural-urban divide in this country,” she said.

Even areas that were “ancestrally Democratic” are “more receptive to Trump’s messages.” The only way the 1st District could possibly be in play, she said, “is if a really excellent candidate” comes forward.

Bergman unfazed

Whether the seat is competitive next year depends on the circumstances of the race and the shape of the district, Bergman said.

U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman at the 2019 Mackinac Policy Conference | Andrew Roth

Last month, federal judges ruled that some of the state’s district lines were illegally gerrymandered, and the case could be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Whatever the outcome, Bergman doesn’t expect a dramatic change.

Michigan’s 1st Congressional District | Wikimedia Commons

“The Upper Peninsula will remain the same,” he said.

And whatever happens below the bridge “will sort itself naturally,” he said. In the meantime, he said, “I guess I can only focus on one thing, and that’s how I perform as the representative of all of the 1st District of Michigan.”

In the 2016 GOP primary, Bergman was an outsider who came from behind to defeat two better-known opponents: Casperson and former state Sen. Jason Allen (R-Traverse City). Bergman’s record as a three-star general and no-nonsense style seemed to resonate with voters.

Bergman made an impression with his colleagues, too, who voted him president of the freshman GOP class. In 2017, he was among those practicing for the annual congressional baseball game in Virginia when U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and others were shot. Bergman said he was “blessed to be safe” and thanked Scalise’s security detail.

U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar | Ken Coleman

Michigan Republicans say the congressman — whose voting record closely aligns with Trump’s policies — has excelled on Capitol Hill.

U.S. Rep. John Moolenaar, a Midland Republican from the neighboring 4th District who also was present at the shooting, told the Advance that Bergman is “doing a great job” and is “well respected.”

That’s a sentiment shared by U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton).

“I wouldn’t want to be a Democrat taking him on,” he said.

Keeping hope alive

Democrats say they remain hopeful they can turn the bright-red district blue next year.

Johnson, the former Michigan Democratic Party chair who’s mulled another congressional run, told the Michigan Advance, “I think any Republican right now is vulnerable.

Lon Johnson

“It all comes down to the type of challenger we have and what type of campaign he or she is able to mount.”

G.T. Long, a longtime Democratic political activist, agreed. Bergman is vulnerable in part because he doesn’t have a strong presence in the district, he said.

“You never see him anywhere,” Long said. “He’s like a ghost.”

Long says a strong candidate may step forward by the end of the month, although he declined to say who.

“He’s smart, he has the ability to raise the money needed, and if he decides to run, then we have a chance,” Long said. “We have a good chance.”

Still, freshman U.S. Rep. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) conceded that the district is a challenge for Democrats — at least if it resembles its current shape in 2020.

“As a district now,” Levin said, “it [will be] a great and difficult test whether Democrats can win back a seat that swung fairly hard to Trump in 2016.”

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Allison Stevens
Allison Stevens

Allison Stevens has reported for States Newsroom's Washington, D.C. bureau. She is a writer, editor, and communications strategist in Northern Virginia and can be reached at

Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.