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The battle for Michigan's blue-collar voters

Downtown Eaton Rapids, in Michigan's 7th Congressional District, a race that's become one of the most expensive in the state.
Jodi Westrick/Michigan Radio
Downtown Eaton Rapids, in Michigan's 7th Congressional District, a race that's become one of the most expensive in the state.

So you’re flipping around TV one night, and this campaign ad comes up:

“Walberg DID vote yes on every trade deal. And just last year, he voted to give Obama enhanced power to negotiate T.P.P.”


Sounds typical, right? Until you see the ad is actually from a Democrat, trying to score points by linking her opponent – a Republican – to President Obama.

Welcome to Michigan’s 7th Congressional District, where it’s an all-out battle for blue-collar voters, and the normal rules don’t seem to apply.

The uber-conservative runs ads about making nice with the other side 

The Democrat here is Gretchen Driskell, a state lawmaker and the former mayor of Saline.

She’s running against Republican Congressman Tim Walberg, someone who’s bragged about being one of the most conservative guys in Congress.

Walberg has repeatedly made "birther" comments, saying in 2010 that he “didn’t know” whether President Obama was an American, and later saying the question about the president’s birth certificate was never “fully answered.” He opposed gay marriage, and believes abortion should be illegal, even for a rape or incest victim.

But this election, he’s running an ad about how bipartisan he can be, like this one about fighting the opioid crisis:

“The legislation that’s out there, you’ll see it’s all bipartisan. You’ll see that Tim’s, Tim’s leading that charge. And Tim’s able to work with the other side, and people are listening to him.”


Ask Walberg if this campaign is a different tone for him, and he says, absolutely not.

“Not at all. I’ve worked with Democrats my entire tenure in office,” he says, walking briskly out of a meeting with city leaders in Hillsdale.  “And we’ve done it this time again. We’ve had numerous bills that have been introduced with Democrats supporting me, like [Congresswomen] Debbie Dingell and Brenda Lawrence. [Congressman] Dan Kildee and I have worked on the Flint issue together, we’ve joined forces. We will do that when we can on both sides that meet the people’s needs.”

Pouring tons of money into warring ads over trade deals

This district is home to mostly white, working and middle class voters, with boundaries stretching from west of Hillsdale, up north to the Eaton Rapids area, east over to Jackson and ends just outside Ann Arbor.

It’s split almost 50/50 between democrats and republicans, but leans a little more right.

Which means the democrat, Gretchen Driskell, has to run as more an independent.

“This can’t be a traditional Democrat-versus-Republican race for her to win,” says Zach Gorchow,editor of Gongwer News Service. “If she runs that kind of race, she’s going to lose. Number one, it’s a culturally conservative district: pro-gun, pro-life. Those are not areas where she lines up with the district.” 

But Driskell says she’s always been more of an independent.  

“Yeah, I’m running to represent the people of the district,” Driskell says, Friday afternoon at the Grand Traverse Pie Company. “I mean, I was nonpartisan for 20 years [before becoming as state lawmaker...] I worked with whoever at the state and federal level was representing our district. I mean, we have work to do, so let’s forget the partisanship and think about what are the things that’s important in the communities I represent.”

Meanwhile, Driskell’s campaign has poured almost $1 million into TV ads attacking Walberg on one sole issue: trade.

“Trade Deal Tim! Looking out for himself.”


Driskell’s ads, which have gotten “true” ratingsfrom fact-checkers, hit Walberg for voting yes on free trade deals, including those with South Korea, Colombia and Peru, and for approving the negotiation process that led to the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP.

Walberg, however, says that approving the negotiation process is a totally separate issue than actually supporting the TPP deal that came out of it – which, he says, he does not.

“Well, my opponent lied,” he says, by “indicating that I supported TPP.… I said all along, that unless it did something substantial with currency manipulation – and my opponent knows this, she was in meetings where I said this – unless it was supported by our manufacturing interests, because of tariffs being handled appropriately and taxes being handled appropriately, I couldn’t support it.”

Walberg says his vote for the South Korea  trade deal actually helped create jobs in Michigan.

“She doesn’t want to support people having jobs as a result of this? That’s why the UAW supported it.”

Meanwhile, Walberg’s ads show him out on the trail talking about issues not typically thought of as traditionally Republican, like helping people with heroin addiction, and investing in vocational education:

“It helps our students, our veterans and workers transitioning to a new career.”


But his attack ads calling Driskell a “liar” have gotten poor ratingsfrom fact-checkers.  

Even the Republican says Trump is “indefensible,” but still defends him

Interestingly, neither one of them is talking that much about Donald Trump, like they’re unsure exactly how to handle him – or how he plays in this district.

“So uh, Mr. Trump,” Gretchen Driskell begins, before taking a long pause. “Hmm. Let’s…uh….”

Driskell says she knows Trump speaks to a lot of voters here who feel left behind economically. But she’s not a fan.

“Sorry, this is kind of emotional for me,” she says. “Because as a woman, I think the things that he’s said are extremely offensive. So, it’s a difficult situation because he, he’s – there are people that feel like they’ve been left behind.”

And Tim Walberg, the Republican Congressman, is sticking with Trump. He says Trump is at least better than Hillary Clinton, though as a former minister, Walberg says he has some moral qualms about the guy:

“I can’t defend the indefensible,” Walberg says. “But I can’t defend [Hillary Clinton’s] indefensible either. So we have two choices. We have Donald Trump, who I believe will be much more controlled by Congress.”

Yeah. Not exactly the most ringing endorsement of his party’s nominee.

This 7th District race is one that a lot of people will be watching on election night. Zach Gorchow, editor at Gongwer, says if Democrats have any chance at winning the House – however tiny that chance may be – “this is the kind of race they’ve got to try to win.”

Between the two campaigns, Walberg and Driskell candidates have already raised about $2 million, making this one of the most expensive races in the entire state.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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