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Michigan's race for the 7th District could be a bellwether for the rest of the country

Jack Lessenberry

Gretchen Driskell got into politics by accident twenty-some years ago, when she was home with a toddler and a neighbor knocked on her door.

He was running for city council and wanted her support; she was an accountant and an MBA who had taken a few years off to raise her three kids, and was happy to talk to another adult.

This was in a town called Saline, which was in transition from an old farming town to a community that was somewhat trendy. She told him she’d read that a local company was offering a challenge grant to build a new recreation center if the community could raise a million dollars.

Somehow Driskell ended up as finance chair of that campaign.

One thing led to another, and she found herself mayor of Saline for seven terms. Four years ago, she decided she didn’t like the way things were going in Lansing. Her family had been moderate, Rockefeller-Milliken type Republicans back on her native Long Island, and she had always been determinedly non-partisan.

But she thought the Republican Party had become too extreme.

"Moderate is a term I am very comfortable with," she told me.

“Moderate is a term I am very comfortable with,” she told me.

She ran against an incumbent Republican for a seat in the Legislature, and beat him. Two years later, despite a Republican landslide, she increased her margin.

Then, she decided to run for Congress.

This year, she is taking on Tim Walberg in the 7th District, which includes all the counties bordering Ohio on Michigan’s eastern half, and then juts up to take in Jackson and Eaton Counties, as well as much of small-town and rural Washtenaw.

The district is more Republican than most of Michigan, but not overwhelmingly so. President Obama won it narrowly the first time, and lost it narrowly the second.

The incumbent, Tim Walberg, has himself been buffeted by national trends. A former minister from Lenawee County, Walberg rallied religious conservatives to defeat the more moderate incumbent Joe Schwarz in a Republican primary 10 years ago.

But Walberg himself was thrown out two years later when President Obama won in a landslide. He reclaimed the seat two years later, however, and has been there since.

Both are baby boomers; Walberg is 65, Driskell 58. But they have little else in common.

Sounding a little like both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, Driskell said her opponent “never saw a bad trade deal he didn’t vote for.”

Walberg makes no apology for being an unabashed free-trader. Driskell, however, strongly opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership and thinks parts of NAFTA haven’t been great. She’s guessing some unemployed former manufacturing workers in places like Jackson and Monroe agree.

How it ends up may have a lot to do with how Trump does.

Driskell, a tall woman who seems less like a politician than the nice lady next door, says she prefers campaigning door-to-door.

But her campaign has spent more than a million dollars on TV advertising. The race is rated “leaning Republican” by some analysts, but as close to a tie by Democratic insiders. How it ends up may have a lot to do with how Trump does.

National observers are going to be watching this race. If Driskell wins early on Election Night, Republican strategists may start to get really worried about keeping the House.

For the next two weeks, don’t expect either candidate to get much sleep.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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