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New congressional maps have decided the race for you

straight-party voting
Lars Plougmann
Creative Commons
The Secretary of State says 95.5% of eligible voters are registered

The presidential candidates are fighting for every last vote between now and Tuesday. But it’s a totally different story if you’re a congressional candidate in Michigan.

Thanks to new district maps, almost every seat will be delivered on a silver platter. As Michigan Radio’s Kate Wells reports, it means this year, your vote matters a whole lot less.

You could see this as a good thing. Now voters don’t have to learn a lot of unneccesary information…like who the candidates are.

“Actually, I do know who’s running,” Ellie Robinson raises her voice to be heard over the clatter of pins on a busy Monday night at the Coldwater Recreation Bowling lanes. “Tim Walberg is running. And, uh…I actually don’t know who the Democrat is in the race.”

Robinson’s recall is typical for voters in Michigan’s 7th district. She cuts the interview off to return to her table of friends, while David Cross takes on look at the Republican’s flyer – “Oh, Tim Walberg! Yeah, I’m familiar with him.”

Yet asked if he’s heard anything at all about the Democrat in the race: “Uh, no. I have not heard of him.”

This apparantly one-man race is a massive shift from previous elections, when this district was a dead heat.

In 2010, it was a messy, historic, national record-setting $14 million slugfest for every single vote.  You couldn’t turn on the television without getting bombarded with ads from both sides.

So what’s changed? Michigan is down a district after the 2010 census. Republicans have the power in Lansing, so they got to redraw the election maps.

They packed the Democrats into five districts, leaving nine Republican-safe seats for their guys.

“Not having a target on my back is very unusual,” says Tim Walberg, the candidate the bowling voters all know. He’s one of the newly-safe Republicans thanks to the redrawn maps.

Walberg is one of those gray-haired, steady-gaze pols who’s frequently written up as “grandfatherly.” It’s fitting. While it doesn’t come across in his awkward television ads, Walberg has all the calm charm that comes with being a former pastor.

At a Coldwater meeting of the Tea Party Patriots, Walberg’s stump speech isn’t inspiring passion. But Walberg’s not about fire and brimstone. Rather, you’re reminded of 1950’s troop leader, with his call to “sober focus” on voting a straight Republican ticket come November 6th.

And one-on-one, Walberg is surprisingly mesmerizing. His quiet, gentle confidence never wavers. He’s far-right, pro-life even in the case of rape or incest. And he made the 2010 “Dirty Dozen” list put out by the League of Conservation Voters.

But despite calling himself “tea party before there was a Tea Party,” Walberg doesn’t trade in folksy righteousness or back-to-the-founding-fathers longing. Instead, he makes you want to straighten up, fly right, and put on a tie for Sunday dinner.

Yet what’s most striking about Walberg this election is his lack of any major competition. The Republican who lost his seat as recently as 2008, only to narrowly win it back in 2010, can now breathe easy.

The new district maps plucked out the big-name Democrat, former Congressman Mark Schauer, as well as a more moderate Republican.

Walberg says that doesn’t make this race any less of a democracy.  “The people have the opportunity, in the district that is made, by the constitution, to elect who they determine. I believe the support that has been shown me has shown that they want me. We’ll see on November 6th.”

Meanwhile, Democrats ain’t even putting up a fight. They’re barely backing their own candidate, that mysterious Democrat that nobody in the bowling alley seems to know.

His name is Kurt Haskell. And even at his own fundraiser at a strip mall steakhouse, voters over by the bar have trouble placing him. “Never heard of him,” says Charlie Londo, who says he votes Republican and has met Walberg at the local fair. Of Haskell, he asks, “is he running for Congress?”  

Haskell is an attorney, boyish-looking even with his bald head and beard. He’s waging a long, lonely battle, pouring up to $100,000 of his own money in this campaign, and betting on his Monroe hometown-boy status to give him an advantage in the new 7th district.

As to why his own party isn’t giving him a dime, he’s got at theory: “My outspoken nature of the underwear bomber case. And that’s entirely what it is.”

Maybe you remember Haskell now: he and his wife were on the same Detroit-bound plane as the underwear bomber. They’ve spoken to several media outlets about their belief that the feds knew about the plot ahead of time, that the government even allowed the suspect on the plane with a defective detonator.

“They see me as being someone that seeks the truth, and for those that are in high politics, maybe that’s not someone they want in office,” says Haskell.

But even as Haskell puts his own money on the line, it’s still peanuts against what Republican Walberg can raise.

Political analyst Jack Lessenberry says Walberg “basically has a free pass. And most of our congress people have a free pass [this election].”

Thanks to the new district maps, Lessenberry says nearly all of Michigan’s congressional elections are pre-determined.

“Jack Kennedy couldn’t get elected in a lot of mid-Michigan districts. The most popular Republican, Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln, could not come anywhere near getting elected in the 13th and 14th district because the people who draw these lines have packed pretty much all the Republicans and Democrats into certain districts.”

With one party in power, Michigan ends up with one-party maps. And Lessenberry says that means your voice gets cut out.

“The problem when you don’t have a real race is, nobody holds that office holders feet to the fire. Nobody asks them the challenging questions. Nobody says, well, why did you vote for this?”

So while it might be nice to get a break from all those ads, in most of Michigan’s districts, your vote has gone from sought-after to just a second thought.

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