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Can a bill collector beat a reindeer farmer in GOP primary?

The theme of the 11th Congressional District Republican establishment for the past couple of years might be “I Hope That Somethin’ Better Comes Along.” (We have kindly provided a link to that tune from “The Muppet Movie” sung by Rowlf the Dog and Kermit the Frog here. But we digress.)

The usual poobahs and potentates of the Oakland and Wayne county GOP circles have had to live with Rep. Kerry Bentivolio as their Republican in Congress since November of last year. But, this week, to the surprise of absolutely no one who has been paying attention, that Establishment may have gotten its wish when businessman/attorney David Trott announced he will challenge Bentivolio in a Republican primary.

And, in this case, the challenger probably starts with the advantage.

Let’s quickly review how we got to this point. Last summer, we all watched in horrific fascination as Congressman Thad McCotter imploded – booted from the ballot in a petition-faking scandal that earned some McCotter aides criminal convictions.

After the Legislature went the extra mile for the under-performing McCotter by drawing a new extra-Republican district – 55.1 percent, according the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. The only Republican left was Bentivolio, an eccentric reindeer farmer and Santa Claus impersonator, former teacher, and Tea Partier. The Republican establishment tried without success to take him out with a write-in candidate.

The situation was so bizarre that Democrats actually thought a 55 percent GOP district might be put off enough by Bentivolio that they might pick up the seat. (They were wrong.)

So now Bentivolio faces his first reelection campaign. And it’s establishment versus establishment. We’ve talked about this before. A candidate runs as an outsider, against the establishment in Lansing or Washington. But once you win, you’re in. So, Kerry Bentivolio can run against the Republican establishment in Wayne and Oakland counties. A pretty impressive array of characters from the local Republican establishment have already lined up with Trott. But Bentivolio has certainly tapped the Washington DC establishment. He had House Speaker John Boehner come to Michigan for a fundraiser. House Republican Leader Eric Cantor hosted a Bentivolio fundraiser in Washington. Voters will get to choose from among their Republican establishments.

And, Bentivolio, while certainly conservative by any measure, hasn’t really set himself up as an outsider, a thorn to the DC establishment the way, say, Congressman Justin Amash over in Grand Rapids has. 

Trott’s not going to walk into the job either. He is a businessman with a large law practice and a considerable personal fortune to put into the race. But part of that business is debt collection, foreclosures. That’s not a warm, fuzzy narrative. Trott will be dogged and hammered by that if not by Bentivolio, than by Democrats. In fact, either way, Democrats still seem to think they may have a shot, a long shot, at this seat.

Or they might at least make Republicans work harder and spend more than they would have to otherwise to defend the seat. That could get pricey. Detroit is the state’s most-expensive TV market. One 30-second spot on the evening news costs about $2,000. And money spent on a long shot in metro Detroit can’t be spent in northern Michigan’s First Congressional District, or lower mid-Michigan's Seventh, where Democrats seem to harbor real hopes of a pickup. This is probably the most serious primary challenge facing an incumbent in Michigan’s congressional delegation. We’ll see if that venerable Detroit Democrat Representative John Conyers attracts a primary, as he has in recent cycles. People are waiting to see what Conyers’ plans are, but he’s acting like a candidate.

Also, even though there’s no incumbent, it is starting to look like there might be a primary for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination. Dr. Rob Steele ran against Democratic Congressman John Dingell in 2010, and now is thinking about getting into the race to replace outgoing Democratic U.S. Senator Carl Levin.

Former Republican Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land is already running. But, despite winning two statewide elections, she hasn’t been able to shake concerns by GOP leaders and funders that she’d be a strong adversary to Democratic Congressman Gary Peters.

We’ve talked about how Tea Partiers are making plans to challenge Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley next year, but, so far, nothing really on a primary for Governor Rick Snyder. Well, until now. A Tea Party group is meeting this weekend in west Michigan to try and come up with candidates to run against Republicans who supported the Medicaid expansion. One of the goals is to find someone to primary (yes, we used it as a verb) the governor. They they don’t necessarily expect to knock him out, but they do want to make him sweat. Take that, establishment.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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