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Democratic Chair Lon Johnson considering a run in Michigan’s most competitive congressional district

6/25/2015 Update:

Lon Johnson will make his candidacy for Michigan's 1st Congressional District official this afternoon in the Upper Peninsula. A press release sent to reporters this morning states:

Democrat Lon Johnson will announce his candidacy for Congress in Michigan’s First Congressional District, challenging Republican incumbent Dan Benishek. Johnson will make the announcement at the Marquette County Democrats’ annual Summer Sizzle Picnic in Ishpeming, MI. Lon Johnson grew up in a family with five generations of Northern Michigan history and has worked in American manufacturing and as a civilian in Iraq. Lon, 44, lives in Kalkaska County and is married to Julianna Smoot. Lon is currently the Chair of the Michigan Democratic Party.

Things could be shaking up at the Michigan Democratic Party as Chair Lon Johnson ponders a job change.

“A number of people have asked me to consider running for Congress,” he says. “I am considering it.”

Johnson is “considering” a run against incumbent Republican Dan Benishek in northern Michigan’s First Congressional District.

Johnson, who has a home in Kalkaska, says he’s made no final decision, but the fact that he’s willing to talk publicly about it suggests that he’s more likely than not to get in the race.

Benishek is a third-term member of Congress who announced recently that he’s backing out of a pledge to serve no more than six years in the office and will seek reelection. (Which could also invite a Republican primary before a Democrat gets to use the issue against him in the 2016 election.)

So why did “Doctor Dan” (that’s what the physician’s campaign likes to call him) change his mind?

Because Republican poohbahs know what Lon Johnson knows: 2016 represents the best hope for Democrats to pick up the district.

On paper at least, Michigan’s First CD is the state’s most-competitive and one of the most competitive districts in the nation. Real Clear Politics says it’s one of just 30 districts across the country that can be called a true “toss-up.” Before Benishek, Democrat Bart Stupak held the seat for 18 years.

The GOP would much rather have an incumbent in that seat for the 2016 election in a presidential year -- when Democrats typically enjoy a turnout advantage, unlike the mid-terms, like 2018, when the advantage shifts to Republicans.

So, Benishek sticks it out for one more term, then Republicans can run a candidate like the UP’s popular state Senator Tom Casperson in the 2018 mid-term that’s likely to be more GOP-friendly.

But Benishek’s not a shoo-in. He’s never gotten more than 52 percent in the general election (although his victory margins have been pretty good*). Neither, should he be the Democratic nominee, is Johnson, who lost a bid for the state House in 2012 as northern Michigan went for Mitt Romney at the top of the ticket.

But Johnson, who was already a campaign veteran in 2012, says he learned from the loss and is ready to try again. He is a pretty good fundraiser and his wife, Julianna Smoot, is one of the Democratic Party’s most prodigious money-raisers.

A healthy campaign war chest will be critical in a sprawling district (the entire Upper Peninsula and the top of the Lower Peninsula) where voter contact is a challenge, to say the least. Johnson will also have to overcome the skepticism of Yoopers who prefer to send one of their own to DC.

We should also note that it’s unusual for a party chief (whose job is to recruit candidates) to be a candidate. But it’s not unprecedented in Michigan history. In 1966, Democratic Party Chair Zolton Ferency challenged Republican Governor George Romney (and lost).

Also, should Johnson run, he would almost certainly have to step down as party chair and turn the operation over to someone else, whose job would be to try and turn out votes in northern Michigan to put the First Congressional District back in the blue column.

*2014: Benishek 52.1 % Jerry Cannon 45.3 %; 2012: Benishek 48.1 % Gary McDowell 47.6 %; 2010 Benishek 51.9 McDowell 40.9 %

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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