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A true toss-up in Michigan's 1st Congressional District?

Michigan’s 1st Congressional District is huge - almost 25,000 square miles - and it is where, with the pending retirement of Republican Congressman Dan Benishek, former Marine Corps General Jack Bergman – a Republican – is facing former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon Johnson.

Bergman upset two establishment Republicans in the August primary and still hasn’t mended fences with the local GOP. We’ll see if he can build the campaign organization and get-out-the-vote operation necessary to win. Republicans in the District say he hasn’t yet.

But, campaign organization is something Johnson knows - fundraising, door-knocking and get-out-the-vote-efforts are things he worked on as former Party Chair.

The 1st District is considered one of the most competitive districts in the country -  even though the Cook Political Report ranks it R +4.

That means, all other things being equal, Republicans start with a four-point advantage.

In other parts of the state, Republicans are fretting over whether Donald Trump will drag down the GOP ballot. But, in northern Michigan, Trump appears to be polling pretty well.

Hillary Clinton, however, is quite unpopular. As is President Obama. Congressional Democrats were hoping that, with the right candidate, they might just have a chance to pick up this seat once Obama was no longer at the top of the ballot.

But the Clinton name does not seem to add an advantage in the 1st. But that’s likely a small comfort to Trump, because elections in Michigan are won and lost with the big population in southeast Michigan.

But that does mean Hillary Clinton has to do that much better in metro Detroit to win Michigan.

That is good news for northern Michigan Republicans and bad news for northern Michigan Democrats looking to draft off the top of the ticket on Election Day.

But it’s not impossible for Ds to win. Democrat Bart Stupak held the 1st Congressional District seat for 18 years. Stupak is a former cop, pro-life and pro-gun rights.

Lon Johnson fits part of that profile. He is a hunter and a gun-owner.  But he is pro-choice. And he is closely associated with President Obama. He is married to Obama’s former fundraiser, Julianna Smoot. Johnson even once granted a presidential request to play the Easter Bunny at the White House egg roll.

There are plenty of political issues that could be argued, but it seems a lot of this campaign is focused on which candidate has the best claim to be a true northern Michigander.

Johnson was raised in downriver Detroit and has an apartment in the city. Bergman has a place in the western U.P., but also has ties dating back ten years to New Orleans. Has a home in Louisiana. And he seems to like to winter there.

Northern Michigan and the 1st Congressional District is a vast area but voters here want that local connection.

But, like everywhere else, candidates don’t entirely control their destinies. The top of the ticket can be decisive. Voters’ views of Trump and Clinton play a huge part in their fates.

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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