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Allen, Casperson, Pettalia already making moves with Benishek out

September 22, 2015

Former Sen. Jason ALLEN, current Sen. Tom CASPERSON (R-Escanaba) and Rep. Peter PETTALIA (R-Presque Isle) have all already told party leaders in the 1st District that they intend on getting in the race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Dan BENISHEK (R-Crystal Falls).

And according to other sources Tuesday — the day Benishek suddenly announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election — Sen. Wayne SCHMIDT (R-Traverse City), Rep. Lee CHATFIELD (R-Levering) and former Rep. Greg MacMASTER (R-Kewadin) are potential candidates to watch. 

After previously announcing his re-election campaign for 2016, Benishek changed course, re-shaping the upcoming race in the 1st District. It’s a race that was already likely to be one of the most competitive in the state next year with former Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lon JOHNSON running on the Democratic side. 

Rep. John KIVELA (D-Marquette), a state House member who represents a portion of the 1st, said he himself was “stunned” by the news of Benishek’s upcoming retirement today. 

“We’ll see who jumps in the congressional race,” Kivela said. 

Allen, Casperson and Pettalia are all widely expected to make that jump. 

The 1st District, which has a 53 percent Republican voting base, according to the firm Target-Insyght, spans 32 counties in Northern Michigan and is geographically, the nation’s largest House district east of the Mississippi River. 

About 15 of the 1st District’s 32 counties are in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.). In general elections, about 45 percent of the vote has come from the U.P. 

But in the past two GOP primary elections in the 1st, an average of about 29 percent of the vote has come from the U.P. 

The U.P. would be the main territory of Casperson, whose Senate district spans much of the U.P. 

Casperson ran for the 1st District seat in 2008 against former U.S. Rep. Bart STUPAK and had been plotting to run again after Benishek left office. 

Casperson’s team, presuming Benishek would not seek re-election in 2018, asked the Federal Election Commission not to close his federal congressional campaign committee in March because “Sen. Casperson plans on running for Congress in 2018.” 

In 2008, in which the Obama wave drenched most Republicans running in competitive districts, Casperson received just 33 percent of the vote against the Democratic opponent. 

Casperson declined to speculate on his political future today, saying he’s still trying to “digest” the news Benishek gave him around 8:30 a.m. 

“Dan has been a strong advocate for Northern Michigan, including our state’s and nation’s veterans, which was so appropriate in light of the critical needs that our veterans currently have. He will be missed and his work will not be forgotten,” Casperson said. 

“While there will be time to talk about the future, today I know I speak for people throughout Northern Michigan in saying ‘thank you,'” he added. 

Casperson’s more moderate voting record could help in a general election but could hurt him severely with conservatives in a primary race. For instance, Casperson voted against Right to Work in 2012 and cast a key vote in favor of Medicaid expansion in 2013. 

Like Casperson, Allen, a former Republican state senator from Traverse City who now works as a deputy director in the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, had also been widely expected to run in the 1st once Benishek decided against seeking re-election. 

Also, like Casperson, Allen has run in the 1st District previously. 

In 2010, the last time Allen ran for office, he lost the Republican primary in the 1st District to Benishek by a scant 15 votes (27,077-27,062). 

Allen declined to seek an expansive recount on the basis because he doubted it would change the results and he didn’t want to weaken the Republicans’ chances to take the seat in the general election by distracting Benishek. 

According to multiple sources, Allen, who is better known in the Lower Peninsula portion of the 1st, has been visible in the Upper Peninsula in recent years because of his work for the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. 

John ROTH, chair of the Grand Traverse Republican Party, mentioned both Allen and Casperson as top potential candidates to replace Benishek. 

“If I were going to bet, Jason Allen would be the front runner of the group if he decides to run,” Roth said, adding that he “highly” expects Allen to run. 

While Allen and Casperson have run in the 1st before, Pettalia had already been making moves to run in the primary against Benishek next year, something that could give him a slight headstart. 

And, according to one source, conservatives in the 1st had been excited about the prospect of Pettalia challenging Benishek. 

Pettalia said this morning that he felt Benishek’s retirement announcement coming because he hadn’t seen “the drive” from Benishek to want a fourth term. 

“I think Congressman Benishek is a great guy and he is fulfilling his promise that he’s only going to run for three terms now,” Pettalia added. 

Pettalia has spent time over the last years traveling the U.P. as part of his work chairing the Tourism Committee last session and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee this term. 

Now that Benishek is officially retiring, Pettalia, who would be termed out of the State House in 2016, said he is “ramping up” his consideration of a campaign. 

As for other potential candidates, Schmidt’s strong political and personal relationship with Allen makes it highly unlikely he would run if Allen does. 

Chatfield, a first-term member of the State House, said he is currently “focused on fixing Michigan roads,” but he also noted that his phone was ringing off the hook this morning. 

Chatfield, who ousted a sitting House member in 2014, could be able to run to the right of Allen or Casperson. 

“I’ve seen firsthand in this business that you can’t always plan your life around political aspirations,” Chatfield said. “I take everything one step at a time, and my first step will be to talk this over with my wife.” 

As for MacMaster, he lost to Schmidt in a competitive State Senate race last year. MacMaster could also garner conservative support. 

Tuesday, he said he’s been approached about running in the 1st and hasn’t stated his intentions either way. 

With the seat now open in 2016, Democrats see a better opportunity in what is a 53-percent GOP base district. Republicans hold a 59-seat edge in Congress and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sees about 70 battleground races nationally. 

Only 21 are seen as “most vulnerable,” according to a National Journal article published Monday. 

Moments after Benishek announced he was not seeking another term, Larry SABOTO’s Crystal Ball announced Michigan’s 1st was going from “Lean Republican” to a Toss-up. 

Democrats like the seat because Obama won the district in 2008 and because Stupak held it from 1993-2010. Whomever the Republicans pick for their nominee won’t have the name ID or money Benishek has, Democrats argue. 

Benishek wasn’t known as the strongest fundraiser, but he still had $435,000 in cash on hand after the last reporting quarter in July. None of the Republican candidates will be starting their campaigns with that kind of money. 

The race for the Democratic nomination is currently between Johnson and Jerry CANNON, a former sheriff who was the nominee in 2014. 

The news that Benishek won’t seek re-election didn’t seem to impact the Democratic field much at all today. 

Both Kivela and the other Democratic State House member from the 1st, Rep. Scott DIANDA (D-Calumet), stood by their decisions not to run for Congress next year. 

Kivela said he has “zero interest” in running for Congress. 

“I have a job that I feel like I was put on this earth to do,” Kivela said. “I think I’ve been effective at it.” 

Dianda said he continues to stand in support of Johnson. 

As Dianda said, “I think he’s the person to be able to come out right now.”

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