Michigan’s first congressional district is – geographically – one of the largest congressional district east of the Mississippi river – Second only to Maine’s 2nd congressional district.
It’s a seat Democrats are hoping to win to help shift the balance of power in the United States House.
The race features four candidates: Democrat Lon Johnson, Republican Jack Bergman, Green Party candidate Ellis Boal, and Libertarian Diane Bostow.
Susan Demas is an editor for Inside Michigan Politics. She said the race between Johnson and Bergman is incredibly tight.
“It’s definitely democrats’ best prospect in the state. It’s an open seat and Lon Johnson has been a good fundraiser and run a strong campaign.”
Demas said the district leans republican.
“This district is about 54% republican base so it’s definitely easier for Jack Bergman, he has less of a haul. But he has a disadvantage in that he is a complete newcomer, a lot of people had no idea who he was, he even had a low profile for most of his primary race.”
The district’s voting record has been split evenly in presidential elections, Bush Jr. and Bill Clinton both received two terms a piece followed by a swing for Obama in 2008 and Romney in 2012.
For some voters, like Sue out of St. Ignace, it’s all about the party.
“I’m a republican all the way.”
Jennifer from Pickford echoes this sentiment.
“Uh, very disappointing. I don’t think the republican’s are very well represented. But I’m going to vote democrat anyway.”
But the refrain for most voters is the question of which candidate best understands them.
For Chris Hadfield of Sault Sainte Marie, that candidate is Jack Bergman.
“I guess the fact that he really knows what he wants. He feels like he’s got the best connection with the people, especially with the people around here and what they want, he’s pretty will connected with us.”
Jay Gage is the City Commissioner for Sault Sainte Marie. He said he fully backs Johnson.
“You know personally over the course of the election I’ve seen both candidates try and connect with my community but Lon Johnson has been here about 47 times since May and Jack’s been here about four. For me that there is an emphasis from one particular candidate coming to my community, talking about our issues, talking about the locks, talking about the Line 5, talking about issues that are important to our area.”
On the issues; both Johnson and Bergman have come out in support of 2nd amendment rights and against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, considered major sticking points with voters in the district. But they differentiate themselves on issues like social security. Johnson speaks first:
Johnson: “I’m opposed to privatization, this is a big difference between Jack Bergman and me. He seeks to privatize social security and send it off to Washington. I just believe slipping a middle man in isn’t right.”
Bergman: “If you believe the federal government is going to invest your money for you and give you a rate of return I suggest you check the historical averages.”
Demas said there’s a reason for the focus on social security.
“Social security is a huge issue in the district because it’s an older district and you have a sizable veteran population as well so you have a lot of people who depend on their social security just to get by.”
But, said Demas, in a district that currently favors Trump over Clinton the results at the top of the ticket could be an indicator of the congressional race.
“People can split their ticket, Michiganders like doing that, but it definitely puts the pressure on a down ballot candidate if the presidential candidate from their party is losing by a big margin.”
Bergman has even fashioned himself as a Trump-like political outsider who will shake up Washington with his business experience.
“We need more people in leadership roles, AKA congressmen, senators, presidents who have actually been successful outside of the political system.”
For voters like Harold Essmaker that’s exactly what he wants to hear.
“Johnson there, a politician all his life. Doesn’t hold a job doesn’t know about business because he never had one, never created a job. That’s not a criticism, just an observation.”
The Johnson campaign said the candidate has worked with TVV Capital in Nashville since 2003, where he is still a partner today.
If Johnson can’t win, said Demas, that could be a problem for Democrats.
“I think if Democrats can’t win the seat this year it’s really going to fall off the map for them because they’ve been trying for several cycles.”
That could have implications not just for the state, but for the country as well.
Whoever the district chooses, and however it decides what issues matter most, it all comes to a head on Tuesday.