Michigan congressional races go down to the wire

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Marisa Schultz and Nathan Hurst, DETROIT NEWS STAFF WRITERS

Candidates hoping to win a seat in Congress are hitting the final stretches of the campaign hard this weekend, reaching every corner of Michigan to pick up last-minute support.

The candidates will be knocking on doors, airing new TV spots and urging voters to get to the polls. Except in the safest of Democratic districts, this year's contests are considered the Republicans' races to lose.

Anti-incumbent sentiment and tea party-driven discord combined with the GOP's healthy leads in statewide races is giving candidates optimism that they can help flip the U.S. House of Representatives to Republican control.

Democrats in five tight races are urging those leaning toward voting for Republican Rick Snyder for governor to split their ballots. Snyder has picked up support from Democrats and independents, and party officials hope the ticket-splitting push will cut short any coattails the Ann Arbor businessman might have.

To get their messages across, candidates are turning to phone banks, door-knocking and flooding the airwaves with commercials they hope will help them to victory.

In the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Districts, candidates are vying for the seats of three retiring congressmen, while in the 7th and 9th Districts, freshmen Reps. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, are fighting tea party-backed Republicans.

Even the dean of the U.S. House, Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, is facing a tougher-than-usual challenge from newcomer Rob Steele, a tea party-supported cardiologist from Ann Arbor whose candidacy in the 15th District has drawn national attention. All 15 U.S. House of Representatives seats are up for election this year.

Experts say only one thing is for sure.

"We probably won't know the outcome of some of these races until the very end," said Bill Ballenger, editor of the nonpartisan newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. "But unlike the statewide races, there aren't indications of a clear Republican sweep."

That makes the Michigan jockeying the contests to watch Tuesday, and where party organizers are focusing their battles this weekend.

Republican volunteers are expected to jam the 25 "Fix Michigan Centers" statewide, making an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 phone calls by Tuesday, state Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser said. They are making "real people calls," knocking on doors and tapping into the enthusiasm among voters to take over the 1st, 7th, 9th and 15th congressional seats held by Democrats, Weiser said.

John Tramontana, spokesman for the state Democratic Party, wouldn't comment on the tactics planned in the most competitive congressional races during these final days of the campaign. "I won't disclose any strategy in any race."

"We use a lot of methods to get our message out for voters to make sure they have enough information to make an informed decision on Election Day. That's phone calls, door knocking, TV, radio," he said.

Pitching in for 1st District
In the final days of the fight for retiring Rep. Bart Stupak's seat that covers nearly half of Michigan's land mass, candidates in the 1st District are pushing for more volunteers, launching ads and gaining help from fellow politicians. Republican Dan Benishek, a Crystal Falls surgeon, released an online commercial that shows charts of a growing deficit and shrinking labor force followed by images of Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and then a shot of Gary McDowell, Benishek's Democratic opponent.

"We know how we got here," the text says.

A version of the commercial also is airing districtwide on TV.

McDowell, a term-limited state representative who has positioned himself as a Stupak-style moderate Democrat, counters by saying he's never met Pelosi. He'll be joined by Stupak over the weekend, traveling door-to-door today from Escanaba to Iron Mountain and attending high school football games. On Friday, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit, campaigned with him.

Benishek, a tea party favorite, got help from Rep. Dave Camp, R-Midland, who is expected to sail to victory Tuesday.

Stupak, D-Menominee, announced his retirement this year following his controversial vote supporting President Barack Obama's health care plan, though it did not contain an anti-abortion provision he had been pushing. His decision left the district — the second largest east of the Mississippi — wide open and the home for a national political battleground.

A recent poll showed Benishek's early lead over McDowell has closed to a statistical dead heat.

Some believe independent candidate Glenn Wilson has the potential to take enough conservative votes away from Benishek to carry McDowell to a victory. A mailer sent out by the Michigan Democratic Party this month appeared to support the conservative candidate and his agenda to limit big government.

On his website, Wilson thanked the Democrats for the mailer. It's a sign "that he's in the race," said Dan Wilson, a volunteer coordinator from Wilson and is not related to the candidate.

Close rematch in 7th District
The rematch in the 7th District is one of about 40 seats nationwide political watchers believe is a tossup.Outside money has poured into this high-stakes district making it the most expensive House race nationwide, topping $6.9 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Throughout the campaign, the candidates have painted themselves as opposites. Incumbent Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, has portrayed himself a protector of Social Security and Medicare, saying his opponent is too extreme by wanting to privatize or eliminate both. Republican Tim Walberg of Tipton, who lost the seat in 2008, paints Schauer as a liberal with a big government agenda.

Walberg plans to meet with tea party supporters, canvass neighborhoods and make calls. "Numerous volunteers are knocking on doors and making phone calls, letting voters know that Tim Walberg supports a smaller government with lower taxes to encourage job creation," spokesman Joe Wicks said.

Schauer released his final TV ad this week hammering Walberg on outsourcing and Social Security. He has 950 volunteers canvassing the district, his campaign said.

Schauer spokesman Zack Pohl said the key is turnout. In a race this tight, whoever has the best ground game will win, he said.

"We are going to be working around the clock to make sure our voters get out and vote," Pohl said.

Meeting the voters
Rep. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, was out Friday knocking on doors and meeting with constituents across Oakland County in a full court press that will continue into today. Campaign spokeswoman Jini Sawani said Peters will meet voters, listen to their concerns and encourage them to get out to the polls.

Recent polling shows the Democrat with a small lead over former state Rep. Andrew "Rocky" Raczkowski.

Raczkowski spent late Friday afternoon at a Tea Party Express rally in the district, meeting with hundreds of supporters from the grassroots conservative group that helped vault his candidacy in the primary over the more moderate Paul Welday, a former chief of staff for Rep. Joe Knollenberg, the Republican Peters toppled in the 2008 elections.

Dingell faces tough challenge
Farther south, Dingell is stumping for his 29th term in the House against Steele, the tea party darling who's given the longest-serving member of Congress a tougher than expected run for his money.

Though Dingell's war chest is significantly larger than Steele's — campaign finance reports show Dingell had more than twice as much cash on hand as Steele at the end of September — the Republican's challenge has garnered lots of national attention from political analysts and GOP and tea party activists.

Those activists pushed for Steele at another Tea Party Express event Friday night in Monroe, and the candidate will be in Ann Arbor this weekend rallying supporters.

Dingell, meanwhile, has a new ad airing that will complement a crush of phone calls, home visits and gatherings this weekend. The 84-year-old has had to run the toughest re-election campaign since his 2002 showdown with then-fellow incumbent former Rep. Lynn Rivers, the result of the state's last redistricting process.

Ballenger said despite Steele's push and the national attention, Dingell is still the favorite.

"The Democrats' base is too big there," Ballenger said. "But (Steele) has put up a good fight."