Once a top target for Democrats, Rep. Dan Benishek, a former surgeon turned tea party candidate, has turned a corner in his campaign for a second term, and national Republicans have labeled him one of their "most improved" members of the cycle.
What happened? A combination of staff changes, leveraging his slot on the Veterans' Affairs Committee, and a favorable cycle for Republicans gave Benishek a clear advantage in the 1st District.
“It looked as if Michigan's 1st District was going to be one of maybe the top two or three House races here in Michigan,” said Dennis Darnoi, a Michigan Republican consultant. “It hasn’t really reached the competitive level that, I think, was expected.” House Democrats must net 17 seats to win control of the House, and earlier this year the party set its sights on Benishek as one of its best opportunities to put a dent in the GOP's majority. The district leans to the right but has a sizable population of socially conservative Democrats, plus former Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., had a firm grasp on the seat for nine terms until he retired in 2010.
From the start of the cycle, Democrats considered Benishek's opponent, retired Army Maj. Gen. Jerry Cannon , a top recruit. But recently, national Democrats signaled they are no longer confident they can win the seat. Earlier this month, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the House Majority PAC cut their ad buys in the district for the final weeks of the contest. Last cycle, the DCCC invested millions in the 1st District and aired ads through Election Day.
Recently, the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call moved the race rating from Tilts Republican to Republican Favored .
GOP operatives said the race shifted in their favor partly because Benishek had improved as a campaigner. In a Wednesday phone interview, Benishek said his campaign strategy hasn't changed, but now he has a better understanding of issues important in the district.
"I learned a lot,” Benishek said in a Wednesday phone interview. "And maybe I learned enough over the course of the last couple of cycles, where I learned the issues a little bit more."
He noted his seats on the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committees broadened his knowledge of those issues, which, as a surgeon, he did not know much about before coming to Congress.
"These are big industries in my district and learning their issues is an important part of doing my job,” said Benishek.
Last cycle, Benishek won a rematch with Democrat Gary McDowell by less than a point. In a phone interview, McDowell was skeptical Benishek had improved as a campaigner, but he acknowledged the congressman seems to make fewer gaffes on the trail. "Now we’re not hearing those [statements] anymore because he’s just not making any comments,” McDowell said Thursday. “So that’s where the improvement is.”
Other Democrats criticized Benishek for keeping quiet on the campaign trail, but Republicans said he is more active than ever, canvassing the expansive district nearly every day. Geographically, the 1st District is one of the largest districts east of the Mississippi River and encompasses the Upper Peninsula and the northern part of the Lower Peninsula.
“He appears as if he learned the lesson last time when he ran against Gary McDowell, in that he does seem to be more engaged,” said Darnoi.
Benishek had help from the National Republican Congressional Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Benishek's fundraising did not increased significantly compared to 2012. But according to his most recent campaign finance report, Benishek raised $359,000 in the third quarter — that's more than Cannon, who brought in $244,000 during the same time period.
Benishek was a political novice before he rode the Republican wave to Congress in 2010. He never ran for or served in office before winning a seat in the House.
Multiple sources chalked up Benishek improvements to his chief of staff, John Billings, who joined the office in 2013. Sources said Billings was able to focus the office and make time for campaigning and official duties.
"It’s important to be able to continue your congressional work at the same time," said Benishek. "We’re working on keeping a balance.”
Benishek also benefited from the national spotlight as a member of the Veterans' Affairs Committee. He previously worked in a VA medical center, giving him a unique perspective as the committee dealt with the health care crisis plaguing veterans.
As VA committee hearings went late into the night this summer, Benishek stood out as one of the most persistent members seeking answers.
“He really was working with issues that were in his wheelhouse,” said Katie Prill, a regional press secretary for the NRCC.
Veterans comprise roughly 12 percent Benishek’s district, so VA health care is a top issue. That is partly why Cannon, a Vietnam and Iraq War veteran, was considered an excellent recruit.
Though Cannon was a sheriff in the Lower Peninsula, it is difficult to establish name recognition in the district, which includes five media markets, two of which are based in Wisconsin.
Michigan Democrats said they are still confident in Cannon. They point to his leadership experience and note that increased turnout for competitive races at the top of the ticket could help him.
“It’s a competitive race for both governor and Senate, which means, at least tactically, we’re going to have the resources we need to turn the vote out,” said Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson.
“There’s a lot of energy in Michigan right now,” said Johnson. “It’s not to be overlooked.”
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