Hoadley to challenge Upton, would be 1st openly gay Michigan member of Congress

Reps. Jon Hoadley and Larry Inman at the Fiscal Year 2020 budget presentation | Casey Hull
Updated 10:39 a.m., 4/9/19

State Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) said he will announce today that he will seek the Democratic nomination to represent Michigan’s 6th Congressional District, challenging longtime incumbent U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph).

Jon Hoadley

Hoadley confirmed this morning with WOOD-TV that he would enter the race, making him the first Democrat to announce a 2020 bid for the Southwest Michigan district that Upton has represented, in various forms, since 1987.

“When we look at what’s happening in Southwest Michigan … what’s becoming readily clear is that many of the decisions that were made yesterday have not set us up for success today,” Hoadley told the Advance.

Hoadley’s announcement follows a more-competitive-than-usual race for the seat in 2018, with relatively unknown Democratic challenger Matt Longjohn coming within five points of unseating Upton.

“We understand there are those excited to start politicking,” a spokesperson for Upton’s campaign said in a statement this morning, “But right now Fred’s energy and efforts are focused on solving problems.”

Fred Upton
Fred Upton | Ken Shipp, Department of Energy, Wikimedia Commons

Hoadley is a member of the Michigan Democratic Party’s LGBT and Allies Caucus, and would be the first openly gay member of Michigan’s congressional delegation if elected.

Hoadley has represented the 60th District in the state’s Legislature since 2015. Before that, he operated the progressive communications firm Badlands Strategies.

“I don’t think there is a better campaigner in Michigan [than Hoadley],” said state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), a fellow LGBT caucus member. “It’s such a bonus for the LGBT community that someone already knows how to run the mechanics of a competitive race and can advocate for us, as well.

“There was a blue wave around the country [last year], and certainly Democrats made gains in Michigan and outperformed the base in West Michigan, but there was also a ‘rainbow wave’ that Jon and I benefited from in 2018. And I think he’ll be the strongest contender.”

Sen. Jeremy Moss in Ferndale, March 18, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

Moss was referring to the historic number of LGBT candidates who won elections in 2018, with the nonpartisan Victory Fund PAC tracking a record 161 victories for LGBT candidates at the federal, state and local levels.

That number in Michigan included not only Moss and Hoadley, but state Rep. Tim Sneller (D-Burton), a smattering of local and county-level candidates, and Michigan’s first openly gay top statewide official in Attorney General Dana Nessel.

The 6th District includes Van Buren, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph, Cass and Berrien counties and part of Allegan County.

The Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman lists the race as “Likely Republican” in its most recent report, meaning that it is “not considered competitive at this point but [has] the potential to become engaged.” The seat started in that category in 2018 before it was re-categorized as a less certain “Lean Republican” seat just before the 2018 election — and Upton’s relatively narrow victory.

Creative Commons

According to veteran Michigan pollster Bernie Porn, this race in particular will adhere to the most tried-and-true of electoral cliches in 2020: It all comes down to turnout.

“If you have the same intensity among Democrats, especially Democratic women, that could be a district that they could pick up,” Porn said, noting West Michigan’s overall leftward shift, as slight as it may be, in the Trump era.

Moss echoed that sentiment, noting Trump’s relative weakness in West Michigan during the 2016 Republican presidential primary. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) ran even with Trump in Upton’s district as the future president won resoundingly statewide, and the district contains one of the only two counties (St. Joseph) that gave a majority of its vote to the moderate anti-Trumper former Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“There’s this segment of the population that is more conservative [in the 6th district], but Trump being on the top of the ticket doesn’t give them an area in the Republican Party to support,” Moss said. “Jon, being a very diligent and pragmatic legislator, will be able to reach out to those voters.”

Gretchen Whitmer, March 18, 2019 | Andrew Roth

West Michigan magazine Revue noted recently that now-Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last year won Kent County, the most populous county in West Michigan, by 11,000 votes, becoming the first Democrat to win the traditionally conservative county in more than two decades.

She also took Kalamazoo County by almost 20 points, a massive victory in a county that former Republican Gov. Rick Snyder won twice. The state’s planned redistricting after the 2020 census could make the region at large even more competitive for Democrats.

Republicans in Michigan, for their part, remain skeptical that Democrats can make serious inroads in a region that’s long been one of the state’s conservative bastions.

“Hoadley’s ideals are in direct contrast with the values of West Michigan, and will only stand to put jobs and businesses at risk,” the Michigan Republican Party said in a statement to MLive Monday.

Hoadley’s announcement drew the attention of not just state, but national Republicans, as well, with National Republican Congressional Committee spokeswoman Carly Atchison tweeting that the state Representative is “inspired by bigots like” U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit).

In an official NRCC comment, spokesperson Carly Atchison wrote, “Jon Hoadley is an open socialist who would decimate the auto industry to advance his extreme ideology. Michiganders are not interested in paying more to lose their jobs and their health insurance.”

Rashida Tlaib | Wikimedia Commons

Hoadley’s campaign issued a statement describing the comments as a “meaningless, laughable attack.” Upton’s office did not comment beyond their original statement about “politicking,” and the Michigan GOP did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether or not they agreed with Atchison’s description of Omar and Tlaib as “bigots.”*

Hoadley recently appeared on Fox 2 Detroit’s “Let it Rip” program advocating for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s recently proposed tax increases, which led to a statement from Michigan GOP Chair Laura Cox that he “should be ashamed” of what Republicans view as “a gift from Democrats to supporters who are government retirees.”

Cox added to her criticism after Hoadley’s announcement Monday morning.

Speaking to the Advance earlier this morning, Hoadley was conciliatory with his ideological opponents.

“We can all see the same set of challenges, but what’s our approach to solving those challenges?” Hoadley said. “We’re not really free in Southwest Michigan unless we’re free to start small businesses without worrying about health care, unless you can make sure you can choose to pray or not however you want without intimidation … we have different approaches to how we would solve big problems.”

This post has been updated with responses from both the Hoadley and Upton campaigns.

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson covers local government, education, health care and the social safety net, and LGBTQ issues. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington, and before that covered local politics in Chicago. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He enjoys film, the Detroit Pistons and his cat. He once competed in the National Spelling Bee, but was eliminated before any potential ESPN appearances.

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