WASHINGTON — Democrats have their sights on the seat of longtime U.S. Republican Rep. Fred Upton as a prime pickup opportunity this fall.
The 66-year-old St. Joseph lawmaker is the longest-serving member of the Michigan congressional delegation by a long shot. He’s also one of the most senior members of the U.S. House; he was first elected in 1986 (the same year that now-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi entered Congress). He’s got plenty of clout on Capitol Hill after spending six years as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the most prestigious and powerful panels in Congress.
But Democrats, emboldened after flipping two GOP-held congressional seats in Michigan in 2018, view Upton’s seat as one of two top targets for winning even more Republican seats in the state (the other is independent U.S. Rep. Justin Amash’s 3rd District in West Michigan). Upton’s southwestern 6th District includes Kalamazoo, Portage, Benton Harbor and St. Joseph.
Upton announced in late February that he’d be running in 2020, following months of speculation that he might retire. More than two dozen other House Republicans have announced plans to step down after this term, including Upton’s fellow Michigan U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden).
Other senior Republican lawmakers are among those retiring, moves that may have been spurred in part by the GOP’s minority status in the House and the party’s term limits on House committee chairs.
But Upton said last month that he’s “grabbing the bull by the horns and announcing a run for reelection in the Sixth District.” He cited “unfinished business we have to complete — Cures 2.0, fighting the opioid epidemic, immigration reform, and protecting the Great Lakes, among others.”
Asked about the late announcement of his reelection bid, Upton told the Michigan Advance in a recent interview that politics wasn’t a factor. He recently became a grandfather for the first time and cited his daughter’s “very difficult pregnancy” as a factor in the delay.
“Our polling has been good,” Upton said.
Still, Upton’s 2018 reelection race was closer than he probably would have liked. He edged out political novice Matt Longjohn by just 4.5 points. And his competition could be even tougher this time around.
Upton is being challenged by Jon Hoadley, a three-term Democratic state representative from Kalamazoo who’s been a leader on LGBTQ rights issues, sponsoring legislation to expand the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
Hoadley scored the endorsement last month from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who touted his credentials on climate change, health care and civil rights. “He is the kind of person that the 6th District needs,” Whitmer said.
Hoadley told the Advance this month in an interview that he’s running to put people in his district at the center of decisions being made in Washington on issues like health care, the environment and student debt.
“Congressman Upton in particular has had 34 years now to tackle some of these problems, but unfortunately we’re still left with these big concerns for families in Southwest Michigan,” Hoadley said.
Upton raised about $1.3 million so far this cycle, compared to Hoadley’s $734,000. Upton had about $834,000 in the bank at the end of 2019; Hoadley had $247,000 in his coffers. But it’s still early in the race and activity is expected to ramp up dramatically in the months leading up to the November election.
“In general, he’s fairly safe,” Western Michigan University political science professor Peter Wielhouwer said of Upton. “Not slam-dunk safe, but fairly safe.”
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as “likely Republican.”
Wielhouwer noted that Upton has been “pretty resilient” in his district, which was drawn by Republicans after the last round of redistricting. But Hoadley represents a “much more highly qualified candidate than Upton has faced in a long time,” he added.
‘Man on a mission’
On Capitol Hill, Upton has long had a reputation as a moderate, although that reputation changed somewhat when he took the gavel as Energy and Commerce Committee chair and became one of House Republicans chief attack dogs overseeing the President Obama administration.
According to a recent analysis from the nonpartisan website GovTrack.us, Upton was the 24th most liberal Republican in the House in 2019 (out of 200 GOP lawmakers surveyed), based on his pattern of co-sponsoring legislation. He has also been among the GOP lawmakers most likely to break with the Trump administration on House floor votes, according to FiveThirtyEight.
He’s broken with the administration more often since Democrats took over the chamber than he did in the first two years of the President Trump administration, the FiveThirtyEight analysis shows. During 2017 and 2018, he voted with Trump 94.7% of the time; he voted with the administration just 64.3% of the time since Democrats took over in January 2019.
“I didn’t change my mind on anything,” Upton said of his votes. He said the shift can likely be attributed in large part to a difference between a Republican speaker and a Democratic speaker setting the priorities on the House floor.
“I’ve never been afraid to agree or disagree with a president — regardless of party — on you name the issue,” Upton said.
He also cited his work on the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of House lawmakers that seeks common ground on major policy issues. He and members of that group met with Vice President Mike Pence early this month to discuss the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In divided government — and it’s going to be there for a while — the only way you get things done is if you work with both sides,” Upton said. “And I’ve never been afraid to do that.”
The House probably isn’t “an easy place for Fred right now,” given its deep partisan divisions, said Joe Schwarz, a former Battle Creek Republican congressman who served with Upton in the House. “But I think Fred is a man on a mission,” Schwarz said. “He wants to keep it civil, and I think that’s a very, very apt description of Fred because he is such a civil guy.”
Schwarz, who said it would be “a huge loss for Michigan” if Upton lost his seat, is expecting a competitive race in the fall.
“One of the things I would be concerned about is the reaction of moderate and independent voters who could go either way and they take a look at Trump and they say, ‘I’m darned if I’m going to vote for any Republican this time.’”
Trump won the 6th District by an 8.4-point margin in 2016. He won Michigan by just .2 points or 10,704 votes. In last week’s GOP presidential primary in Michigan, the incumbent won 94% of the vote, as expected, over challenger former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld, who drew 1%. Voters can also choose to remain “uncommitted,” which was at 4%.
Upton declined to say this month whether he plans to endorse the president. “I haven’t thought about it,” he said.
Still, Upton said he’s confident he’ll win, even if Trump loses the state. “Obama won Michigan; Bill Clinton won Michigan; I won my race. We’re gonna win our race.”
Wielhouwer noted that because Upton isn’t facing a serious primary threat, he can afford to distance himself from the president if he feels it’s politically expedient.
But Democrats are already using the Republican congressman’s ties to Trump as the 2020 race heats up.
“He has tied himself to the president in this race,” Hoadley said. “I think that’s going to give a lot of voters in Southwest Michigan pause.”
Courtney Rice, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement, “We look forward to holding him accountable for voting against his constituents’ interests and finally send this career politician into retirement.”
Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this report.