Is Michigan's Most Powerful Republican Really in Political Danger?

Democrats have mounted their first serious challenge to longtime Rep. Fred Upton, but the biggest threat may be yet to come.

Voters in Southwest Michigan could be forgiven if they confused Rep. Fred Upton's first TV ad of 2014 with a heart-tugging charity pitch. The spot features a pair of young girls who suffer from spinal muscular atrophy, showing their inspiring efforts to overcome daily challenges and repeating their mantra—"I can and I will."

It's a full 30 seconds into the ad before Upton makes his first appearance, a quick cut as a graphic highlights his efforts to boost pediatric research. As the ad closes, the screen shows not a link to Upton's campaign website, but the URL for a website documenting the girls' journey.

The soft pitch is par for the course for a GOP powerhouse who's represented the 6th District since 1986 and has yet to win by less than double digits. But Democrats in the district think that's now changing.

Upton, the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is facing the most credible Democratic opponent of his career, and a late infusion of outside money has energized Democrats on the ground. Still, there's been little polling or non-anecdotal indicators to prove the race is winnable. But even if Upton prevails this year, his opponents hope to at least put him in the conversation of future Democratic targets—and lay the groundwork for a better-financed 2016 campaign in a presidential year that offers a strong climate for Democrats.

And if, as some have speculated, Upton calls it quits in 2016 when term limits end his Energy and Commerce tenure, Democratic efforts this cycle could leave them well-positioned to contest what stands to be be a wide-open race.

Western Michigan University professor Paul Clements is the 13th Democrat to test Upton's electoral mettle, and, his backers say, the best. A newcomer to federal politics, he has more than doubled the fundraising of any previous Upton challenger. Veterans of previous Democratic campaigns in the district call Clements's operation the first "professional" challenge they've seen.

Clements's prowess has garnered interest both inside the district and out, but anyone who wasn't paying attention before certainly raised their eyebrows this month when an outside super PAC announced plans to pump nearly $2 million into efforts to oust Upton. The group, Mayday PAC, aims to target politicians beholden to moneyed interests. On Oct. 9, it named Upton among its handful of targets for the 2014 cycle.

The late swarm of money has excited local Democrats—who say the race was competitive even before the cash infusion—and left consultants wondering whether a district long excluded from any toss-up rankings could really oust its powerful incumbent without much warning.

It's not that the district isn't competitive more generally. President Obama carried the 6th in 2008, and other Democratic statewide candidates have earned slim victories there. Where Democrats have failed to gain traction is in their House campaigns, as Upton's 20- and 30-point margins of victory have become a biennial tradition.

Upton is a political institution in Southwest Michigan. His grandfather was a cofounder of appliance maker Whirlpool, still headquartered in the district, and everything from streets to arboretums in the area bear the Upton name. He's also a prolific fundraiser, which certainly hasn't been hampered by his four-year tenure at the helm of the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee.

But local Democrats say his days as a little-contested, taken-for-granted incumbent are over. "Paul has a built a historic campaign here," said Clements spokesman Connor Farrell. "Any outside observer that looks purely based on data should see that this is a competitive race." But the campaign would not release any polling to back up its claims of a close contest, and no public polling has been conducted on the contest either, an indication of the district's longtime noncompetitive status.

Mayday PAC also sees a tight race. "We are only investing in races where we believe there's a path to victory," said spokeswoman Allison Bryan. "We've done internal polling that shows Fred Upton is vulnerable." Mayday PAC also declined to make those numbers public.

Still, Bryan said even making the race close could be considered a success. Mayday PAC is investing in only a handful of races this cycle, with the aim of making a statement and preparing a full-fledged operation two years from now. "The best way to describe it is setting us up for what we want to do in 2016," she said, asserting that efforts to damage Upton now—even if he keeps his seat—could pay dividends later.

The group says its sole purpose is to oust politicians too close to special interest money, and it calls Upton the "worst of the worst." Its backers say they recognize the irony of spending big money to get money out of politics, but they hope groups like theirs won't be necessary if they can elect enough politicians who support campaign finance reform.

Mayday PAC founder Mark McKinnon said earlier this month his group plans to "give Fred Upton the fight of his political life" and "perhaps we can be a giant killer."

That enthusiasm hasn't been shared by national Democrats. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has targeted four other Michigan GOP-held seats this cycle (they've since pulled out of all four races), but has not put its weight behind Clements's campaign.

The 6th is "the most Democratic seat in Michigan that's held by a Republican," said Mark Miller, the Michigan Democratic Party's district chair. "Why the DCCC has been unwilling to invest in this district is perplexing."

The Cook Partisan Voting Index rates the district as a +1 Republican seat.

"[Clements has] raised money without a lot of institutional support from the Democratic Party," said John Curran, who managed Democrat Don Cooney's 2010 campaign against Upton. "It's always been considered this Republican bastion."¦ Our activists, donors, and candidates feel left out in the statewide and national picture."

The financial picture isn't too great for Democrats in the district, either. One national-level Democratic operative noted that while Upton still has $1.6 million in the bank, Clements has already spent almost all of the $700,000 he's raised this cycle, leaving a heavy burden on any outside group looking to make a late money surge. The operative also said the district's split-ticket voting tendencies didn't necessarily spell vulnerability for a political institution like Upton.

A source familiar with Democratic polling of the district said Upton held a substantial 54 percent-to-35 percent lead in June, before the Mayday PAC investment. Most analysts consider incumbents polling above 50 percent to be in relatively safe position.

"On both sides of the political spectrum, they put the money where they hope to have the most impact," said Victor Fitz, who chairs the Michigan GOP's efforts in the district. "If the [DCCC is] not putting it in the 6th District, you can read something from that."

Upton's campaign says they've never taken the race for granted, and the Mayday PAC money infusion doesn't change their calculus. "From Fred's perspective, there's two ways you can run—unopposed or full speed ahead," said campaign manager Tom Wilbur.

"Most of of us on the ground look at this with a smile on our face," Fitz said. "I don't see any traction in this at all. [Mayday PAC] can spend their money, but I don't think it's going to have much of an impact."

While Upton maintains the super PAC attacks haven't changed his strategy—or made him any more vulnerable—his opponents see a candidate on the defensive. Mayday's first ad targeted the incumbent on Medicare drug prices and failing to protect patients with preexisting conditions. Days later, an Upton ad lamented the "lies" opponents were spreading and touting his efforts to help seniors on Medicare and patients with preexisting conditions. It's an unusual tack for a Republican who has been one of the most outspoken opponents of Obamacare.

Wilbur acknowledged the ad was a response to the Mayday PAC attacks. "When the Mayday folks start spreading lies, it's important that we start spreading the truth," he said. That's a far cry from the campaign's apolitical, feel-good first ad from two weeks before.

Clements' allies see it as something more. "We think that he's responding," Mayday PAC's Bryan said. "He's obviously threatened by what we're doing." Added Curran, who ran the 2010 campaign against Upton: "His latest ad is a pretty strong deviation from what we've seen from him so far."

Another Democratic operative in the district agreed. "He's absolutely defensive on it," the operative said.

And while Upton finds himself unexpectedly defending certain tenets of Obama's signature law, Democratic message discipline on the other side has been strong. To a person, Clements' supporters characterize Upton as a good moderate who lost his way in Washington as big-money oil and insurance groups financed his rise through the House GOP ranks and pushed him to the right each step of the way.

Upton's camp argues that as chair, he's given precedence to bills that have bipartisan sponsors. They also point to his role in the bipartisan "Gang of 12"—a group of legislators who tried and failed to break Capitol Hill's impasse over the federal debt in 2011.

Whether or not Clements can upset the near three-decade incumbent, his backers says he's opened some eyes. Curran contrasted this cycle with previous Democratic campaigns, including his own work on Cooney's 2010 campaign as a 20-year-old who "didn't really know what I was doing." Typically, he said, "we've been scrambling in April or May of the election year to get someone on the ballot."

When Clements launched his bid in early 2013, "a lot of people laughed at him," Curran said. But the early start gave him time to fundraise, and while he hasn't matched the cash numbers of his well-connected opponent, he's come far closer than any previous challenger. Even if the Mayday PAC money isn't enough to put him over the top, Democrats in the district say the race has ensured the the 6th won't be left behind in the next cycle.