Democrats face long odds and a map that's stacked against them in their quest to regain the House majority. But GOP Rep. Dan Benishek’s retirement last week highlighted the sort of conservative-tilting district that Democrats need to capture to take back power in Congress.
Benishek’s seat in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was a Democratic stronghold for nearly two decades, when Rep. Bart Stupak held the seat and nearly always won reelection easily. But Benishek captured it when Stupak retired in 2010, and he held it in a tough race as Mitt Romney carried the district’s votes in 2012.
Now, Benishek’s retirement gives Democrats their best opportunity yet to expand back into Northern Michigan. It’s one they need: Democrats are 30 seats shy of the House majority, but House Republicans hold only 26 seats that President Obama carried. Democrats have to expand back into more conservative-leaning territory in order to win the House. That’s part of the reason why analysts say such an outcome is so unlikely in 2016, but it’s also why the party is preparing to focus on the race to replace Benishek.
Democrats are already coalescing around a favored candidate: former state party chairman Lon Johnson, who has been endorsed by Michigan’s Democratic members of Congress and whose wife, Julianna Smoot, was a deputy campaign manager and high-powered fundraiser for President Obama. Democrats’ 2014 candidate, Jerry Cannon, is running again, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has repeatedly singled out Johnson for praise, though he is not from the district. Johnson has a home in the area, but the GOP has tagged him as a carpetbagger.