LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Backed by outside groups and their own fortunes, two insurgent Republicans are trying to knock off a pair of incumbent House members in Tuesday’s Michigan primary.
But it’s not what you think.
These primary challengers are more at home in the party’s establishment as both are wealthy, business-oriented candidates looking to upend tea party-backed conservatives elected in the past two elections. It’s a reversal from June’s primary shocker in Virginia where upstart Dave Brat defeated then Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
“It’s the mirror image of what we’ve seen lately,” said Michigan Republican strategist Paul Welday. “You don’t see many of them, and suddenly there are two in Michigan.”
The first is Dave Trott, a lawyer and businessman running in suburban Detroit, where many consider GOP Rep. Kerry Bentivolio to be an “accidental” representative. Bentivolio was elected in 2012 in the Republican-friendly 11th Congressional District only because the incumbent, former Rep. Thad McCotter, inexplicably turned in fraudulent voter signatures when seeking a spot on the ballot.
Trott, 54, has contributed nearly $2.5 million of his own money to his campaign against Bentivolio, a former reindeer farmer, teacher and auto designer.
“While I served my country in two wars, he was serving foreclosure notices,” Bentivolio said of Trott, whose firm specializes in foreclosing on homes on behalf of banks and other lenders. “I don’t care what the polls say. Everybody’s shaking my hand saying, ‘Hey, you’re doing a good job.‘”
Along with facing a well-funded and organized opponent, Bentivolio, 63, has struggled to raise money and has been largely cut loose by national tea party groups. He’s faced criticism in the district for not holding enough meetings with constituents — one of the same things said about Cantor before his loss.
And while dissatisfaction with Congress is a given, Bentivolio’s liabilities are unique to him and his candidacy, a senior Trott adviser said.
“There’s definitely an anti-Washington vibe with voters, but it’s not the overwhelming factor,” said GOP strategist Stu Sandler. “Bentivolio simply has trouble identifying with voters. And that’s why he’s so hard to find.”
In western Michigan’s 3rd Congressional District, the election of libertarian-leaning Rep. Justin Amash wasn’t an accident. Part of the 2010 tea party wave, Amash has established a reputation for explaining online every vote he takes, a move that’s popular with the 34-year-old’s grassroots libertarian base. He has also sparred with the House GOP leadership, in particular over his efforts to rein in National Security Agency surveillance of Americans.
“I’ve taken a unique, independent approach by representing all of my constituents — not just the corporate interests that come to Washington,” Amash said. “That’s really what this race is all about.”
It’s an approach that led Brian Ellis, an investment adviser from Grand Rapids, to challenge Amash, who the 54-year-old says has “hijacked” the party and taken “very weird” votes or abstained numerous times — upsetting business, agricultural, anti-abortion and other groups across the district.
“With a 30-year career in business, I learned how to find the common ground and how to move the ball forward,” said Ellis, who has loaned his campaign $1 million. “Amash has a more of a my-way-or-the-highway approach.”
The discontent with Amash led fellow Republican Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence committee, to contribute $5,000 from his political action committee to Ellis and host a fundraiser for him. In all, the intra-party fight has attracted about $730,000 in outside spending on a race expected to cost all sides about $3 million.
Ellis has the backing of the national, state and local Chambers of Commerce, Right to Life and the Michigan Farm Bureau, while Amash continues to be supported by Michigan’s influential DeVos family and has gotten independent help from the anti-tax group Club for Growth.
Political analysts generally think Amash is safe, even if he is not in the mold of “establishment” congressmen who represented the area in the past, including Vern Ehlers and former President Gerald Ford.
“Whether you like Justin Amash or not, he is authentic,” said Democratic consultant Joe DiSano.
A third member of the state’s House delegation seen by some as at risk Tuesday, Rep. Dan Benishek, is expected to survive his primary challenge from tea party challenger Alan Arcand in his northern Michigan district.
Benishek will likely face a more formidable challenge in November from Jerry Cannon, a former Kalkaska County sheriff and a retired major general in the Michigan Army National Guard who is among the Democrats’ top hopes to pick up a Republican seat on Election Day.
Associated Press writer Philip Elliott in Washington contributed to this report.