‘Just win, baby’ is the advice in Mich. races

WASHTENAW COUNTY, Mich. — Rife with political drama, the struggling auto industry and a long-depressed state economy, Michigan’s incumbents find themselves in rough political waters.

Democrats have their eyes on two GOPers in particular — freshman Rep. Tim Walberg and eight-term Rep. Joe Knollenberg.

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The two Republicans, from southeast and central Michigan, respectively, face well-funded opponents, who hope to help expand Democrats’ hold on the southeastern part of the state.

In the 7th district, Walberg faces a challenge from state Sen. Mark Schauer, who is running an aggressive campaign in this Republican-leaning district where the economy has dominated the race.

“People are generally angry in the district,” Walberg said in an interview with The Hill, pointing to his vote against the recent $700 billion bailout package to the financial industry. “They’re frustrated that they were asked to bail out Wall Street, those who didn’t keep up with payments like they did.”

For his part, Schauer has made a campaign out of trying to tie Walberg to the Bush administration and the Republican Party as a whole, while also pounding away on an economic message.

“Tim Walberg is so entrenched in economic policies that have devastated Michigan,” Schauer said. “People are tired of the direction Republicans in Washington have taken this country. They associate Tim Walberg, rightly so, with those policies.”

As the race has drawn closer, a number of outside groups have jumped into the fray, seeing it as an opportunity to either solidify Republican control or add to a Democratic majority in the House.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has spent over $450,000 in the race, while its counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC), made some of its first big expenditures in support of Walberg, coming in at just under $340,000 thus far. The National Rifle Association (NRA) has made tiny expenditures in favor of Walberg.

One of the incumbent’s biggest backers, the Club for Growth, has spent $130,000 supporting him, and will release an ad buy Wednesday bringing the total to $416,000, according to the Club’s Andy Roth.

The Club’s support, though, has been a double-edged sword for Walberg. Its support helped him oust first-term Rep. Joe Schwarz in 2006’s Republican primary, but now Schwarz, a moderate Republican, has endorsed Schauer, directly citing the Club for Growth’s support for Walberg as his reason.

“I don’t think the Club for Growth, in most people’s mind, plays much,” Walberg said. “What Congressman Schwarz wants to do, he will do.”

Schauer, the Democrats’ leader in the state Senate, is banking on his name recognition in the GOP-leaning district to help him out. “There hasn’t been a really viable Democratic candidate to run for this seat since 1992,” he said, arguing the district has trended Democratic since long-serving Rep. Nick Smith (R) retired in 2004.

In a situation similar to Walberg’s is Knollenberg, who faces former state legislator and Central Michigan University professor Gary Peters in Michigan’s 9th district.

Knollenberg was first elected to his suburban Detroit seat in 1992, but only won 52 percent of the vote in a lackluster 2006 reelection campaign.

Like Schauer, Peters said he is running foremost on the economy. “The Bush-Knollenberg policies let greed go wild on Wall Street,” he said. “In many respects, having an incumbent who’s been around a long time is an example of why people need change.”

Knollenberg voted against the bailout the first time it came up in the House but supported it in the second vote.

The DCCC has also wagered on the race, spending almost $660,000 in support of Peters. Peters has also garnered support from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has spent almost $78,000 opposing Knollenberg.

And while the NRCC has yet to spend in support of Knollenberg, several other groups have stepped in to back the eight-term congressman. The National Association of Realtors’ political action committee (PAC) has donated a hefty $530,000 to Knollenberg, and he has also accrued almost $10,000 from the National Right to Life PAC. The NRA has also backed Knollenberg — a key endorsement in Michigan, where hunting remains popular.

Knollenberg was not available for an interview.

The two races, however, are now receiving top billing in Michigan after presidential nominee John McCainJohn Sidney McCainPublisher announces McSally book planned for May release Democrats lead Trump by wide margins in Minnesota Here's what to watch this week on impeachment MORE’s campaign announced its pullout from the state last week, a move that allows the GOP to devote more resources to the races, but eliminates any down-ballot benefit the McCain campaign might have added.

“I think the McCain pullout further confirms that the Republicans have abandoned Michigan during significant economic challenges,” Peters said. “They won’t even hear from our voters, and hear about their anxiety for the future.”

The increased woes of the auto industry will also put an intense economic focus on the races. Even though the Big Three received $25 billion in loans from the federal government, recent talks have swirled that Chrysler and General Motors are exploring a merger, in order to prevent either from bankruptcy.

“With a good share of my district having a heavy concentration of suppliers to the auto industry, they are concerned,” Walberg said. “Frankly, they’re still tied to the auto industry. They are very sober about this situation.”

The race might have favored Walberg and Knollenberg until the recent economic crisis and McCain’s pullout, said Bill Ballenger, editor of the nonpartisan Inside Michigan Politics.

“I’ve all along thought that McCain was overperforming for the Republican brand in Michigan and [Democratic nominee Barack] Obama was underperforming, and that was going to benefit Republicans,” Ballenger said. “I’m not sure whether that’s going to be the case now.

“The bottom line for these people is: ‘Just win, baby,’ ” Ballenger said. “If they win, no one’s going to be sitting around saying they didn’t run a good campaign.”