There’s a lot of talk in political circles about whether problems in Donald Trump’s campaign will spell disaster for many down-ballot Republicans.
Nowhere in Michigan is that question more interesting than in the state’s 8th Congressional District. It stretches from Rochester in Northern Oakland County, across Livingston County, and all the way through Ingham County to Lansing.
Freshman Congressman Mike Bishop (R-Rochester) was expected to win a second term fairly easily in a solidly Republican district. But now, that’s not a given.
Bishop’s Democratic opponent Suzanna Skhreli has been spending lots of money lately putting ads on the air attacking Bishop’s continued support for Trump.
Shkreli, a 29-year-old assistant Macomb County prosecutor from Clarkston, is political newcomer. But she has mounted an aggressive challenge to Bishop.
“You can’t serve two masters,” says Shkreli. ”The voters want to know, Mike Bishop, are you going to vote for somebody who’s joked about sexual assault? Are you going to vote for somebody who’s denigrated a war hero, who’s insulted the Gold Star family of a fallen soldier, who’s made fun of a handicapped and disabled reporter?”
“There are a lot of eyes on the Eighth District race to see what happens here.”
Craig Mauger, executive director of the non-profit, non-partisan watchdog group the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, says the recent infusion of cash and TV ads in the race is remarkable.
“What we’re seeing is a sudden influx of spending on political ads in the 8th,” says Mauger, ”which must mean that there’s some interest from Democrats in trying to make a play there.”
He says that money started coming in around the same time tapes surfaced of Trump joking about sexually assaulting women. Mauger says it’s probably not a coincidence.
“I’ve talked to a couple people nationally who are looking at this race as one of the examples or one of the bellwethers for how Trump’s impact is going to be down-ballot,” he says. ”So, there are a lot of eyes on the 8th District race to see what happens here.”
Carl Watkins, of Whitmore Lake, exemplifies the kind of voter Bishop needs to show up to the polls and vote for him on Election Day. He’s a white male over 65 years old and cites jobs, taxes, and crime as the issues he’s most concerned about.
Watkins says he almost always splits his ballots between parties, and he’s not thrilled with either presidential candidate this year.
“I think the tone and tenor hasn’t been well on either side,” he says. ”I think, at the debates, people expected more issues, and they got more personalities and personal attacks. Too many personal attacks, less on the things that matter.”
“They are trying to hang the entire Republican Party by those words.”
Bishop says a massive tax overhaul and the creation of a federal balanced budget amendment are the two things he’d most like to see happen in the next two years. He has been trying to bring attention back to those issues and away from Trump, so much so that he recently said he would no longer talk about the GOP presidential nominee. He walked that back a bit after the event in Brighton.
“I don’t mean to suggest that I’m drawing a curtain and you can’t ask me any questions,” says Bishop. ”Certainly, you can ask me questions. I just don’t want… I’ve already spoken very clearly about how I feel about what he said – I disagree with it, I think it’s abhorrent. But I want to move on and I want to talk about things that are important to people.”
Bishop says recent media coverage has unfairly distracted from those issues.
“The indiscretions of Hillary Clinton and all of the things that are coming right now have been completely ignored, for the most part, by the media,” he says. “It’s all about what Trump said and how he said it. And they are trying to hang the entire Republican Party by those words.”
Now, there’s no sign that Bishop is in serious trouble at this point. The few public polls released recently still show he has a comfortable lead. But all indications are that Democrats think there’s a chance. Just a few days ago, President Obama got involved in the race, endorsing Shkreli along with 30 Democrats in competitive races across the country.
It’ll be tough for Democrats to take back the House in November, but they could have a shot if districts like the 8th are in play.