An (Almost) Exclusive Look at Michigan’s Sixth District House Race

Rep. Fred Upton and Rep. Jon Hoadley

This account of a congressional race in Michigan was reported before and then written on the eve of President Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis. The events since then could conceivably have an impact on the outcome. Yet, nothing in the media coverage available would indicate that it will.

Michigan’s Sixth District in the House of Representatives covers twelve counties in the west and southwest of the state, including Berrien County where we have been all summer. In 2016, the region went to Donald Trump, 52.2 percent to 41.3 percent for Hilary Clinton. Trump won the state, but by a margin of only two votes per precinct.

Fred Upton, the Republican congressman in his 17th term, is the longest serving member of the Michigan delegation. He is considered a moderate. His support in the district was at 60 percent in the past but slipped to 50.2 percent in 2018.

His opponent is State Representative Jon Hoadley, who has reach the term limit in his third stint in the state legislature. If elected, he would become the first openly gay person to represent Michigan nationally. I see no report that Upton has mentioned this. He did not have to. The National Republican Congressional Committee has repeatedly referred to Hoadley as “pedo sex poet” in campaign ads based on blog posts from his years as a student at Michigan State University.

These were first published in the New York Post on the same August day that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee switched the district from “Red to Blue” in its program that tracks viable candidates in contested districts — indicating the possibility of a flip. The only local reference to the old blog posts I’ve discovered were two paragraphs in a story about Hoadley’s primary win over a challenger in the Herald-Palladium, Berrien county’s daily newspaper (now published Tuesday to Saturday).

I vote in New York City where my vote doesn’t count for much aside from civic responsibility because of the overwhelming Democratic majority. So, I decided to learn everything I could about the race in this district to understand how a contest thought to be close played out on the ground and how it was covered by the media in the district, which has about 20 percent of Michigan’s population. In this age of multiple information channels, here are some of them: an Internet aggregator managed by radio station WSJM in St. Joseph; the fragile daily and a few weeklies; television beamed from stations in Kalamazoo and South Bend (in Indiana); a state-wide non-profit news site, Bridge Michigan; radio stations including an NPR affiliate in South Bend; and paywalled Detroit newspapers on the other side of the state. My conclusion is that only a very determined voter would be able to sort out the contest from so many strands — nearly all of which are notable for their lack of depth.

The country at large — we can all agree — was as tumultuous this summer as any period in modern American history. Crises of every type abound. Here, there were daily COVID-19 updates and deaths, but this was not one of the notorious national hot spots. There were demonstrations, all peaceful, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. These were mainly in Benton Harbor, which is about 90 percent Black and where over 40 percent of the 9,000 or so households were led by single-parent women, according to the 2000 census.

It was a summer of beautiful weather. For people who cherish days at beaches, on the water or homes on the lake, the major concern was erosion of the bluffs because of the highest water levels since the 1980s. Multimillion-dollar stone revetments were being ordered by the wealthy. Some of the public beaches had to be closed. For a sense of perspective, I checked to see how old Lake Michigan is and the data shows it has been around for 1.2 million years.

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When people talk about the crisis in local journalism and news deserts across the country, Berrien County would certainly seem to qualify. But, as I say, the information is there if you have the time and inclination to assemble it from the fragments that are available and my guess, after two months of casual encounters with many people who are Michigan voters, is that few people have either of these.

On one end of the national spectrum from cable and satellites is Fox News, the country’s highest rated cable network and the other cable news channels. Along the shores of Lake Michigan, where second homeowners are concentrated, the print New York Times is delivered early in the morning and did carry a number of stories about Michigan, considered one of the swing states. The once mighty Chicago Tribune, which used to be read widely, is a desiccated version of itself. When I asked to have the Herald-Palladium delivered daily, I was told it could be mailed from its office in St. Joseph, about 20 miles from Lakeside. I opted to read the facsimile version on-line. Bluntly, the publication is little more than a billboard, with a handful of news stories. (The new Ms. and Mr. Blossomtime winners was a major front-page feature.)

Probably the most extensive access to the campaign in this summer of almost no in-person activity was a one-hour debate hosted by WKZO in Kalamazoo on September 28th, the first of two debates, the other scheduled for days before the election. It was streamed live on the station’s Facebook page and archived there. If you learned of it, it was easily accessible. The questions were submitted by listeners and on Facebook.

Compared to the Trump-Biden debacle the next night, the local debate was decorous and thorough. The startling takeaway was that the only reference to Biden I heard was when Upton said he had once been praised by him for being bipartisan. And the only mention of Trump came in response to the 10th listener question on whether the results of the election should be accepted and both candidates said it should be.

The questions were about the future of health care, the reliability of mail-in voting, the value of wearing a mask, when a vaccine might be ready, the payroll tax, rural broadband, the environment and legalization of marijuana. Despite the New York Times disclosures only days before about Trump’s tax avoidance strategies, it never came up. When I asked a Democratic activist what he thought, he replied, “It just confirmed what we already knew.”

On the highly visible Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett (from nearby South Bend), Upton said “the process needs to go forward” — the same position he had in 2016 when the Senate blocked the nomination of President Obama’s choice of Merrick Garland. He was proclaiming his consistency on that issue although this time it aligned him with his party rather than in opposition.

Hoadley emphasized that whatever happens in the Supreme Court, “that’s why when I say health care is on the ballot, I mean will Congress step up and pass laws that protect pre-existing conditions?” reflecting his belief that with Barrett on the court, the conservative majority will overturn what is left of Obamacare. Upton said the healthcare system is “broken” and however it is reformed (without specifics), pre-existing conditions must be covered.

On the morning after the national debate, I asked a young man in a garage if he had watched. He couldn’t stand it, he said, and stopped after five minutes. His parents watched. And then, he added, his parents, both with pre-existing health problems have a joint deductible on their policies that is greater than his annual salary. As for himself, he said that he’d have to be run over by a bus and lose both legs before his policy would kick in. None of them visit doctors, he said. Aside from those health care costs, what worries him and his friends most? Climate change. And yes, he had already sent in his ballot.

And herein is the true takeaway from a summer of conversations about politics. The national fracas is a televised circus, repellent to some, irrelevant to others who have already made up their minds. What really seem to matter are the threats to health and environmental dangers. Clearly, COVID-19 has had payday consequences for many people in this area as well as a major health impact. Still, once the summer season was underway, there were signs in many places for job openings in restaurants and grocery stores. And Four Winds, the casino in nearby New Buffalo was bustling (staff having been recalled) with socially distanced slots and temperature checks on the way in.

There is a state-wide mandate on masks inside places of business. And in the big box stores, they are required. Whatever a person’s position on the myriad COVID-19 controversies, however, I suspect the prospect of getting sick is, for now, a greater concern than law and order or immigration. The coronavirus diagnosis for the Trumps has to be an attention grabber, to what effect it is too soon to say.

From all accounts, Fred Upon is one of the more moderate members among GOP House members. And in this is campaign that is his emphasis. One witty and wise longtime Republican said he was reminded of the kind person his mother used to say was “a chameleon on scotch plaid” with positions that were more flexible than fixed.

The Hoadley campaign says their polls show a dead heat. Can polls be trusted in so small an arena where campaign spending is relatively small? Who knows?

As for the November 3rd balloting, it is expected that the great majority of votes will be mail-in. The state has made substantial preparations for that fact. On primary day, August 4th, I stopped in at a number of polling places in mid-afternoon and could count the voters on two hands. Hoadley won over another candidate, a female teacher who was a credible opponent.

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One of the best pieces of reporting I saw about the vote was by Amanda Uhle, the publisher of McSweeney’s, a quarterly publication. “After weeks of canvassing for the Democrats,” she wrote in The Washington Post, “I wonder if I have flipped a single vote.”

“All of us are confused,” was her considered judgement. “Few of us have figured out how to think rationally about this perilous time or this looming election…I underestimated the effect this wild year has had: the loneliness and isolation, the anxiety, the propaganda… Facts are simply no match for feelings.”

That is what I think as well. Voters line up with Trump for reasons the savviest political journalists in the country have tried for years to explain. Or their choice is Biden, more for who he is and perhaps, the belief he will be a stabilizing figure than the intricacies of his policies across the board. To know what these are, or how Fred Upton and Jon Hoadley would implement them in Congress whoever wins, is a formidable undertaking and very hard to accomplish in the way our world of politics and media functions now.

Update: Upton beat Hoadley by a margin of 20 percent. No coverage of why or how anywhere I could find. On the other hand, Three Oaks approved the sale of marijuana.

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