GOP primary in Michigan’s 7th district starting to heat up

Gautham Nagesh Contributor
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All politics may be local but in the past few election cycles Michigan’s seventh congressional district has been an excellent indicator of the nation’s political currents. With less than five months before the primary, former Congressman Tim Walberg and recent transplant Brian Rooney are vying for the Republican nomination and the right to take on incumbent Mark Schauer in a climate that looks highly favorable for conservatives.

The right-leaning district, which covers the south-central portion of the state, has changed hands in every election since veteran Congressman Nick Smith retired in 2005. Smith was succeeded by Joe Schwartz, a physician and moderate Republican currently contemplating an independent run at governor. Schwartz was unseated in 2006 by the staunchly conservative Walberg, who himself was narrowly defeated by Schauer during the 2008 campaign.

“I was Tea Party before there was a Tea party,” said Walberg, pointing out that he garnered ten thousand votes more than presidential candidate John McCain during the 2008 election. “My own loss came as a result of just a very bad election year. It was not because of my record, it was because McCain was not a true conservative and people were tired of moderates.”

Walberg’s upset of Schwartz in the 2006 primary is still a model for the numerous Tea Party candidates attempting to challenge Republican incumbents from the right this fall. But the former state representative from Tipton may be caught in changing political winds himself as voters in his district have begun to embrace his younger, moderate challenger. Despite having only moved into the district last year Rooney has managed to secure a number of key endorsements and has rallied support among the party’s base of activists.

“Tim’s of the past, we need to move forward. Especially in this state of all states. We need to get past the divisive politics of past,” Rooney said. “[Walberg] does offer a challenge, but I don’t get involved in quixotic efforts. I believe I’m going to win. Tim’s a fine man, but I believe his time has come and gone.”

Walberg currently enjoys an almost two-to-one advantage in fundraising, having raised over $400,000 compared to the slightly more than $200,000 Rooney has collected. But he is particularly vulnerable in Jackson, which is home to the largest concentration of voters in the district and currently boasts an unemployment rate in excess of 14 percent.

Most of the county party leaders have already throw their support behind Rooney and locals are skeptical of Walberg’s reliance on funding from outside the state, particularly the large amount he’s gotten in the past from the conservative PAC Club for Growth. Local GOP stalwart Marge Teske also opined that Walberg may be too conservative for the district, an opinion that is common even among local party activists. Jackson native Ryan Steusloff, a pollster with Wilson Research Strategies called Walberg the favorite, but said Rooney may be the stronger bet to win a general election against Schauer.

“This is a time for a fresh perspective, a non-career politician. Brian Rooney is attractive as a candidate because of his fresh perspective; former Marine, family man, law degree, experience with the Thomas More Law Center, he knows the constitution,” Teske said.

For his part, the former House member is confident enough to look past the primary to a general election showdown with Schauer. During a telephone interview Walberg refused to address any of his primary opponents individually and specifically avoided mentioning Rooney’s name when referencing him.

“No primary challenger has separated himself from the pack. Polling results show that there is no one near me,” Walberg said. “Most of them don’t have name identification and some haven’t even lived in the district that long. One just moved into the district on the day he signed up for the race.”

The candidate Walberg refers to is Rooney, who moved a distance of roughly 30 miles from Canton, Michigan to Dexter upon deciding to run for Congress last year. A lawyer and Iraq war veteran, Rooney also brings some name recognition as a member of the family that owns the Pittsburgh Steelers and the brother of freshman Representative Tom Rooney of Florida. His brother Pat Rooney is also running for Congress in Florida this year.

“Tim called me a carpetbagger I think the first day I entered the race. One of my responses is that Michigan’s economy is hurting because people are moving out, not because people are moving in,” Rooney said. “Veterans move around a lot. I’ve lived all over the country and spent time in Iraq as well. When my wife and I decided where we wanted to raise our kids, it was with Michigan values. I like to tell people I’m a convert to Michigan and converts usually have the strongest faith. I’m a dyed in the wool Michigander now.”

Rooney said he was primarily motivated to leave the conservative Thomas More Law Center and run for Congress by his children. His one-year-old son Blaise was born with a congenital heart defect, which led to him spending the first three months of his life at the University of Michigan’s Mott Children’s Hospital. Rooney said he became fearful that his son’s care would be jeopardized or cut back under the Democrat’s healthcare proposal.

“I was fearful of rationing of care and these sorts of things. They happen not just on the senior end of the spectrum, but also with children’s care,” Rooney said, adding that he favors a step-by-step approach to healthcare reform. “Special needs children will have a friend in Congress with me.”

Walberg also said he favors some form of healthcare reform bill that includes health savings accounts, associated health plans for small businesses and allows insurance companies to sell coverage across state lines. He opposed the stimulus plan and the TARP bailouts, having voted against the first portion implemented under President Bush. But he admits his district is growing less conservative as the state’s economy gets worse.

“[It’s] definitely much more of a swing district than before. We ran a lot of good conservatives out of the state,” Walberg said. But he still thinks his strong conservative record will appeal to voters this fall. “I contend that will resound after people have seen up close and personal an example of what liberalism does.”

Aside from healthcare, Rooney said as a former Marine he has a particular interest in veterans’ issues, which should prove relevant given the district’s high number of veterans and active-duty military personnel. He also said his experience as a restaurant owner and board member of the Pittsburgh Steelers gives him a valuable perspective on how to best aid the private sector in job creation. Both Walberg and Rooney spoke in favor of cutting taxes to help spur the state’s economy.

Last year Walberg drew attention on the campaign trail for inviting Rep. Joe Wilson to his district for a fundraiser shortly after Wilson shouted “You lie” at President Obama during his speech to a joint session of Congress. Walberg said Wilson regretted the statement and that it was born out of frustration.