Democrats like to buzz about how demographic and political shifts in southwest Michigan make longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Fred Upton vulnerable on Election Day. 

“They say that every year,” said Upton, now running for an 18th term in the U.S. House. 

It started with his first opponent in 1986, a college professor who “wasn’t going to lose to a kid running for Congress for the first time,” he said. Upton won by more than 28,700 votes, or 25 percentage points, in a solidly Republican district.  

Two years ago, Upton had his closest margin of victory yet when he defeated Democrat Matt Longjohn by 4.5 percentage points after a fierce campaign. Speculation now brews about Upton being in trouble as he faces Democratic state Rep. Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo. 

Kalamazoo, the most populous part of the district, is trending more Democratic as a city. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer nearly won the congressional district in 2018, coming within a half a percentage point of Republican Bill Schuette there. 

Buy Photo

U.S. Rep. Fred Upton is facing a challenge to avoid turning off President Donald Trump’s supporters while still appealing to the independents and moderate Democrats who have helped reelect him over the years. (Photo: Chris duMond, Special to the Detroit News)

But most political analysts are skeptical that Michigan’s 6th District will flip before the 67-year-old Upton retires. The task is not impossible but would take long coattails from Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, experts say. President Donald Trump won the district by 8 percentage points in 2016. 

“I would still put my odds on Upton, but it could be a cliffhanger depending on what happens at the top of the ticket,” said longtime Michigan elections analyst Bill Ballenger, a former state GOP lawmaker. 

“Upton hasn’t had anyone of Hoadley’s electoral stature oppose him. He’s got a reputation with some gravitas.” 

Hoadley raised more money than Upton last quarter, bringing in $1.1 million to Upton’s $950,000 for the period ending Sept. 30, according to their campaigns. Upton reported a healthy $1.4 million cash on hand with a month to go. Hoadley’s campaign would not disclose its cash reserves ahead of this week’s reporting deadline.

The House Democrats’ campaign arm has not been very involved in the district this cycle, unlike 2018. TheCongressional Leadership Fund, a super political action committee endorsed by House GOP leadership,reserved $500,000 in broadcast airtime to defend Upton.

Hoadley, 37, has portrayed the congressman as out of touch with the district after 34 years in office, saying he’s “too lockstep with Donald Trump.” Hoadley notes he was 3 years old when Upton launched his first campaign in 1986.

“When we look at the direction that our country is going in, Fred Upton is either a willing participant in moving us in the wrong direction, or he’s silent when he needs to speak up,” Hoadley said.

“Fred Upton has changed. And that’s why we need to change who represents us.”

Buy Photo

U.S. Representative Fred Upton, who is running for reelection, writes personal notes to constituents in Portage on Oct. 3. (Photo: Chris duMond, Special to the Detroit News)

Bipartisan image

Upton has positioned himself as a moderately conservative Republican who can tout bipartisan wins in a hyperpartisan Washington. He pitched himself at a recent debate as a problem solver “willing to work with anyone, any president to get the job done.” 

At times, Upton split with Trump but has voted in line with the president’s position 81% of the time, including against impeachment, according to tracking by FiveThirtyEight.

“People know I’m not a rubber stamp. ‘Convince me,'” Upton said in an interview. “Our polling looks good, but we know that if we sat on our hands, if I was a rubber stamp, this seat would have flipped a long time ago.”

His challenge in the Trump era, analysts said, is to avoid turning off the president’s supporters, while still appealing to the independents and moderate Democrats who have helped reelect him over the years. 

That ticket-splitting appeal is evident in Upton’s hometown of St. Joseph, where lawns are sporting both Biden and Upton campaign signs, said Glengariff Group pollster Richard Czuba, who has a farm a few miles away where he grew up.

“It’s going to have to be one hell of a Biden landslide for Hoadley to take out Upton,” Czuba said. “The wave has got to undercut Upton’s relationships in that district, and that’s something very powerful.”

How political career began

Upton’s grandfather helped form Whirlpool Corp., which is based in his district.

“Fred” — as he urges everyone to call him — majored in journalism at the University of Michigan and went into politics, working for U.S. Rep. David Stockman of Michigan and then the Reagan administration, where he managed congressional affairs for the White House Office of Budget and Management. 

In his first run for Congress in 1986, he took down a three-term incumbent in the GOP primary, where Upton was outspent 3-to-1, he said.

Upton rose in seniority on Capitol Hill and chaired the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee for six years before handing off the gavel in January 2017 due to party term limits.

Allies say Upton’s strength in the district is a focus on constituent services and showing up at myriad events. He personally signs letters to constituents and thank-you notes to donors without the aid of a signing machine as many members of Congress use. 

“Nobody signs my name but me,” he said. “I want to know what the response is back to the constituents. Often, I know the person. I know the frequent letter-writers. And it’s just a personal touch.”

During the pandemic when he couldn’t travel around, he sent updates on COVID-19 developments with his @MyKitchenTable email — written, as it sounds, from his kitchen table.

“He’s constantly in our district. He’s accessible,” said Victor Fitz, chairman of the 6th District Republican Party. 

“Fred is authentic. He is going to do what he feels is right. There’s times he does things we in the party maybe don’t agree with, but he does it because he thinks it’s the best for the district.”

Breaking with GOP

Upton has a record of working with Democrats, including measures to clean up the Great Lakes and boost medical innovation and therapies. He serves as a vice chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.

State Rep. Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo has criticized Upton’s record on climate change, immigration and LGBTQ equality, and his campaign has focused heavily on health care, stressing Upton’s part in the GOP attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. (Photo: Chris duMond, Chris duMond, Special to the Det)

Hoadley has criticized Upton’s record on climate change, immigration and LGBTQ equality, but his campaign has focused heavily on health care, stressing Upton’s part in the GOP attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

“There is no amount of distractions that take away from the fact that voters in southwest Michigan are really worried about their health care,” Hoadley said. “And Fred Upton fails to deliver on health care, and he actively votes to take it away.”

Upton in 2017 drafted an amendment to House Republicans’ repeal plan meant to expand its coverage for people preexisting health conditions. He recalls it was an instance where he stood up to Trump, and the result was $8 billion in additional money for those who would have faced costly premiums in states seeking a waiver from health care regulations under the bill.

Hoadley said Upton’s amendment amounted to a “paltry” sum, underfunded by tens of billions of dollars. The measure ultimately died in the Senate.  

Upton has said it’s time to move on from trying to repeal the law. He was among eight House Republicans who last year voted to condemn a lawsuit brought by GOP attorneys general and backed by Trump’s Justice Department aiming to nullify the Affordable Care Act. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case next month.

“It’s been 10 years. Obamacare passed by one vote. But you can’t take away those benefits from people that have had them,” Upton said. 

A group supporting him called Defending Main Street is running an ad highlighting Hoadley’s support for Medicare For All — which would eliminate private insurance and funds health care through the government — by using clips of Biden pummeling the idea during the Democratic primary debates. 

Biden has endorsed Hoadley but in 2018 praised Upton during a speech in Benton Harbor as “one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with.”

Buy Photo

Democratic challenger Jon Hoadley has portrayed Upton as out of touch with his district after 34 years in office. (Photo: Chris duMond, Special to the Detroit News)

On climate change, Upton supports the U.S. rejoining the Paris Accord but slams the Green New Deal framework backed by Hoadley. “I support renewable energy but you can’t get to 100% renewable, like the Green New Deal, in 10 years,” he said. 

He emphasizes the importance of pipeline safety but said Hoadley’s call to shut down Enbridge’s Line 5 beneath the Straits of Mackinac is unrealistic. “How is the U.P. going to get propane?” he said.  

Upton has gone after Hoadley in an ad claiming he supports “defunding” police. Hoadley points to his vote in the Legislature to boost funding for public safety through the cost-sharing line of the state budget. 

The movement to “defund” police grew out of the Black Lives Matter movement. Upton said he was “leader in the Congress to combat racism” after the May killing of George Floyd, a Black man in the custody of Minneapolis police earlier this year.

Upton was among three House Republicans to vote for the Democratic police reform bill known as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in June, though he disagreed with the provision on qualified immunity.

He also was visible at racial justice events, taking part in a peaceful protest in Benton Harbor and meeting in Kalamazoo with Black community leaders about ending racism and police brutality. He later held a town hall with Kalamazoo community members.

But Dave Worthams, former head of the Kalamazoo County Republican Party, said he was upset he didn’t hear more from Upton on the call for racial justice, particularly for Breonna Taylor — the 26-year-old Black woman who was shot dead by Louisville police in her apartment in March.

Worthams left the Republican Party in 2017 after the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Trump’s reaction to it, he said. Worthams supported Upton in 2018 but cast his first vote against him this month.

“I went through social media, and through direct contacts, direct emails to Fred, saying, ‘You have to get out and say something. Just saying that ‘Black Lives Matter will help.’ And I saw nothing,” said Worthams, who is Black.

Worthams said he later saw a social media post by Upton saying what happened to Taylor was a tragedy.

“But in that tweet, did he say that Black Lives Matter? I didn’t see that. And that really hurt me,” Worthams said. “I interned for Fred. Fred helped me get my first job. And to see Fred hesitate to say that my life matters broke my heart.” 

Upton’s campaign noted he participated in a protest in Benton Harbor against racism and police brutality on May 31 and later helped to lead a unity march from Benton Harbor to St. Joseph in June. 

“Black lives matter, yes they do,” Upton said at the march, according to WSJM. “No justice, no peace. Let’s march.”

[email protected]

Read or Share this story: