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Can a Democrat still win Michigan’s 1st Congressional District?

Benjamin R Thorp
Matt and Angie Morgan canvassing in Traverse City

A Democratic candidate in Michigan’s first congressional district is hoping a grassroots campaign will be enough to flip a district that has been tilting more to the right in recent years.

Matt Morgan is out knocking doors, visiting local hangouts, and generally trying to get his face in front of residents of Michigan’s first congressional district.

Morgan is a Democrat and is facing an uphill climb in his race against incumbent Republican Jack Bergman. But, he said, just showing up could help sway the district his way.

“You know if you show up on their door, you shake their hand and ask them what’s important to them then you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting their vote.”

Kate Bassett is the campaign manager for Morgan. She said the campaign is focusing on door knocking rather than TV ads to win voters.

“There’s a lot of ground to cover and there’s risk inherent in the fact that we didn’t spend our entire campaign budget on television which is pretty difficult for a campaign like ours we cover almost 44% of the state's landmass.”

Bassett said because the 1st Congressional district is so huge - covering the entire Upper Peninsula, and most of the northern Lower Peninsula -  it’s hard to reach everyone. That’s why most politicians have focused on TV ads instead of door knocking.

Political strategists say the district has been growing more and more conservative. In 2016, Democrat Lon Johnson outspent Bergman by over one million dollars, and still lost the district by 14 percentage point, or over 50 thousand votes.

Bassett said in recent years Democrats who have come close to winning have relied on grassroots campaigns.

“So we looked at what hasn’t been working in the past and where the district has been trending and we decided we’re just going to go back to old school neighbor to neighbor politics.”

Bill Ballinger is former Republican state lawmaker and hosts the Friday Morning Podcast, which focuses on Michigan politics. He said he doesn’t think door knocking will be enough to sway voters.

“It’s naive. I think it’s commendable that people would feel that way and have that enthusiasm I’m just saying realistically it is just very very difficult to physically be able to get around.”

In person, Matt Morgan tends to avoid talking about thorny issues - trying instead to listen to what people have to say.

His website, too, skirts divisive issues like abortion or gun control talking instead about protecting health care, raising wages for working-class families, and improving infrastructure.

Morgan said that’s part of his strategy.

“Truly it’s about breaking down that partisan barrier. People get their guard up sometimes when it comes to ‘well you’re a Democrat so you believe this.’ Once you start getting past that you know you’re able to say ‘I agree with you, I’m not happy with the leadership of the democratic party and that’s why I’m running.”

But even after talking with Morgan some constituents admit the “D” by his name is enough for them to dismiss him.

Frank Ditzler sells roasted walnuts in Traverse City and spoke with Morgan at the farmers market. He said Morgan seems nice, but Ditzler himself leans conservative.

“People that label themselves you kind of know where they stand on issues, like abortion.”

Other constituents say they are willing to cross the partisan barrier in order to vote for Morgan. Mike Holland is a Traverse City resident who said he used to work for the Republican party.

“We definitely need change. I’m not impressed with what Bergman did his first year... Term I should say.”

We reached out multiple times to the Bergman campaign, and the Michigan Republican Party, asking to catch up with the congressman on the campaign trail or to interview him by phone. Our multiple requests were not returned.

Political analyst Bill Ballenger said while some Republicans are certainly swayable this election year, it’s not clear whether Morgan’s campaign is up to the task.

“You’d have to have an army of thousands, tens of thousands of people, doing what you’re hearing from this particular campaigner to really make an impact and reach people and I just don’t think they have those kinds of numbers.”

And, Ballinger said, the district hasn’t seen an incumbent candidate lose since the 1960’s.

Whether or not Morgan’s strategy will be enough to win the district remains to be seen but Morgan said there’s no question he’s a real contender.

The real test of Morgan’s strategy will come this Tuesday.