Stupak’s Departure Changes Political Environment

Posted April 9, 2010 at 1:19pm

Updated: 3:28 p.m.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) confirmed his retirement at a news conference in Marquette, Mich., Friday afternoon, creating another tough open seat for Democrats to defend.

Stupak has been re-elected comfortably after winning the open 1st district seat in 1992. With him out, the swing district, which stretches across Michigan’s largely rural Upper Peninsula and down along the coast of Lake Huron, will be up for grabs.

In announcing his retirement, which had been rumored for several days, Stupak told supporters, “After 18 years together we have accomplished what you sent me to Washington to do, health care for all Americans.”

It is that legislative battle over health care and Stupak’s role in debate over funding for abortion, in particular, that made him a lightning rod for criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.

His “Stupak amendment” limiting federal abortion funding in the bill the House passed in the fall enraged abortion-rights advocates, while his deal with the White House to vote for the final passage of the bill in exchange for an executive order upholding existing prohibitions on federal abortion funding made him a target of anti-abortion and conservative groups.

Tea party activists, in particular, claimed a victory, saying it was their pressure that pushed Stupak out of the race.

Stupak said the vitriol he has faced over his health care stand “didn’t play a big part” in his decision. But the timing of the announcement — coming the same week the group Tea Party Express launched a $250,000 ad campaign against him and held a series of rallies — didn’t do much to reinforce his claim.

Instead, it bolstered national Republicans’ message that Democrats are running scared in the wake of a health care vote backlash.

After 18 years in Congress, Stupak noted that he has now served the district “longer than any other Congressman in modern times.”

And he said he considered retirement several times in the past, but always decided there was “more work to do.”

Stupak said Friday that he discussed retirement with his family last weekend and made the final decision Wednesday night.

His timing does help Democrats in the sense that it gives them plenty of time to recruit a credible successor — the filing deadline is not until May 11.

Democrats are by no means throwing in the towel with Stupak’s retirement and will be competitive if they can nab a strong candidate who fits the district’s socially conservative but pro-labor tendencies. But the momentum is with the Republicans.

Several candidates have already jumped in the race to challenge Stupak, but the field is expected to grow as more seasoned public officials now take a look at the open seat.

Former Charlevoix County Commissioner Connie Saltonstall declared last month that she would challenge Stupak in the Democratic primary because of his stand on abortion in the health care bill, and quickly became a darling of the net-roots set.

Saltonstall has raised close to $100,000 on the Democratic fundraising Web site ActBlue and has won the endorsement of abortion-rights proponents NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood and National Organization for Women, so she will not be easily pushed aside.

But Bill Ballenger, a longtime Michigan political analyst and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, said Democrats “better come up with somebody who is pro-life” if they hope to win in the socially conservative district.

“If they’re smart, they’ll come up with a pro-life, pro-Second Amendment candidate. They’ll come up with another Stupak,” he said.

The names of state Senate Democratic leader Michael Prusi and state Rep. Jeff Mayes (D) have been circulated. Ballenger said Prusi “is ideally positioned” for a run.

Michigan Agriculture Department Director Don Koivisto, a former state Representative, is another Democrat who could make a credible run, Ballenger said. Democrats are also looking at state Reps. Gary McDowell, Mike Lahti, Judy Nerat and Steve Lindberg.

State Sen. Jim Barcia (D), a former Congressman who does not live in the district, ruled out a campaign on Friday morning.

Three rookie GOP candidates are already running for the 1st district seat, galvanized by Stupak’s vote for the health care bill. The leading candidate is an unknown Upper Peninsula surgeon, Dan Benishek, who saw a fundraising surge after the health care vote.

State Sen. Jason Allen, who is term-limited this year, and former state Rep. Tom Casperson would be serious GOP contenders should they choose to run. Casperson, who is running for state Senate in 2010, lost handily to Stupak in 2008, but Ballenger said that “it’s impossible to beat an incumbent in that district” and that Casperson was “a very popular vote-getter in the state House.”

Former state Rep. Scott Shackleton (R) could be another strong candidate.