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Is Michigan's 4th District more competitive on paper than on the ground?

Michigan’s new 4th Congressional District could have been a litmus test for independent redistricting. So why isn't it?

In 2018, voters approved the creation of a new independent redistricting commission that drew the map in use today. The new 4th District in Southwest Michigan includes parts of three districts under the old map, and a block of reliably Republican voters on the border with Indiana is now in another district. In theory, the fourth is now a little less Republican red and a little more Democratic blue.

“So, you remove a lot of Republican districts from a really relatively safe Republican district and you add in some relatively Democratic districts. That net is going to make it a little bit more competitive,” said Peter Wielhouwer, an associate professor of political science at Western Michigan University.

Wielhouwer said he thinks the big story of the Michigan midterms is whether or not independent redistricting succeeded in drawing more competitive maps. The 4th District, he said, is a good example.

“I think it’s a prototype, really, because you’ve taken out a relatively safe district and you’ve created a district that purportedly - that on paper - looks like it’s going to be pretty competitive.”

Another reason why it looks competitive on paper is that Fred Upton, a moderate Republican who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump, decided not to run again after 35 years. His district, the 6th District on the old maps, makes up the largest portion of the new fourth. Upton’s retirement left the race to a Republican incumbent from Zeeland, which is now part of the new 4th Congressional District.

Trump-endorsed Bill Huizenga may be well known in Republican circles, but he’s a stranger to most voters in the 4th. That weakens his “incumbent advantage.” Huizenga estimated that less than 25% of the new district is made up of voters from the district he currently represents - the second.

“Flip that around,” Huizenga said, “that means about 75% of this district is new to me over the last 10 years.”

These two factors should have made the 4th district competitive.

“It's the uncertainty of the new lines, and there’s a new representative for a big chunk of the voters,” Wielhouwer said.

But what could’ve been a competitive race has taken some turns.

Julie Kelemen lives in Oshtemo Township. She was confused when she didn’t see a single Democrat on the primary ballot.

“There was no Democratic slate to choose from for congressmen. And I thought, 'this is very strange,' because this is essentially an open seat, because even though Huizenga is running and he's an incumbent, he was, you know, further north and he moved,” Kelemen said.

Then she heard about Joseph Alfonso, a write-in candidate for the Democratic nomination. The Marine veteran and political newcomer received enough write-in votes in the primary to challenge Huizenga in November. But days before the election, Kelemen said she can tell Alfonso isn’t getting enough party support because her mailbox is empty.

“In a situation where there's a Democrat running for what's essentially, could be argued, an open seat, they're getting money from the national party as well, to help. And I can tell that's not happening, because I'm not getting literature.”

David Scharfenberg is an ideas staff writer with The Boston Globe. He featured Michigan’s 4th Congressional District race and the Alfonso campaign in a story about Democrats giving away House seats in races he calls “winnable.”

“The failure to run a strong candidate in this and about a dozen other similar districts around the country could make the difference between winning the majority and not winning the majority in the House. So, it could be pretty significant in the end,” Scharfenberg said.

Scharfenberg suspected that when the Democrats looked at the fourth earlier this year, it may have looked too red to invest a lot of money in. Then the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.  

“The Supreme Court’s decision, striking down the federal right to an abortion; Democrats have picked up some momentum and this is the sort of district that the party might have had a shot in, if it had been prepared, if it had a strong candidate in place,” he said.

Democratic candidate Joseph Alfonso isn’t complaining. He said he is getting support from the state Democratic Party and local chapters.

“You just take it in stride and you move forward,” said Alfonso. “That’s something I’ve learned early on. Nothing was ever handed to me growing up. I mean, like many people. So, the end of the day: we’re here, we got it done. And now we just continue to push forward.”

On the key issues, Alfonso said he supports abortion rights and called it “a private discussion, not a public policy.” He’d like to enact firearm safety training for gun ownership, similar to driver’s education classes for a driver’s license. He supports investing in alternative, environmentally friendly products to protect the environment and support job growth. Issues that are important to him include VA services and support for active-duty military personnel and their families.

Alfonso said issues in the fourth vary around the district, but “inflation’s hitting everyone hard” and voters tell him they want the government to “stop making our lives harder.” When asked about the Lake Michigan shoreline, Alfonso said the biggest issues for people who live there are erosion and water quality.

Huizenga is a conservative Trump Republican. While he voted to certify the 2020 presidential election, he also signed an amicus brief in support of a Texas lawsuit to overturn election results in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia and Wisconsin.

Huizenga is endorsed by both the NRA and Right to Life. Asked if he would vote for a federal ban on abortion, Huizenga didn't answer directly. He said he supported Dobbs sending the question back to the states, will vote no on Proposal 3 for a state constitutional right to reproductive freedom, and supports the Hyde Amendment that bans using federal Medicaid to cover almost all abortions.

He said the main issues in the 4th District are the same for the state: manufacturing, agriculture and tourism. While products may vary, he said the general principles are the same, while the economy and inflation “weaves into those issues.”

When asked about the Lake Michigan shoreline, Huizenga said tourism was the biggest issue for lakeshore communities.

Alfonso and Huizenga aren’t the only candidates running in the 4th District. Curtis Clark is the U.S. Taxpayers Party candidate. Former state representative Lorence Wenke is the Libertarian candidate.

“It’s unclear to me that that's a big factor unless just the Democrat performs much more robustly than it looks like at this point in time. Or if Huizenga collapses,” said political scientist Peter Wielhouwer.

The money is on Huizenga. That’s because he’s raised the money. Huizenga has raised over $2.5 million in contributions compared to Alfonso’s nearly $35,000.

Wielhouwer said Huizenga’s budget gives him an advertising advantage, but warns he may be too conservative for independent voters.

“The question is, is he going to be able to attract middle voters, ideological moderates, and to what extent is there a competing message that’s provided by the other side?”

Voter Julie Kelemen thinks there is a competing message, even without big donors.

“If everybody comes out, all the women come out like they did in Kansas, this guy has a real shot at winning. And without Democratic Party money. I think that would be a pretty amazing thing if he’s able to do it,” Kelemen said.

Wielhouwer said most voters make up their minds in the last three weeks of an election, so it’s not too late for the Democrats to mobilize. But he said without a lot of spillover votes from the top of the ticket and proposals on the ballot like Proposal 3, this new district that could have been competitive is likely to go to the Republicans.

Leona Larson (Gould-McElhone) was a complaint investigator with the Detroit Consumer Affairs Department when she started her media career producing and co-hosting Consumer Conversation with Esther Shapiro for WXYT-Radio in Detroit while freelancing at The Detroit News and other local newspapers. Leona joined WDIV-TV in Detroit as a special projects' producer and later, as an investigative producer. She spent several years teaching journalism for the School of Communications at Western Michigan University. Leona prefers to use her middle name on air because it's shorter and easier to pronounce.