KALAMAZOO, MI – For more than 30 years and under five presidents, Republican Rep. Fred Upton easily won reelection to his southwest Michigan House seat by promoting “common-sense values” and bipartisan accomplishments.
Republicans and even many Democrats have appreciated his moderate views and the way he hustled around the district on his days back home, meeting people at schools and senior homes and doing weekly radio interviews.
But then came the hyperpolarized politics of the Donald Trump era. Now no one, including Upton, really knows what the future holds for him heading into the 2020 election.
For officeholders who were proud of holding the middle ground and working with the opposing party, big questions loom about whether being a moderate is still a viable political position, or whether the impeachment storm sweeping U.S. politics will force everyone to accept a new identity — pro-Trump or anti-Trump — and await voters’ judgment on it.
What happens to this ever-shrinking group of politicians — a dozen or so left after a rash of retirements or midterm losses — could make a big difference in which party emerges on top when the televised hearings have ended and the votes are counted next November. Some of the seats are in key swing states like Michigan, typically in suburban or fast-growing areas like Upton’s. His largely white district stretches from tourist destinations along Lake Michigan and across rural, Republican communities to more diverse Kalamazoo, home to Western Michigan University.
“There’s no joy in Mudville,” Upton said in a September statement about the inquiry.
Upton walked a careful line in that statement and others since, calling developments around Trump’s dealings with Ukraine disconcerting but saying the proceedings are preventing progress on other issues. He joined other Republicans last month in voting against holding impeachment hearings.
Democrats have made Upton one of their top targets for 2020 after he survived his closest election in decades last year. He faces a state lawmaker from Kalamazoo, the district’s Democratic base in its most populous county, and activists from outside the state already are coming in to provide reinforcements for local Democrats. Meanwhile, questions swirl about whether Upton, 66, may just opt to retire.
His office said he was unavailable for an Associated Press interview, but he told a local TV station that he has never announced his intentions as early as a year out from Election Day.
So far this cycle, Upton has raised almost $1 million for his campaign fund, roughly the same amount as at this same time two years ago. His top opponent, Democratic state Rep. Jon Hoadley, has raised about $525,000 — double the amount Upton’s 2018 opponent had raised at this point in the last cycle.
Mark Miller, a former chairman of the 6th Congressional District Democrats who now serves as a local township clerk, believes Upton has been trying carefully to avoid angering Trump supporters or the independent voters and Democrats who helped give him double-digit victory margins over the years.
“I don't know how long he can keep that high-wire act going,” Miller said, particularly as polls show support for impeachment growing among independents as well as Democrats.
“What we’ve heard year after year from those voters is ‘Good old Fred. He’s a good guy. He’s OK by me,’” Miller said, adding that a vote against impeachment should peel off a number of those independents. “The question is: Will it be enough?”
John Gregory, an Air Force veteran who works in the aerospace industry, said that for most of his career, Upton has been in touch with the district, but that he’s seemed to shift toward the right. He said he knows others — veterans and non-veterans — who are concerned about what they’re hearing during impeachment proceedings and want Upton to “put his oath of office above party politics.”
“He was elected because I think a lot of people here feel he’s a good moderate and represents the district, but there are a lot of questions right now,” the 57-year-old said.
Republicans argue Upton — described by Vice President Joe Biden last year as “one of the finest guys” he’s worked with — has delivered for the district and is a better fit for the area than Hoadley. The National Republican Campaign Committee has called Hoadley an “open socialist” whose support for the Green New Deal would hurt Michigan’s auto industry.
Trump and Republicans hope that rather than hurt GOP candidates, the impeachment effort will help rally the president’s base. They’re targeting vulnerable Democrats with TV and digital ads and holding protests outside their offices.
Democrats running in places like Upton’s district, meanwhile, are far more muted on the topic — at least for now.
If voters ask his views, Hoadley says, he tells them the inquiry is both appropriate and necessary.
But the 36-year-old — who likes to mention he was 3 when Upton was first elected to Congress — is more focused on introducing himself to voters he says are “hungry for change.”
On the campaign trail, Hoadley says he’s talking about climate change, water quality and Upton’s role in the Trump administration’s attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act, the Obama-era health law.
Upton helped write an amendment to the GOP’s repeal plan that expanded its coverage for preexisting conditions. The measure, which drew some bipartisan support, died in the Senate.
Upton said it was an example of how he’s stood up to Trump when he felt it necessary.
Marj Halperin, a leader of the Chicago chapter of Indivisible, a progressive organization, said Democrats’ efforts on the ground are focused on issues other than impeachment.
Halperin was among more than a dozen people who traveled to southwest Michigan last Saturday to bolster the push in a key 2020 state. The group knocked on more than 600 doors to identify voters, provide information about Michigan’s new law allowing absentee voting for all registered voters, and talk about Hoadley and Democratic statehouse candidates.
“We aren’t going to sit back and wait to see how an impeachment hearing works out,” Halperin said.
But Upton likely won’t be able to avoid the impeachment spotlight for long. Democrats are practically giddy about a photo of Upton with Trump that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted last month.
In it, McCarthy, Upton and Rep. Tom Emmer, chairman of the House Republicans’ campaign arm, sit at a table with a beaming Trump in the president’s Washington hotel, platters of shrimp cocktail before them. McCarthy’s tweet read “Great night with the President. Republicans are united!”
The photo, and the timing of it, is likely to be featured prominently in campaign ads next year.
Democrats say it’s a reminder that Upton isn’t really the moderate he says he is. It’s also another sign of the deep political divide, when sharing a table with your party’s president could become an election liability.
“That picture really did say 1,000 words,” Hoadley said.