The race for northern Michigan’s 104th district could decide which party controls the state house.
The seat covers Grand Traverse County.
Democrats are behind Dan O’Neil, who nearly won the spot in 2018. Republicans and their candidate John Roth aim to keep the 104th in GOP hands as it has been for decades.
And because of the stakes, politicians and money from outside the district have flooded in.
In September, Governor Gretchen Whitmer walked through downtown Traverse City one day after the FBI stopped a plan to kidnap her. She was knocking on doors for O’Neil.
“I had the team call to find out, ‘does Dan still want me, is he gonna feel safe?’” Whitmer told a voter. “And they’re like ‘yes come up here!’”
Gov. Whitmer has been Up North several times to help O’Neil. She says a democratic majority in the state house could expand rural broadband and fix the roads.
“But we need legislators who are going to help me make sure that we realize that potential,” Whitmer said.
O’Neil has also had big-name Democrats like Jill Biden, Chasten Buttigieg and Debbie Stabenow at campaign events. He says they have a role in this race.
“I don’t think a lot about whether it helps us or hurts us. What it says to our community is that we’re all in this together. That we need to work together to find solutions to the problems that we face,” O’Neil said.
Just off Five Mile road on the outskirts of Traverse City, Republican Candidate John Roth walked down another suburban street.
He gets the attention of a man working in his yard.
“I’m not gonna bother you long, you’re working, it’s a Saturday,” Roth says as he approaches.
The man tells Roth he mostly votes Republican, but he’s not a fan of President Donald Trump.
Roth says this comes up pretty often.
“I have nothing to do with national politics, I can’t change a darn thing at the federal level. I want to change state [politics], and that’s it,” Roth tells him.
“Well I’ve already voted, and I think your name was on the ballot,” the man tells Roth while laughing.
The 104th seat is open because State Representative Larry Inman (R-Williamsburg) finishes his final term this year.
Roth and O’Neil have both lived in the county, and been involved in local politics, for decades. Both talk up bipartisanship, but avoid labels like ‘moderate’ or ‘centrist.’
Besides that, John Roth thinks they’re very different people. Roth has helped run a variety of seasonal businesses for decades.
“I think people really look at me as a blue-collar guy that knows how it is to struggle,” Roth said.
He prioritizes deregulation and incentivizing investment Up North.
Dan O’Neil, an attorney, also says getting the state’s economy back up and running is key, but adds environmental issues as a top priority.
“I often say that I think that the representative from this corner of the state ought to be the leading voice in the legislature on the environment,” O’Neil said in an IPR candidate forum.
He also says COVID-protocols are more important than ever in the face of rising coronavirus cases statewide.
Lots of voices
Both men say they’ve tried to keep this race focused on the issues, but that’s been hard because a lot of outside groups are getting involved.
Simon Schuster with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network says that means one thing.
“In terms of broadcast ad spending this is the third most expensive race, in terms of overall campaign spending in the house, it is among the most expensive so far,” he said in early October.
Schuster adds a lot of that money is coming from outside the district.
“The DeVos family, it appears that six members of their family maxed out the individual contribution limit towards John Roth,” he said.
Schuster says O’Neil has support from organizations like the Future Now Fund out of Washington DC.
Outside groups are behind most of the attack ads and mailers in the race.
One ad accuses O’Neil of supporting a plan to defund “our police force,” which he says isn’t true.
State Representative Jason Wentworth is the Republican Speaker Pro Tem. His political action committee, the Wentworth Majority Fund, has pumped tens of thousands of dollars into John Roth’s campaign.
He says one of their roles in the race is to go negative.
“O’Neil is way more liberal than what he wants to put on in that district plain and simple,” Wentworth said. “Dan’s run a campaign before, we know what he’s done and said and the things he’s run on. So we want to make sure the voters know that.”
But both sides are getting in their punches. Another ad from the group Voters Not Politicians attacks John Roth. In it they claim Roth removed former Governor Bill Milliken from the county GOP while he let State Rep. Inman stay in his seat amid corruption charges.
Roth says on the contrary he asked Inman to resign and added it wasn’t his idea to kick Milliken out.
Key race equals national attention
Several members of the state Democratic caucus say they helped convince O’Neil to run. They say the 104th is needed to flip the house to their control.
“It’s top 5 in the state for our attention as an opportunity to flip an open seat from a traditionally Republican-held seat to a Democratic seat,” said State Rep. Donna Lasinksi, who also leads House Democratic campaign efforts.
The race for the 104th will end up costing more than a million dollars, according to campaign finance disclosures.
Simon Schuster with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network says this type of race will happen more and more.
He says dark money groups don’t just target big national races anymore.
“These organizations are trickling down and having a broader impact on politics at the state and local levels in ways that they haven’t before,” Schuster said. “I think that the nationalisation of our politics even at the local level that we’re undergoing, is really also speaking to those trends.”
One other thing John Roth and Dan O’Neil have in common: they both support campaign finance reform.