State Rep. Curt VanderWall (R-Ludington) made a tough choice last month. He decided not to run for re-election in the Michigan House of Representatives. Instead, he’s running for the state Senate.
It’s a decision that has disrupted two competitive political races in northern Michigan.
VanderWall, who owns a lawn care business, is in his first term in office representing the 101st District. The House district runs along Lake Michigan from Ludington to Northport.
VanderWall says last summer he began thinking about running for the larger Senate district instead of for re-election. He says people throughout the House district encouraged him to do it.
VanderWall says he’s the right person for the job.
“We’re going to have some really, really tough issues over the next nine years,” VanderWall says. “And I just felt that we needed somebody there that listens very well and works for the district.”
VanderWall says timing played a role in his decision to run for the Senate’s 35th District.
The seat is open this year because current Sen. Darwin Booher (R-Evart) is term limited and cannot run again. If VanderWall stayed in the House for four more years and then wanted to run for the Senate, he might have to wait another four years for the seat to be open again.
VanderWall says it was a difficult decision but he thinks he made the right one.
“We feel very comfortable that the decisions that we made will benefit not only the 101st but also the Senate district,” VanderWall says.
The 35th District is a sprawling seat that includes 12 counties. It goes from Ludington to Northport and heads east to include Cadillac, Kalkaska and Grayling.
The district has been a safe Republican seat in recent elections but winning the Republican primary will be difficult. The race has already been going on for months between two former state representatives, Ray Franz and Bruce Rendon.
“It’s really fascinating," says longtime political commentator Bill Ballenger. "You got three either current or former state reps running against each other in a primary. I’m not sure I ever remember that happening before.”
Ballenger runs a political commentary website.
Ray Franz (R-Onekama) is VanderWall’s predecessor in the 101st District. He served three terms.
Bruce Rendon (R-Lake City) is from Missaukee County and represented the 103rd District for three terms until 2016. His wife, Daire Rendon, now holds that seat.
Ballenger says the primary could come down to who does well in the middle of the district, especially around Cadillac in Wexford County.
“I would say that’s going to be a key battleground, because that is a county between where the candidates served,” he says.
Ballenger says other factors will matter as well – like who can raise the most money.
VanderWall has said that his age makes him a stronger candidate than the other two. He’s younger than both Franz and Rendon and says he has better stamina.
While VanderWall is in his mid-50s, Rendon is in his mid-60s, and Franz just turned 70 years old.
Franz and Rendon both say they’re healthy and energetic.
“If I could paraphrase Ronald Reagan, of course, I won’t hold his youth and inexperience against him, after all he has been in office only 13 months,” Franz says.
Franz says he's been campaigning for months.
"I have been working this district since February of last year, so I don’t think age or stamina are an issue," Franz says.
Franz owned two grocery stores in Manistee County. He’s retired from the business now.
Franz says he wants to keep Michigan on what he calls a path of prosperity. He says he’s proud of the work he did as a state representative, paying down the state’s debt and controlling spending.
“I want to continue making Michigan the place to do business, making Michigan the place for manufacturing and tourism and agriculture,” Franz says.
Like VanderWall and Franz, Bruce Rendon is also a business owner. Rendon ran a construction company for years, which he still owns. He also ran a dairy farming operation.
“That’s what’s led me into the legislature, is seeing what regulation does to hamper creating jobs and our workforce,” Rendon says.
Rendon says he thinks the state is going in the right direction. He says voters should choose him because of his experience and values.
“I will not break from my basic issues," Rendon says. "I’m pro-life, pro-Second Amendment and pro-family. I’m a listener.”
Two Democrats are running for the Senate seat, including Cary Urka. Urka ran as a Republican for the 101st District state House seat in 2016.
Without VanderWall running for the 101st, there’s uncertainty in the race. It’s been a close contest in some recent elections. Dan Scripps was the last Democrat to win the seat in 2008.
Only one candidate has declared she’s running so far – Democrat Kathy Wiejaczka. She is a registered nurse from Empire.
Ballenger says Republicans at this point don’t have a candidate, and that could be bad news for them.
“People are talking, 'this might be a blue wave year. There could be a backlash against Trump or the Republicans,'” Ballenger says. “Well, if that’s the case and you’ve got a weak Republican nominee, … Democrats could pick up the seat.”
Candidates have to enter the race by April 24 to get on the primary ballot. The primary election is in August.