Michigan Republican Fred Upton has long relied on independents like retired high school teacher Frank Cody to help him win re-election. The congressman’s service on a debt-cutting supercommittee may put that support at risk.
Upton, 58, was tapped by Republican House Speaker John Boehner last month to serve on the bipartisan panel assigned to find $1.5 trillion in savings on the national debt.
“Clearly this has as much chance of being a political liability to him as it does a political asset,” said Saul Anuzis, a former Michigan Republican Party chairman.
In places like Kalamazoo, the heart of Upton’s sixth district in southwestern Michigan, constituents are warning the congressman, with 13 two-year terms in office, against supporting deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits to meet that goal.
“We as seniors don’t mind sharing some of the pain, but we don’t want that pain to be dumped on seniors who can’t afford it,” said Cody, 70, chairman of the Kalamazoo County Advocates for Senior Issues, a non-profit volunteer group. “It could be pretty serious for me” if Upton supports such a plan, he said. “I could move into the other column.”
While the voters at home are pressing to protect entitlement programs, Upton and his five Republican colleagues on the panel are under pressure from their leadership in Washington and the Tea Party to champion those very cutbacks.
Tea Party Republicans
Democrats in Upton’s district see a rare opportunity to challenge an incumbent caught between the Tea Party Republicans and the moderate voters who dominate his district’s general elections.
“Chairman Upton fully recognizes the immense challenges of this assignment, and he accepted it as a historic opportunity to help get our economy back on track and create jobs, which is his top priority for Michigan and the country,” his spokeswoman Alexa Marrero said in an e-mail.
Unseating Upton would require a major shift in voter preferences. He has carried the district with at least 60 percent of the vote in 11 of his 13 elections starting in 1986. Even so, Upton’s constituents voted by a 10-percentage-point margin for President Barack Obama in 2008.
“He’s got to be very circumspect,” said Bill Ballenger, publisher of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter in Lansing. “He wants to appease the right, but at the same time leave the general impression in the public that he hasn’t completely sold out to the Tea Party and he’s still the good old reasonable, moderate Fred Upton.”
Upton had to confront those countervailing political pressures in the 2010 midterms, when he beat back a primary challenge from Jack Hoogendyk, a former state representative with Tea Party support, by a margin of 57 to 43 percent. Thus far, no primary challenger has emerged for 2012.
Four Democrats are already lining up to challenge him next year, said Mark Miller, the district’s Democratic Party chairman. “When he votes to make those very painful cuts to entitlements, it’s going to wake up a lot of people,” said Miller. “It’ll move a lot of votes.”
Most of the 11 other supercommittee members are in safer seats. Upton’s five House colleagues won with decisive margins even though Representative Dave Camp, a Michigan Republican also on the panel, is from a district that voted for Obama by 2 percentage points. Of the six senators, five aren’t up for re- election next year and Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona decided not to seek another term.
Social Security Recipients
That’s not to say they are immune from political fall-out. The House members on the committee with the highest percentage of district residents receiving Social Security, at 20 percent or more, are Republicans Upton and Camp as well as South Carolina Democrat Jim Clyburn, according to Strengthen Social Security, a coalition of labor and other groups that opposes benefit cuts.
Upton’s low-key style -- he fetches his own coffee, goes by “Fred,” and keeps a display box of Battle Creek, Michigan- based Kellogg Co. (K)’s Frosted Flakes cereal on his Capitol Hill office desk -- hasn’t allayed fears back home, where voters plan to closely follow his actions on the supercommittee.
On Aug. 15, Upton spoke to a crowd of about 200 people at the Coover Senior Center in Kalamazoo. The annual event, which usually draws about 60 participants, attracted locals of all ages because of Upton’s new role, said Cody. Another 200 waited outside the standing-room-only event.
‘Most Disruptive Forum’
“They saw it as a chance to not only ask questions but to really protest,” said Cody, who served as moderator. “It was by far the most disruptive forum I’ve ever attended.” Upton was repeatedly heckled by individuals with a mannequin and signs asking where the jobs are, though Cody and other people said many protesters came from outside the district.
During the event, Upton declared that current Medicare and Social Security beneficiaries shouldn’t face reductions in benefits from the supercommittee and that the Social Security retirement age shouldn’t be raised.
“It’s awfully hard to tell someone” who may be 82 years old “that they’ve got to go back to work,” he said. “That’s not gonna happen.” Residents in Upton’s district aged 65 and older account for 12.5 percent of the population, on par with the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Cody said he wants Upton to use his skills and experience - - his resume includes stints working for Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman -- to be a deal-maker who brings Democrats and Republicans together in a way that protects vulnerable seniors.
‘Time Will Tell’
“With all the pressures that are intervening, whether he’s going to be that statesmanlike, only time will tell,” Cody said.
It’s a role that Upton has embraced in the past. The grandson of one of the founders of Whirlpool Corp. (WHR), Upton often broke with his party’s official positions and worked with Democrats from 1995 to 2006, according to the Almanac of American Politics.
He sought to limit the size of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts, and backed increases in the minimum wage and Democratic measures expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. He opposed Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq. On the environment, Upton voted for amendments strengthening the Clean Air Act and co-sponsored a bill to phase out incandescent light bulbs.
In 2008, the National Journal gave him a 41 percent liberal rating and a 59 percent conservative score.
Energy and Commerce Panel
Since Republicans won control of the House in 2010, Upton’s seniority on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, with jurisdiction over Medicare and Medicaid law, put him in line for the chairmanship. He won the leadership spot after overcoming internal caucus critics who questioned his conservative bona fides.
To allay their concerns, Upton hardened his position on issues, especially the environment. He championed a bill to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to regulate greenhouse gases and supported the repeal of his own initiative to phase out incandescent light bulbs.
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