Reindeer Herder Vies for House After Lawmaker Melts Down

Reindeer Herder Vies for Congress Seat After Lawmaker's Meltdown
U.S. Representative Thad McCotter resigned July 6 over faked petitions that kept the five-term Michigan Republican off the ballot, leaving in doubt a seat the GOP thought secure for years to come. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

U.S. Representative Thad McCotter resigned July 6 over faked signatures that pushed the five-term Michigan Republican off the ballot, leaving in doubt a seat his party thought secure for years to come.

Vying for the job are Syed Taj, an India-born Democratic physician who wears his white coat in ads and makes a virtue of moderation, and Kerry Bentivolio, a Tea Party-backed Republican war veteran who raises reindeer and bees and plays Santa Claus at Christmas.

Bentivolio, a 60-year-old former high-school teacher from Milford, has never held office and made it into the race even though Republican elders tried to beat him in an August primary with a better-known write-in candidate.

“This is one of the most bizarre House races in the country,” said Jessica Taylor, senior analyst for the Washington-based Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter that covers congressional campaigns. “This should have stayed in Republican hands. Democrats wouldn’t have taken a second look at it.”

Taylor rates the race in the district about 40 miles (64 kilometers) west of Detroit a “toss-up tilting Republican.” The district is 56.5 percent Republican, said Bill Ballenger, publisher of the Lansing-based newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. No independent polls have been published on the race.

Staying Cool

National Democrats have pledged support for Taj, 66, an internist who says Bentivolio’s views are too far right. Both Taj and Bentivolio are targeted for help from their respective parties’ congressional campaign committees in Washington.

Despite Bentivolio’s chaotic entry into the race, Republican leaders aren’t panicking, said David Staudt, 53, a Novi city councilman and treasurer of the party’s Oakland County chapter.

“I don’t believe any Democrat will win this district,” Staudt said. “It’s very conservative. There’s a large Tea Party contingent.”

Still, Staudt was among those who sought an opponent for Bentivolio in August, and said in an interview he was concerned that Bentivolio lacks experience.

Republicans control all three branches of Michigan government and held nine of 15 congressional seats until McCotter resigned. Both U.S. senators are Democrats.

Guitar Man

The political demise of McCotter, 47, capped a mercurial career. He played guitar, displayed posters of the Rolling Stones and John Lennon in his Washington office and quoted Bob Dylan in his resignation. Elected in 2002 while a state senator, he wrote a book about conservative principles and bucked his party’s leaders by supporting unions and his hometown auto industry.

He began a presidential campaign, but dropped it in 2011 to seek re-election. In May, when it was discovered that his nominating petitions didn’t have 1,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot, he resigned.

Four of McCotter’s congressional staff members have been charged with crimes for falsifying his nominating petitions. Though McCotter wasn’t implicated, state Attorney General Bill Schuette said he was “asleep at the switch.”

Double Primary

His resignation forced the state into a Byzantine election schedule, running concurrent contests to fill the last two months of McCotter’s term and choose his replacement for the next two years. There was the regular August primary, which Bentivolio won, a special September primary that he also won, and on Nov. 6 district voters will fill both the remainder of the term and the whole of the next.

Bentivolio in August defeated former state senator Nancy Cassis, who was recruited by Republicans to run as a write-in candidate. She was swamped by a $692,300 campaign on Bentivolio’s behalf by the Liberty for All super-PAC, according to Federal Elections Commission records. The PAC supports candidates who espouse the libertarian views of U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas.

Cassis, 68, won’t endorse Bentivolio. She said his views are “unusual” and cited his appearance in a 2011 online satirical movie, “The President Goes to Heaven,” which suggested, among other things, that a George W. Bush-like president orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks before lapsing into a coma.

Bentivolio said the movie is a spoof and doesn’t reflect his views. The ex-teacher, automotive-design engineer and veteran of Vietnam and Iraq wars calls himself a Reagan Republican with a libertarian streak.

Animal Husbandry

He joined the National Guard in 1991 at 40 and was deployed to Iraq in 2007, where he said he suffered a neck injury falling into a ditch. Bentivolio cites bureaucratic foul-ups he witnessed in the military as reasons not to give the federal government more control over health care.

Bentivolio keeps six reindeer on his 3.5-acre homestead in Milford, 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest of Detroit. With a reindeer-pulled sleigh, he dresses as Santa Claus for parades. He also has chickens, bee hives and grows grapes for wine.

“It’s a little surreal for an average guy to be ready, willing and able to be in the right place at the right time,” Bentivolio told a Republican audience in Birmingham at a campaign event.

Border Battalions

Bentivolio said he favors abolishing the U.S. Education Department, curtailing the Environmental Protection Agency and transferring 70,000 U.S. troops from Germany to the Mexico border to prevent illegal immigration. He said government debt is out of control.

“There are a lot of people out there who are spending their grandchildren’s future, and they won’t be able to pay that $16 trillion debt back in their lifetime,” he said in a phone interview.

Taj, who serves on the board of Canton Township, said Congress is paralyzed by 40 or 50 right-wing extremists. He said he’s backed by moderate Republicans.

“When you are elected, you represent everybody, not just a Tea Party and not just conservative Republicans, not just left Democrats,” Taj said.

Bentivolio said he can work with opposing views.

“I’ve been married to the same woman for 35 years, I better know how to compromise,” he told the Birmingham Republicans.

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