McCotter's odd exit leaves House seat up for grabs

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By KATHY BARKS HOFFMAN, Associated Press

BIRMINGHAM, Mich. (AP) — All had their reasons for seeking the congressional seat in the wealthy Detroit suburbs where Mitt Romney grew up. But none could have expected to win — until now.

As the result of the shocking political collapse of a veteran Republican congressman, four unlikely contenders — a Lyndon LaRouche admirer, a little known school teacher who raises reindeer, a Democratic longshot and a new write-in candidate— find themselves competing for a prize long seen as spoken for and safely Republican.

The prospect of losing a safe seat has left leading Republicans scrambling to contain the damage just as they were mustering for the fight to retain control of the House in the November.

"It was an unnecessary blunder that put us all into overdrive," said Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, referring to the election irregularities that prompted Rep. Thaddeus McCotter to drop out of the race a week ago. On Thursday, Patterson and other GOP officials enlisted a former state senator, Nancy Cassis, to join the campaign as a write-in candidate.

Cassis called the developments "a total shock."

The Michigan attorney general has launched an investigation into why more than 80 percent of the signatures on McCotter's nominating petitions were invalid — many apparently photocopied from other petitions. The problem developed after the five-term congressman gave up his little-noticed campaign for president and entrusted his staff to prepare his re-election paperwork.

His departure still leaves Republicans with a candidate on the ballot, but not one that inspires confidence among GOP activists in this district that runs from the middle-class communities west of Detroit, with their upscale malls and Ikea superstore, to chic, wealthy Birmingham in Oakland County.

Kerry Bentivolio, a high school English and history teacher from Milford, has never held office and is best known in his village for dressing as Santa Claus and riding a sleigh pulled by the reindeer he raises. He has raised little money beyond what he lent his campaign. Bentivolio's strong tea party positions have not struck a chord with the business community in a district that is 55 percent Republican and has favored mainstream conservatives. "I will not be controlled by the political class who think they know better than average people who are struggling to make ends meet," the 60-year-old said in a fundraising email.

Some voters who backed attorney McCotter in Congress for the past 10 years said they are at a loss now.

"I and a lot of Republicans I know won't vote for a tea party guy," said attorney David Zacks of Bloomfield Hills, strolling past the expensive boutique shops of downtown Birmingham with his son during a recent lunch hour. "It's going to give Democrats their best historic chance, without a question."

Democrats are encouraged by their improved prospects and by the fact that local voters' support for Republicans hasn't been unwavering. The area backed Barack Obama over John McCain in the 2008 presidential election when Obama carried Michigan. But since then, redistricting has added more Republicans to the district.

The Democrats' best chance may be Taj Syed, a physician who serves as a county township trustee and has the most cash on hand for the race — $81,279, as of late March. But he's little known in much of the district and would need far more money to break through in the expensive Detroit media market.

More obscure is his primary opponent, Bill Roberts, a political activist and follower of the eccentric perennial presidential candidate LaRouche. Roberts reported only $2,647 on hand in the last campaign report.

Syed said he hopes to appeal to conservative voters by emphasizing his work with Republican colleagues to attract jobs to Canton Township and deal with tight budgets.

"My job is to keep knocking the doors, which we're doing almost every single day," Syed said.

Though Bentivolio, Syed and Roberts are a mystery to most voters, at least their names are on the ballot. Cassis will benefit from the support of Republican leaders but acknowledged that she faces a huge challenge in making voters aware of her candidacy and then writing her name correctly on a ballot.

Dave Zimmer, a 65-year-old business consultant from Bloomfield Village, said he's among those inclined to vote Republican, but he doesn't know how Cassis can pull it off.

"Anyone (already) on the ballot has a better chance," he said.

Retired mechanical manager Kenneth Johnson, browsing at the upscale Laurel Park Place mall in Livonia, said he's still stunned by McCotter's implosion.

"He was running for president one minute," the 65-year-old said, "and the next minute he's not running for anything."

In bowing out, the often-quirky McCotter apparently ended a political career that started when he won a county commissioner's seat at age 27.

"To those who unhappy at this news, I'm sorry; to those happy at this news, you're welcome," he said.

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