Harsh winters and vast distances nurture a sense of independence and suspicion of big government, especially in the remote Upper Peninsula, where many feel so alienated from the state capital of Lansing that half-serious proposals to secede from Michigan occasionally pop up. Yet public institutions are economic pillars in the region, from the U.P.'s three state universities to national parks that support tourism.
Census data for the years 2006-2010 show about 16 percent of the district's workers — and 21 percent in the Upper Peninsula — had government jobs, compared to 10 percent statewide. Nearly 40 percent of the district's residents have publicly funded health care, largely because the population is disproportionately elderly.
Benishek's two immediate predecessors, Stupak and Republican Bob Davis, embodied the "all politics is local" adage. Davis helped win approval of a national park celebrating the region's mining heritage. That has drawn visitors to the remote Keweenaw Peninsula that has struggled since copper mining faded in the last century. Stupak sought funding for a Coast Guard icebreaking vessel, for upgraded navigational locks at Sault Ste. Marie and for the Olympic scholarships named for his deceased son, along with other projects.
"People up there aren't looking for a free ride, but they do expect government to lend a helping hand," said Stupak, now an attorney in Washington. "If you're a community of maybe 3,000 people and the EPA says you need a new sewer system because the pipes are broken and there's danger of E. coli, how are you going to afford that without federal help?"
Benishek's anti-government message resonated during his 2010 campaign, especially at tea party rallies, where Stupak was reviled for his key role in winning enactment of President Barack Obama's health care plan. But after Benishek took office, not all welcomed the contrast with his predecessor.
Amy Clickner, CEO of the Lake Superior Community Partnership, which promotes development in Marquette County, was taken aback when Benishek refused to push for continued funding of the Olympic athletes scholarship program, saying it was an example of the much-criticized lawmaker "earmarks" for pet projects.
"We wrote letters, talked to him," said Clickner, "but he was very strong in his beliefs on that."
Benishek told The Associated Press recently he supports the scholarships and is looking for other ways to fund them.
His 2011 vote against the rural airports subsidy prompted protests from communities in his district. And he said afterward he would try to find a way to continue them. This year, he voted against a proposal by a fellow tea party conservative to slash the program.
McDowell, his Democratic opponent, said Benishek was only trying to avoid political damage.
"He's putting a rigid ideology ahead of what's right for northern Michigan," McDowell said.
Duane Duray, manager of the Gogebic-Iron County Airport, which relies on the subsidies, said he thinks Benishek is learning some political lessons the hard way.
"'He hit the ground ready to change the world," said Duray. "Well, you find out pretty quickly that you're not there to change the world, you're there to help the U.P."
But tea party activist Bob Lamb of Alpena said many in northern Michigan still want Benishek to break the old model, even if it causes some hurt feelings.
"I think they'd just as soon see the strings cut and do their own thing," he said.
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