Longtime Michigan Rep. Dingell Faces Fight

In this year's midterm election, some Democrats who've always coasted to re-election are suddenly facing new, fresh competition. One of these is the longtime Michigan congressman John Dingell of Michigan.

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In this year's midterm elections, scores of Democratic incumbents around the country are fighting to survive - some, maybe many, won't - brought down by a struggling economy, anger over the new health care law and an anti-incumbent mood. Even Democrats who aren't necessarily on the endangered list, who have always coasted to reelection are suddenly facing strong competition. One of them is veteran Congressman John Dingell.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Monroe, Michigan.

DON GONYEA: John Dingell came to Congress in 1955, taking over a seat left opened by the death of his father, John Dingell Sr., who took office at the start of the New Deal. The younger Dingell is now 84. Twenty times, he's been reelected with more than 70 percent of the vote. His closest race ever was in the big GOP year of 1994, when he got 59 percent. Through all this time, John Dingell's signature issue has been health care. Its passage this year was a personal triumph. He spoke about that last night during a debate at Monroe County Community College.

Representative JOHN DINGELL (Democrat, Michigan): I have the curious belief that health care is a right and not a privilege, and I believe that we've waited too long to see to it that that's a reality.

GONYEA: You can hear Dingell's age in his voice. His opponent is a 52-year-old surgeon named Rob Steele who wants the health care bill repealed.

Dr. ROB STEELE (Republican Congressional Candidate, Michigan): We have many challenges with our health care that need to be fixed, but the health care bill makes virtually every single one of them worse. We need to start over and fix the problems that are there.

GONYEA: There were ground rules for last night's debate. The curtain opened with both candidates already seated behind desks. No live broadcast was allowed and no news photographers. The Steele campaign agreed to those rules but said the restrictions were not their idea. But while Dingell is visibly frail, on this night, he was on his game.

Fifty-five-year-old Karen Tasper(ph) is a retired registered nurse and John Dingell supporter.

Ms. KAREN TASPER (Retired Nurse): He is a fighter. He cares about the people. He's been here. We've grown up knowing him and trusting him.

GONYEA: He's 84.

Ms. TASPER: That doesn't matter to me. He's like a grandpa. And there's wisdom with age. There's nothing wrong with that. I mean, that's valuable to me.

GONYEA: Steele supporters, including some who've been active in the Tea Party Movement, say John Dingell represents everything that's wrong with Washington.

Fifty-one-year-old Mike Horwith(ph) is a self-employed computer technician.

Mr. MIKE HORWITH (Computer Technician): Mr. Dingell has been my representative ever since I was born.

GONYEA: Have you ever voted for him?

Mr. HORWITH: Yes, I have. Not going to again.

GONYEA: What happened?

Mr. HORWITH: He isn't representing the people in this area. The current government has lost connection to the constituency.

GONYEA: People started talking about whether John Dingell is vulnerable this year when an automated telephone poll came out earlier this month, showing him trailing by a very small margin, but there were questions about the methodology used.

Bill Ballenger is the publisher of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. He says Republicans would have to capture 80 or more Democratic seats for Dingell to lose. Ballenger notes that neither the national Republican Party or outside groups that backed GOP candidates are spending money in the district.

Mr. BILL BALLENGER (Publisher, Inside Michigan Politics): I think the Republicans are certainly concentrating on the low-hanging fruit, even those in the medium branches. John Dingell's district is a little higher up on the tree.

GONYEA: After the debate last night, Dingell sat on a stool backstage, holding his cane. I asked him about the mood of the electorate this year. He said that when people are frightened and confused it's a bad mix. As for the fact that he's involved in a tougher race than he's used to?

Rep. DINGELL: We have been doing this for years, and we will do it again, and we will carry our part of this county in beautiful form. You don't want to assume that Dingell is in any trouble.

GONYEA: The longest serving member of the U.S. House of Representatives ever insists he still has plenty of fight in him, even in a political year, that he calls, quote, "rather difficult."

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Monroe, Michigan.

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