CHEBOYGAN - Tea party activists rejoiced when Rep. Bart Stupak decided against seeking re-election after helping rescue President Barack Obama's health care plan. Now one of their own hopes to exact the ultimate revenge by winning Stupak's seat.
Michigan vast 1st District, which reaches across 600 miles of woodsy northlands, is usually an afterthought on the national political scene. But with the seat open for the first time in 18 years and control of the House at stake, Democrats and Republicans - and outside interest groups - are pouring in money and flooding the airwaves.
About $1.5 million had been spent on television ads through Oct. 5, the nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network said.
"It's one of the 15 priority races for us and in the top five," said Tom Tripp of the American Conservative Union.
ripp supports Dan Benishek, a surgeon and political novice, who is the Republican nominee. His Democratic opponent is Gary McDowell, a hay farmer and three-term member of the state House. Also running is independent candidate Glenn Wilson, a software entrepreneur.
Benishek and McDowell are plainspoken and favor casual slacks and sweaters. But the similarities end there.
McDowell, 58, has Stupak's backing and appears to mirror the incumbent's political philosophy and priorities - including opposition to abortion and support of gun rights, which drew an endorsement from the National Rifle Association.
He contends government has a role to play in boosting the struggling economy in northern Michigan, where the employment base has shifted from mining and logging to tourism, education and health care.
"You can't just say the private sector can do everything by itself or government can do everything by itself," McDowell said recently while meeting with an economic development team in Cheboygan, a tourism-dependent town on Lake Huron. "You can say 'just cut taxes and we'll all be millionaires,' but it doesn't work that way."
Benishek, also 58, says he was inspired to enter politics by disgust over the soaring budget deficit, bailouts and what he considers an out-of-control federal government.
Support from the tea party helped him win the GOP nomination over the party establishment's choice, state Sen. Jason Allen, by 15 votes.
"People are tired of the spending in Washington and the fact that the government doesn't seem to be listening to them," said Benishek, whose campaign signs bear the slogan, "Enough is Enough."
He calls for deep reductions in taxes, federal spending and regulations that he says inhibit economic growth and job creation. Benishek also pledges to repeal the health care law, saying the U.S. system is the world's best and needs only "fine tuning" to boost competition among private insurers and reduce costs.
But McDowell defends the Obama plan, which was in danger of failing until Stupak delivered a handful of votes from House Democrats who had feared it would allow federal funding of abortions.
"For the first time we are actually going to require people to be responsible for their health care," McDowell said. "I think it's a conservative thing to do."
McDowell accuses Benishek of favoring privatization of Social Security. Benishek denies it, and has labeled McDowell as a tax-and-spend career politician in the mold of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. McDowell says Benishek is a radical more loyal to the tea party and national right-wing groups than northern Michigan.
Their approach to earmarks - money for local projects tucked into large spending bills - illustrates their contrasting approaches. Stupak and his predecessors aggressively sought such funding, and McDowell says he'd do likewise.
"If I get a chance to bring money back to this district to help with projects that will put your people to work, I'll be there for you," he said.
Benishek pledges not to seek earmarks, no matter how popular they might be with recipients back home.
"I'm not going to get involved in that game," he said while greeting voters at a candidates' forum.
Such promises resonate with voters such as Karen and Karl Benstrom, who attended a recent meet-and-greet bratwurst luncheon with Benishek at the Marquette County Republican headquarters.
"We keep giving fish away instead of teaching people how to fish," said Karen Benstrom, 49. "We need to be responsible and take care of ourselves."
Susan Eno, president of the bank that hosted the Cheboygan gathering, says she usually leans Republican but supports McDowell, saying he's more experienced and better informed.
"I really don't care if it's a Republican or a Democrat. I just want the person who's going to get in there and get something done," Eno said.