Conservatives May Decide Mich. District

Talking from his family's getaway home in Montana last week, Congressional candidate John "Joe" Schwarz (search) did not sound like a man who just emerged victorious from a grueling Republican primary, nor did he seem like he even needed the "R&R" his staff back in Michigan insisted he take.

"I feel fine," Schwarz, a Republican, told by phone. "We realized early on in the primary that we would have to suck it up and we did, and it was the amount of work done by the staff and the volunteers that was remarkable."

Besides his experience on the "front lines" as a surgeon, mayor of Battle Creek and 16 years in the Michigan state Senate, Schwarz has another reason to be relaxed right now: His victory in the Aug. 3 primary over five other Republicans in the 7th Congressional District, a GOP stronghold, practically ensures his ticket to Washington, say analysts.

"In general, this is a Republican area, and that's why Schwarz is a heavy, heavy favorite to win in November," said Nathan Gonzales, political handicapper for the Rothenberg Political Report (search ).

The victory would be a coup for the man who lost to the retiring Republican incumbent Rep. Nick Smith (search ) in a tough primary in 1992. Not only did Schwarz win this time, but he beat Smith's son, attorney Brad Smith, who had hoped to replace his father in the seat.

Still, Schwarz won't be resting long in Montana or popping any champagne corks.

"I refuse to accept that kind of hubris," he said. "Having gone through a primary and the nature of the primary being a good example of a tough one, I wouldn't let down for a second in the general (election)."

Some analysts point out that Schwarz, a moderate who wants to focus on issues like transportation, agriculture and bringing back jobs to this southern tier district, didn't quite win a ringing mandate. He received 28 percent and won two counties. The four other leading candidates, who purposefully ran on a more conservative agenda, split the rest of the vote.

Smith received 22 percent and won two counties. Former state Reps. Tim Walberg, Clark Bisbee and Gene DeRossett got 18 percent, 14 percent and 11 percent respectively, and each won a county. Candidate Paul DeWeese received 7 percent of the vote.

"The conservative base vote was divided among multiple candidates and Schwarz was able to attract enough voters to win," said Gonzales.

"We had a winning strategy," said Schwarz. "We understood how we had to do it. We knew where the votes were; we went out and got the votes right away."

Schwarz still faces a handful of opponents in the November election who say they are going to take advantage of the fact that at least 70 percent of voters in the Republican primary voted for the more conservative guy.

Among those opponents is Democrat Sharon Renier (search), an organic farmer from Munith who said she has the conservative credentials to pick off these votes. She is a member of the National Rifle Association (search) and says she has a more fiscally conservative attitude than Schwarz.

"Joe Schwarz is like a liberal Republican and I'm like a conservative Democrat — it will be interesting to see how that washes out," said Renier, who is against the war in Iraq and believes "the country is going down the wrong direction."

Renier said she is not asking for big donations. With little cash, she has great name recognition and an army of volunteers. She beat her two other opponents in the Democratic primary by a margin of two to one in each county.

State Democrats say they hope her strategy of appealing to disaffected conservatives in the district, combined with what they say is a high level of excitement from Democratic voters in Michigan this year for the presidential election, will help tip the scales in their favor.

"It's going to be a hard-fought battle — but you never know with this election," said Jason Moon, communications director with the Michigan Democratic Party. He said Democrats' disenchantment with the president will hopefully drive them to the polls, and will ultimately buoy the down-ticket.

"I've never seen this amount of energy — an extreme amount of energy for the (John) Kerry campaign," he said of the Democratic presidential contender, "and against Bush policies and leadership."

Green Party candidate Jason Seagraves (search), who recently defected from the Democratic Party, said he too, is going after conservatives.

"Many disaffected conservatives will be unwilling to vote for Joe Schwarz and would never vote for a Democrat under any circumstances," he said recently.

But David Horn (search), the Constitution Party candidate, said he is convinced that conservatives in the district aren't going to turn to the Democrat or anyone left of center. He and Libertarian candidate Ken Proctor (search) will be representing the conservative spectrum in the race.

Horn said he is running for a stricter interpretation of the Constitution to keep judges from advancing pro-abortion agendas and to keep checks on the War on Terror.

"I think a lot of the people who voted in the Republican primary are not happy with the prospect of having Joe Schwarz as their congressman, and I think I have an opportunity to take advantage of that," he said.

But not everyone thinks a far-right candidate is the way to go for the 7th District, which has at least a 62 percent GOP advantage among registered voters and backed Bush over Gore 51 to 46 percent in 2000. Schwarz calls the 7th District a "slice of life," being rural, suburban and urban, and considering key issues ranging from farm subsidies and conservation to manufacturing jobs and state university tuition hikes.

Schwarz said these are the issues of concern. In the primary, "others confined their remarks wholly or almost wholly, to guns, gays and abortion, and I feel that was foolish, and that these are personal choice matters and my belief is that most people agree with that," he said of the district's voters.

Proctor, who ran in the 2002 race, said he fills a "special spot" by cutting across ideological lines.

"One of the things that I’ve always been there as a choice for people who  were not happy with the ways things are going and this time around I see myself as being even more so because there is so many things that people are not happy about," said Proctor, a Vietnam War veteran who is against the current war in Iraq. "Knowing that Mr. Schwarz is going to rubber stamp everything that Bush administration is doing, people are just not going to buy that this time around."