Sunday, August 12, 2012

Fred Upton's Smear Campaign

This article reviews the 2012 Republican primary in the 6th Congressional district between Fred Upton and Jack Hoogendyk.


Fred Upton is an heir of the Whirlpool fortune, with a net worth somewhere around $16 million. He attended University of Michigan and received a degree in journalism. He then became a staffer for Republican Congressman David Stockman, who represented the heavily Republican "Hillsdale to Holland" 4th district. In 1981, President Reagan appointed Stockman director of the Office of Management and Budget, and Upton followed him to Washington. Following a falling-out with Reagan, Stockman left OMB in 1985 on bad terms, while Upton stayed as a staffer. Upton describes himself as a "Reagan Republican" based on this time in Washington.

Stockman was succeeded in Congress by staunch conservative Mark Siljander. In 1986, Upton ran in the primary against Siljander. Upton received campaign assistance from ultra-liberal democrat Congressman Howard Wolpe of the neighboring 3rd district. President Reagan endorsed Siljander, but Upton nonetheless won the primary 55-45 by distorting a mailing from Siljander to Christians in the district.

In 1992, redistricting carved up Wolpe's district, leaving Upton to represent the now-6th district, which has largely held its present form of Kalamazoo, St. Jospeh, Cass, Berrien, Van Buren, and part of Allegan Counties since then. Following the 1994 election, Upton co-founded the Republican Main Street Partnership, a group of Republicans in Congress dedicated to moving the party to the left.

Upton has won his general elections by large margins. He has faced several conservative primary challengers over the years.
  • 1990: defeated Ed Fredericks 63-37
  • 2002: defeated state senator Dale Shugars 66-32
  • 2010: defeated Jack Hoogendyk 57-43
  • 2012: defeated Jack Hoogendyk 67-33
According to a credible source, Upton blacklisted Shugars for several years after the 2002 election.

Jack Hoogendyk worked in business for many years, and then became the director of Alternatives crisis pregnancy center. In 1999, he ran for Mayor of Portage, narrowly losing to a moderate incumbent. In 2000, he defeated a liberal Republican incumbent for a seat on the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners. In 2002, he won a seat in the state house of representatives. He was reelected in 2004 and 2006; he also faced moderate primary challengers every year. He ran as a sacrificial lamb against Senator Carl Levin in 2008.


In 2010, Jack ran in the primary against Upton. Upton outspent Jack by $2 million to $62,000, but Jack nonetheless won a surprising 43% of the vote, thanks to grassroots support from Tea Party activists and a strong anti-incumbent sentiment. Upton did not mention Jack at all in his campaign and refused to debate him.

Following the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 2010, Upton was in line to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. His moderate record on energy issues, including sponsoring a bill to ban incandescent light bulbs, disturbed many national conservatives, who launched a campaign against Upton. These same national conservatives had not been involved in the 2010 campaign. Upton nonetheless won his chairmanship.


In early 2012, the Club for Growth, a group that supports fiscally conservative congressional candidates, launched several ads attacking Upton. It interviewed Jack and publicly encouraged him to challenge Upton again. Jack launched his second campaign sooner than the first. The Club for Growth ultimately never got involved in the race, citing a lack of resources.

Upton has always been a strong fundraiser, but his committee chairmanship supercharged his fundraising. While the final numbers are not yet in, Upton raised around $3 million and spent around $2 million. Jack raised and spent around $120,000, mostly from small donations.

Upton put his money to use, flooding the district with TV ads, radio ads, and mailers. He did not wait until campaigns usually begin, but began his barrage not long after Jack announced on January 17, 2012.

While Upton's mailers were primarily negative, many of his radio ads were positive. They hammered the following points.
In addition, Upton's supporters lauded his committee chairmanship. However, nobody ever explained how this would benefit either Michigan's 6th district or conservatives nationwide.


Most of Upton's mailers were negative attacks against Jack (see them here, here, and here). These attacks distorted Jack's voting record to accuse him of being a tax-and-spend big government politician. Quite a charge, considering Jack was twice named the most conservative legislator in Lansing. Here are the specific charges.
  • Jack "voted for Granholm's billion dollar stimulus", the model for Obama's stimulus plan. This refers to the "21st century jobs fund", which was funded by Michigan's tobacco settlement money. Jack voted AGAINST this bill on final passage. He had voted for the Republican alternative bill in the state house, introduced by then state rep, now Congressman Bill Huizinga, which passed the state house 103-1.
  • "voted to give special tax breaks to Hollywood fat cats". This bill was introduced by Republican Fulton Sheen and passed the state house UNANIMOUSLY. While broad-based tax cuts are preferable, the legislature had to compromise with Governor Granholm to get any tax cuts.
  • "Voted six times for Governor Granholm's revenue enhancements". Jack voted to institute withholding for an existing tax on casino winnings for out-of-state visitors. Michigan residents already had withholding on their casino winnings. These all passed nearly unanimously.
  • "and for higher taxes on gasoline" This bill extended an existing tax at a lower level to pay for cleaning up underground fuel tanks. Jack voted AGAINST this bill on final passage; he did vote for an earlier version.
  • "Voted twice for higher property taxes and for higher motel taxes" While on the county commission, Jack voted to extend an existing tax to pay for a new juvenile home, a project which both the Republican and democrat parties endorsed.
Notably, Upton never actually says that he disagrees with any of Jack's votes. It is doubtful that Upton would have voted the other way on any of them, as they all passed by overwhelming margins.

Upton later added two more bills to his smear campaign.
Beyond smearing Jack's voting record, Upton also tried to create a number of ethical controversies.

Upton supporters flooded local newspapers with letters supporting Upton and attacking Jack, using the talking points outlined above. One fellow sent the same letter to three different papers. Many of the letter-senders are or were part of the College Republicans at University of Michigan and Western Michigan University (how the mighty have fallen).

The largest circulation paper in the 6th district is the Kalamazoo Gazette, which is part of a group of papers whose hosted at a single website, Any time it ran a story about the race, a number of commenters would post comments praising Upton and attacking Jack using the points listed above. A little investigation identified 12 accounts that posted such comments almost exclusively; I dubbed them the "Upton trolls". In fact, nine of the accounts were created on January 17, the day that Jack announced he was running. Several of the accounts were subsequently deleted for violating Mlive's terms of use, while still others were created later.

One of the Upton trolls ventured over to, Michigan's leading conservative website, and posted a piece repeating many of the same smears. The regular contributors quickly tore it apart in the comments. A few days later, Upton sent out an email reproducing the piece and using RightMichigan's logo, but (unlike previous emails) with no link to the original piece.

In the 2010 campaign, Upton had avoided debating Jack at all. This time, he agreed to two debates. The first was on June 10, 2012 at Western Michigan University. The second was on July 3, 2012 on "the trifecta" on WKZO radio. Both candidates performed reasonably well. The moderators wasted a lot of time by asking questions for which it was known that the candidates agreed. Nonetheless, two things were notable by their absence.

First, Upton never mentioned any of the smears in his mailers. In a debate, Jack would have had a chance to respond.

Second, Upton never responded to any of Jack's criticisms of his record. Jack mentioned many of Upton's votes that he disagreed with, but Upton never defended or even acknowledged any of them. To my knowledge, Upton never defended these voted at any point in the campaign. The media never held him accountable.

One question on electoral history yielded a particularly error-filled response from Upton. Upton was asked if Jack was more conservative, and could he win. Upton dodged the fist question, and in response to the second, claimed the following.
There is no question that Upton's campaign was well-run. He made only two mistakes.

The Gazette endorsed Upton (as always). In the endorsement, they implied that Upton is a liar for claiming to be a conservative.

Upton and Jack both received a number of interest group endorsements. Upton tended to receive them from the establishment-oriented, Washington based groups, including the Chamber of Commerce and NRA. Jack's endorsements came mainly from anti-establishment grassroots groups such as Eagle Forum, Gun Owners of America, Madison Project,, Citizens for Traditional Values, iCaucus, Term Limits America, and RNC for life.

One particularly surprising endorsement for Upton was that of Michigan Right to Life. This is the first time in 14 runs for Congress that Upton received the endorsement. Upton has a long record of pro-abortion votes. How exactly Upton obtained this endorsement is unclear, but it may have something to do with his house committee chairmanship.

Not surprisingly, most local Republican politicians endorsed Upton. Jack did receive the endorsements of a few state legislators from elsewhere in Michigan. He also received endorsements from a few county commissioners within the 6th district.

One of them was Phil Stinchcomb, a Tea Party Republican elected in 2010. Right before the filing deadline (after making the endorsement) he received a primary challenge from 21-year-old Charles Bogren, recently the chairman of the Michigan Federation of College Republicans. According to my sources, Bogren was recruited to run by an employee of the Upton campaign. Bogren's campaign literature promoted the fact that he supported Upton, Stinchcomb supported Jack, and repeated many of the same smears about Jack detailed above. It isn't immediately clear whether it is legal to promote another candidate's campaign on your literature. In addition to trying to defeat a supporter of Jack, this may have been an attempt to discourage other local Republicans from opposing Upton in the future. Stinchcomb won the primary 61%-39%.

As in 2010, national conservatives were almost entirely absent from the campaign. When Upton was in line for his chairmanship, national conservatives including Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Human Events, Freedomworks and more lambasted Upton's long non-conservative record. Yet in 2012 almost all these groups were missing in action when Upton faced a serious primary challenge.


Consider this election from the perspective of an uninformed voter. You would hear many ads and see many mailers from Upton saying that he opposed Obamacare, supported the Keystone pipeline, opposed tax increases, supported spending cuts and less regulation, was pro-life and pro-gun. You'd also see lots of ads and mailers saying that Jack Hoogendyk supported stimulus, tax increases, and subsidies for Hollywood, didn't want to punish drunk drivers and sex offenders, and was a lobbyist who was constantly running for office. You saw these claims echoed without criticism in the media. Letters to the editor repeated the same claims. You heard a number of prominent local Republicans and some national conservative organizations endorse Upton. You got at most one piece of literature from Jack, and perhaps heard a radio ad or two.

Is it any wonder that Upton won? Or is it more amazing that despite all this, Jack Hoogendyk still got a third of the vote?

This election was not a defeat for conservative philosophy. Upton took conservative positions on everything! He certainly never mentioned his long, non-conservative record.

Of course, it was a defeat for truth. You can tell a lot of lies with two million dollars.

Over the summer of 2012, we have seen that conservatives can win major victories when national conservative organizations, pundits, and elected officials focus their efforts on a race. This was true for Richard Mourdock over Dick Lugar in Indiana and Ted Cruz in Texas. Grassroots efforts weren't enough. A strong incumbent can overcome them with a lot of money and establishment support.

National conservatives who wonder how the 6th district keeps reelecting Fred Upton will find the answer staring back at them in the mirror.

No comments: