Missing: Voters’ voices in Rep. McCotter story

Michigan reporters should stop ceding their hometown advantage and dig in

MICHIGAN — Michigan political journalists have a big story on their hands: U.S. Rep. Thad McCotter, a five-term incumbent who made a brief run for the Republican presidential nomination last fall, abruptly dropped out of his re-election race over the weekend.

On May 26, McCotter announced that the state elections bureau had determined he did not have enough valid voter signatures to qualify for the August 7 primary ballot. For McCotter, a well-known figure in a heavily Republican district outside Detroit, the 1,000 required signatures could have been gathered in a couple afternoons at the local mall. But of the 1,833 signatures the campaign sent to Michigan’s Secretary of State, only 244 were found to be legitimate.

On May 29, McCotter wrote an op-ed in The Detroit News announcing a write-in campaign—even as the Attorney General launched a criminal investigation into the fraudulent signatures. But four days later, McCotter pulled out of the race altogether, which, according to the Detroit Free Press yesterday, will end his career in elective office.

Michigan journalists followed this story, the first rumblings of which came over Memorial Day weekend, with strong breaking news coverage. The Detroit News in particular did an excellent job examining McCotter’s 136 pages of submitted signatures, with Marisa Schultz first reporting on May 29 how few signatures were valid amidst a slew of photocopies and cut-and-pastes from McCotter’s 2010 ballot petition. Schultz quoted Chris Thomas, Michigan’s director of elections, “as he thumbed through the stack of petitions” declaring that such “overt copying is ‘frankly unheard of.’”

The local press followed up McCotter’s sudden weekend exit with solid reports on its reverberations. A Detroit Free Press article looked at how the congressman’s Republican allies were slow or unwilling to come to his defense, while The Detroit News gave attention to those making a run for an office that is now newly in play. (One GOP name is on the ballot—a veteran and teacher with Tea Party sympathies—but others are gearing up write-in campaigns. Two Democrats are on the ballot.) At least some national news outlets, like The Wall Street Journal and CNN, drew on local coverage in their McCotter reporting.

But in the ten days since this story first emerged, local media has given almost no attention to the perspectives of citizens in McCotter’s district—both those who voted for and against him over the years, and those who, because of recently redrawn borders, are new to him—ceding, in effect, their hometown advantage.

This is a shame. There are, yes, political consequences to the McCotter saga, but there are also real-life stakes for citizens here. What policies and practices led 11th District voters to send McCotter to Congress five times, anyway? Do they feel betrayed by him and his staff—particularly voters who donated heavily to his campaign? Are citizens concerned about how they will be represented by those now elbowing for his seat? From the media coverage so far, we don’t really know.

Where citizen voices are coming through a bit—whether or not they are actually residents of the 11th District—is in local news sites’ comment sections. While it is unusual for such comments to be particularly revelatory, the voices here that mourn or chastise McCotter fill something of the void left by the news coverage. The Facebook page for “The Craig Fahle Show” on WDET, Detroit’s NPR station, has also been a space for some of these voices to speak up. David Eggert, a reporter for mlive, has been an active participant in the comments section of his most recent McCotter piece. When one person asked, “Does this look like McCotter got stabbed in the back by someone on the inside of of (sic) his own party … ?,” Eggert responded: “Time will tell if he got stabbed in the back by someone within his own campaign or someone who was able to access his campaign …” (I wonder at the passive framing: time will tell? Not the reporters?)

Another gap in coverage has been a thorough look at what a write-in campaign could cost for the newly ambitious (and, in at least one case, newly announced) candidates for McCotter’s seat. Coverage has featured many references to the cost of a successful write-in campaign—mlive quoted one write-in candidate describing it as a “Herculean task,” while The Hill reported that McCotter’s write-in effort would be complicated by having “less than $200,000 in the bank for what will be an expensive primary.” Frequent media mentions of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s successful write-in campaign to secure her incumbency in 2010 did not mention that Murkowski had $3,416,929 in fundraising receipts, far more than the Republican or Democratic candidates on the ballot.

Michigan reporters have not yet fully crunched the numbers and examined the particularities of Michigan’s 11th District to make a reasonable estimate about what the GOP write-in candidates are facing. In a story that won’t be over until the primary on August 7, political journalists still have rich territory to explore.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.