When House Democrats passed Obamacare in March, Speaker Nancy Pelosi gave special credit to Michigan Rep. John Dingell. For good reason: The 84-year-old lawmaker is the embodiment of the party's long quest to establish national health care. Dingell's father, first elected to Congress in 1932, tried but failed to achieve the goal, and his son, who took the seat when the elder Dingell died in 1955, has pursued it in each of his 55 years in the House.
Now, his life's ambition realized, Dingell might soon be out of a job.
For the first time in memory, Dingell is facing a tough Republican challenger. Rob Steele, a 52-year-old Ann Arbor cardiologist who has never run for political office, has a chance to knock off one of the Democratic Party's biggest names.
Steele was appalled last year as he watched Dingell and other members of Congress spend unheard-of sums of money, often without reading the bills they voted on. And Steele found that he wasn't alone. “I have practiced in this district for 25 years,” he says. “My polling, so to speak, is talking to people all day long. I've never before heard what I was hearing in the office. People were saying, 'Get rid of these guys.' “
Maybe voters really are ready for a change, Steele thought. And hadn't House Democrats already muscled Dingell out of his powerful post as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee? A Chairman Dingell would have been too daunting a challenge, but things have changed. Add the sense that Dingell has simply stayed on too long — Steele often points out that the United States had just 48 states when Dingell first took office — and Dingell looked weak.
Steele mentioned the idea to a friend, Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, who represents Michigan's nearby 8th District. Rogers thought he was joking. Steele said no, he was serious. A few days later, Steele got a call from House Republican re-election chief Rep. Pete Sessions, asking him to come to the GOP “candidate school” in Washington. Steele was in the race.
When people hear Steele is a doctor, they assume he's running because he opposes Obamacare. He does, but that's not why he got in. “The real thing was the insane spending,” Steele says. “The Detroit News approached me and said, 'You must be running on the health care bill.' And I said, 'No, I'm running on the spending.' ” As Steele sees it, passing Obamacare just made a bad situation worse.
Steele won the Republican primary in early August. Later that month, he commissioned a poll that found Dingell leading by a 51-42 margin, with Steele ahead among independents. The survey also found that only 37 percent said Dingell deserves to be re-elected. “Dingell is vulnerable,” pollster Neil Newhouse told Steele. “Voters are seeking an alternative.”
A more recent poll, by the Detroit News, found Steele behind by 19 points but also showed a large number of voters ready to give someone new a chance.
Dingell knows his lead might not be insurmountable in this volatile election season, and he recently sent a note to supporters asking them to ramp up their contributions. “My opponent is running with the tea party and he claims he will invest his quite substantial personal fortune in his effort to defeat me,” Dingell wrote. “He is running around with a poll showing that I am vulnerable.”
Dingell has also made a commercial styling himself as “America's watchdog.” The ad credits Dingell with “cracking down on Medicare waste, holding BP, not taxpayers, accountable, [and] keeping tainted food off the shelves.” It doesn't mention national health care.
It does, however, target “millionaire Rob Steele,” calling him “Wall Street's yes man” who threatens Social Security and sends jobs overseas. You would think Steele was Gordon Gekko rather than a well-respected heart specialist.
Just for the record: Steele has done well in medicine; he is a co-founder of Michigan Heart PC, a firm with 35 cardiologists and about 300 employees. On the other hand, Dingell has done well as a lawmaker. Last November, the Detroit News reported that Dingell is the wealthiest member of the Michigan delegation, with a net worth of about $2.6 million — a figure that does not include the assets of his heiress wife Debbie, who has done well as a Washington lobbyist.
If there is any lesson in recent elections, it is that no incumbent is safe. And that includes the man who has served in Congress longer than anyone in history.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.