Is Political Clock Ticking on John Dingell?

By Jim Burns | July 7, 2008 | 8:29pm EDT

( - Voters in Michigan go to the polls Tuesday to determine nominees for governor, Congress and various local and state offices. But the big question that has dominated Michigan politics is: will Democrat John Dingell, the longest serving member of the House of Representatives, survive an intra-party challenge?

The 76-year-old Dingell faces fellow Democrat Lynn Rivers in a primary match to determine who will represent the redrawn Michigan 15th Congressional district.

Dingell was first elected to the House in 1955 to succeed his late father, John Dingell, Sr and has never faced a serious challenge in his re-election bids.

He has been in Congress longer than his opponent Rivers has been alive. She was born in 1956.

The newly redrawn district stretches west from Dearborn, the blue collar, socially conservative Detroit suburb that is home to Ford Motor Company, to the liberal Ann Arbor that is home to the University of Michigan.

While in Congress, Dingell backed organized labor's agenda against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other trade deals. An avid outdoorsman, Dingell has mostly opposed gun control but did vote for the Brady Bill. Still, he has received the National Rifle Association's endorsement in his primary race against Rivers.

Dingell was the only Michigan Democrat to vote in favor of sending American troops to fight Iraqi forces in Operation Desert Storm.

Dingell has been ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee since 1995 and was the panel's chairman for 14 years before the Republicans gained control of the House.

Rivers was first elected to Congress in 1994 after serving in the Michigan House and on the Ann Arbor School Board.

Rivers is pro-abortion, even opposing a ban on partial birth abortion. She advocates more gun control and broader environmental regulation. Those issues, she says, separate her from Dingell.

Sarah Brady, head of the Brady Campaign against Gun Violence has been in Michigan campaigning for Rivers, who has also received endorsements from pro-abortion rights and environmental groups.

Rivers sits on the House Education and Workforce committee and the House Science Committee.

Some analysts say Ann Arbor could be Rivers' trump card in defeating Dingell. Other analysts think voter turnout among union members and women could be the key in determining who wins.

Dingell has received endorsements from both of Detroit's major newspapers, the News and Free Press. And even Rivers' hometown newspaper, the Ann Arbor News, endorsed Dingell last week.

Bill Ballenger, editor and publisher of "Inside Michigan Politics," a leading political journal in the Wolverine State, thinks Dingell's age could be a factor in the outcome.

"It's really an odd race. It gets down almost to the point where voters in that Democratic district may think: Why are we electing this guy who is 76 years old, has been there for almost half a century and has been in the minority for the last eight years?" Ballenger said, noting that Rivers has been in the House for only four terms and is 45 years old.

"Maybe they will decide that despite [Dingell's] legendary, illustrious career, it's time for a change and we ought to just vote for her," Ballenger said.

However, Charles Elder, a political science professor at Detroit's Wayne State University believes another factor besides age could work against Dingell.

"When that district was redrawn, it included more of Lynn Rivers' old district than Dingell's old district. As a consequence, that's what figured in her decision to take on the race and I think many people were surprised that she would take on John Dingell," said Elder.

During a recent debate in Detroit, Dingell cited the endorsements he has received from union workers, police agencies and chambers of commerce as proof of his effectiveness in Congress. He also said Rivers hasn't sponsored any legislation that has passed the Congress.

Rivers countered that her endorsements come from individual donors instead of big business and that voters relate to her own real-life struggles. Rivers had two children by the time she was 18.

Rivers also said her tougher stance on background checks for gun purchases set her apart from Dingell.

A recent independent poll showed Rivers leading Dingell, 46 to 45 percent.

The winner of the primary is virtually assured of the seat with Republicans mounting only token opposition in November.

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