Fighting Words

Tea Party Reindeer Farmer Faces Extinction

Elected unexpectedly after his opponent was caught forging signatures, Michigan Rep. Kerry Bentivolio now faces a better-funded, establishment-backed opponent. But he’s not going down without some fighting words.

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First-term Michigan Republican Kerry Bentivolio is lagging in the polls against David Trott, a self-funding foreclosure lawyer and party activist backed by the U.S Chamber of Commerce and Mitt Romney. Bentivolio is underfunded, has little national support and is still viewed as an “accidental Congressman” by many in Washington, a description that the incumbent deeply resents.

But the 62-year-old who had a varied career as a sergeant in the Army National Guard, an automotive designer, a teacher and a reindeer farmer won’t go down without a fight. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Bentivolio talked about the highly competitive August 5 primary in his suburban Detroit district and how he’s still adjusting to the realities of Washington.

In 2012, Bentivolio filed as a long-shot primary candidate to take on idiosyncratic five-term incumbent Thaddeus McCotter. McCotter, fresh off a long-shot presidential bid, was expected to cruise to victory. But it turned out that McCotter’s staffers had forged the signatures to get the congressman’s petition; he was thrown off the ballot in the Republican-leaning district, leaving Bentivolio as the default option. Now, the question is whether Bentivolio can win re-election against Trott and go from a reindeer-farming fluke to an established incumbent.

Bentivolio doesn’t like Trott. To him, the foreclosure attorney, who has put more than $2 million into his own campaign, is the embodiment of all that is wrong with politics. Bentivolio bristles at the fact that one of Trott’s selling points on the campaign trail is that he helped organize the largest Lincoln Day dinner in history for the Oakland County Republican Party. Bentivolio uses an analogy to the Revolutionary War to describe the race. Trott “reminds me of the British, the establishment order,” said the first-term Republican. “I represent the minutemen. He’s marching from Concord back to Boston, OK? He’s marching back and we’re picking him off as he goes.” Bentivolio noted that “at the end, [the British] did make it but they were decimated.” This time though, he says Trott won’t make it.

But a slightly more fatalistic attitude seems to show through the first-term congressman’s confidence. Unlike most politicians who always speak of “when I’m re-elected,” Bentivolio used the phrase “if” instead. He openly worried about the chances for Republicans to keep the seat if Trott wins the primary. “If he wins, he’s not going to get the liberty vote, which I get, and a lot of middle-class Republicans are not going to vote,” Bentivolio said. One of those conservative voters who won’t cast a ballot for Trott is Bentivolio himself. “The lesser of two evils would be the Democrat, and I can’t vote for the Democrat, so I’ll go in and vote for Teri Lynn Land [the Republican nominee for Senate] and won’t fill in that space,” he said. “I just cannot in all honesty vote for someone who got his election by paying money and lying,” Bentivolio said. “That’s everything I’m against.”

In fact, Bentivolio seems to be particularly outraged about the role of money in politics—in particular, how he claims his opponent uses his personal wealth for political advantage. Bentivolio said many of his fellow congressmen tell him they will endorse him and donate to his campaign, but “every time that happens somebody gets to them and says, ‘Hey, could you stay out of it? Here’s a check.’” The result is that many of his colleagues are staying out of the race. In Bentivolio’s eyes, those who backed Trott or stayed out of the race in exchange for contributions represented the worst in politics. In fact, the Michigan congressman went so far as to liken them to Judas Iscariot.

Bentivolio does have some allies in on Capitol Hill. He said that Paul Ryan told him on the House floor that he would endorse Bentivolio and write him a check, and raved about how supportive Darrell Issa has been of his campaign. Bentivolio thinks so much of Issa that he believes the House Oversight Committee chairman “should have ran for president instead of Romney.” He also talked about how well supported he is, and how fellow Republican congressmen say they just want Trott’s money, not the man. In fact, Bentivolio obliquely referred to one member of leadership “who isn’t going to be a member any more” who explicitly told him he needed to win.

Bentivolio’s quirks also showed through. He contrasted his vices with those of other congressmen who drank or “snort coke or chase women.” Instead, the Michigan Republican said, “My only habit is that I’m a smoker.” He bragged about being “a tree hugger,” noting that, despite his opposition to the Obama administration's enviromental policies, he built “a solar earth home” in 1982. Bentivolio also emphasized his enjoyment of constituent service, noting that this favorite part of the job was just listening to those he represented and his joy of mixing with them—even when they were protesting against him or were just “way out there.” In his view, that interacting with constituents is “the greatest reward of” serving in Congress.

The result though led him down some strange paths. He described talking to a constituent who asked if “they are going to put those immigrants in the FEMA camps.” Bentivolio said that he had a responsibility to an obligation to that constituent regardless of how off-kilter they were, citing an the old classroom motto “There’s no such thing as a stupid question, except a question not asked.” In this case, he was at least willing to entertain the subject, noting “I don’t know if there are FEMA camps. How can I trust the government? They’re not telling the truth with the IRS or the EPA?”

But Bentivolio’s final pitch is more basic. After a tumultuous life that has ranged from serving in Vietnam to being a Santa Claus impersonator, he finally feels he’s found his calling on Capitol Hill. “I’d like to keep the job because I’m very good at it, I have never felt more comfortable, and more uncomfortable at times, in a job in my entire life.” On August 5, he’ll find out if the Republican voters in Michigan’s 11th District agree.