How he did it

By Susan J. Demas
Jackson Citizen Patriot

Tim Walberg warms up a Jackson crowd like the folksy preacher he is, working the microphone like it’s an extension of himself.

Sporting a William H. Macy hangdog look, he revels in spinning his story. There’s Sue, his wife of 32 years, his blue-collar upbringing on the mean streets near Chicago and the values of his industrious immigrant grandparents.

“From SVEE-den,” he tells a group at Gilbert’s Steak House, with perfect Scandinavian pitch.
It’s all about the personal touch.

Walberg, 55, has pressed enough flesh, dialed enough phones and kissed enough babies throughout the 7th District to deserve an elbow brace after his decisive win Tuesday over U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz in the GOP primary.

“It’s all been worth it,” the former state lawmaker said this week, a sated smile spread across his face.

He is a consummate campaigner. That helped put him over the top, experts say. “Walberg enjoys campaigning,” said Craig Ruff, senior fellow with Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants. “One never gets the sense that Joe Schwarz does. He enjoys governing.”

Ed Sarpolus, pollster for EPIC/MRA, said Schwarz deserves the blame for not running an effective grassroots campaign, a la Walberg.

“(Schwarz) was not visible in the district. He wasn’t everywhere he should be,” Sarpolus said. “Tim Walberg was.”

Now Walberg’s name is known nationwide. Analysts hail the defeats of Schwarz, R-Battle Creek, and Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., as the death knell for moderates in both parties.
“This was a statement race,” agreed Walberg campaign chief Joe Wicks. “I think it does raise Tim’s profile in Washington.”

In the GOP-stronghold district, the smart money in November is on Walberg against Democrat Sharon Renier, a Munith organic farmer.

Money and morals

Campaigning counts, but other reasons abound for the Tipton pastor’s Republican primary rout. Analysts sum it up in five words:

Money. Abortion. Gays. The base.

Clocking in at more than $3 million, the race smashed campaign spending records for a Michigan congressional primary.

The biggest player was Club for Growth, a Washington-based lobby pushing for a flat sales tax and privatizing Social Security.

The conservative group pumped more than $1 million into Walberg’s victory — its biggest advertising investment this year.

Many of the district’s almost 500,000 voters wouldn’t have known Walberg’s face otherwise.
“This seat was bought and paid for by out-of-state money,” said Matt Marsden, Schwarz’s chief of staff.

“There’s an element to that,” said Rich Robinson, Michigan Campaign Finance Network executive director. “But I have to believe the voters picked who they’re most comfortable with.”

Club for Growth has racked up a 9-2 record this election cycle.

Executive Director David Keating says the nonprofit group is just good at getting the message out, noting Schwarz outspent Walberg 2 to 1.

“It would be nice if we could buy a seat,” Keating said. “But it’s impossible, of course.” What Walberg’s marketing machine did do was whip up the Christian-conservative base.
Since November, he has beaten the drum on hot-button social issues.

“I am 100 percent pro-life,” Walberg has told crowds from Coldwater to Columbia Township. “I believe in traditional marriage: one man, one woman.”

The base responded — and how. Walberg trounced Schwarz 2 to 1 in Hillsdale and Lenawee counties.

That proved insurmountable for the incumbent when only 17 percent of voters turned out. When Schwarz went on TV to concede the race, his voice was drowned out at Walberg’s victory bash at Daryl’s Downtown.

Shouted supporters: “Praise the Lord!”

Political priorities

Walberg has done this before.

Almost a quarter-century ago, the then-31-year-old minister knocked off moderate James Hadden, R-Adrian, in the 1982 state House primary. Walberg went on to serve 16 years in Lansing.

“My opponent was the odds-on favorite with the backing of Gov. (William) Milliken and the party leadership,” Walberg recalled.

Ken Brock went toe-to-toe with Walberg while working on the campaign of his 1988 foe, former state Sen. Jim Berryman, D-Adrian.

“Tim doesn’t pull any punches. He’s willing to fight it out and doesn’t hesitate to go negative,” said Brock, now chief of staff for state Sen. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek. “But he seems like a nice guy you wouldn’t mind having a burger with.”

If he heads to Washington, Walberg said he’ll have a laser-like focus on slashing spending and taxes. That’s how he’ll help spur job growth in Michigan and across the country, Wicks said. His boss’ dream job is on the Ways and Means Committee.

Not everyone is convinced Walberg will deliver for the district as a tight-fisted conservative in the mold of former U.S. Rep. Nick Smith, R-Addison.

“I think the people in the district lost,” said former state Rep. Clark Bisbee, R-Jackson, who ran against Schwarz and Walberg in 2004. He backed Schwarz this year.

“You have someone who all they care about is balancing the budget, even if the district goes to hell.”

Walberg demurs when asked how long he’d like to spend in Washington if elected, vowing to “serve as long as there’s fire in my belly.”

But he does plan to take time outside the Beltway, tooling around on a new motorcycle.
So, is that a metaphor for Walberg’s ideology?

He laughs softly: “I guess it is.”

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