CANTON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — The race for a Michigan congressional seat once considered a Republican lock may now be up for grabs after GOP voters nominated the only candidate who managed to get on the ballot — a reindeer rancher some party officials have labeled as an extremist.
Kerry Bentivolio, who supported libertarian Ron Paul in the GOP presidential race, won the primary election Tuesday in the suburban Detroit district previously held by Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, who resigned abruptly last month after failing to gather enough valid petition signatures to qualify for the ballot.
Republicans had expected McCotter, a quirky congressman who mounted a quixotic presidential campaign last year, to win easy re-election, but his sudden downfall left the GOP scrambling to find a credible replacement.
Many local Republican leaders backed a write-in campaign by former state legislator Nancy Cassis, but Bentivolio — who was already on the ballot — prevailed. In an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, he attributed his victory to "divine intervention" and acknowledged he had little hope of winning until McCotter bowed out.
"I decided to get my name on the ballot, if for nothing else, to have a soap box where I could lay out some of the problems we have in the Republican Party," said Bentivolio, a former teacher and Army veteran who served in Vietnam and later with the National Guard in Iraq. He described his primary victory as "a win for the average, middle-class American."
Democrats nominated Syed Taj, a physician and township trustee who trounced a Lyndon LaRouche supporter in the primary.
Strategists for both parties, who had seen the seat as a near-certain hold before McCotter's downfall, said the race could become a toss-up — even though the already Republican-leaning district became even more so after its boundaries were redrawn following the 2010 census.
Democrats pounced on pre-election statements by Republicans who described Bentivolio as outside the mainstream. Cassis labeled him "Krazy Kerry" after he played a role in a low-budget movie that explored a conspiracy theory around the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"Now after conspiring against him, establishment Republicans are stuck with Kerry Bentivolio, a candidate so bizarre and out of touch, it's unclear who beyond the extreme right wing would ever embrace him," said Haley Morris of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer said Republicans would have trouble uniting behind Bentivolio.
"There's open war in the Oakland County Republican Party," Brewer said. "Every establishment Republican in Oakland County attacked Bentivolio and said, 'We won't support this guy.' ... There's been return fire from the tea party folks."
Cassis issued a statement that congratulated Bentivolio and wished him well but stopped short of an endorsement. Some Republicans were closing ranks around their nominee, emphasizing his military background and support of limited government and lower taxes. "He's a common-sense conservative," state GOP spokesman Matt Frendewey said.
Before the election, Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson backed Cassis and criticized Bentivolio for positions such as advocating withdrawal of U.S. troops overseas. But Patterson said Wednesday that Bentvolio had won the primary "fair and square."
"I may not agree with all his views, but he's going to be the Republican nominee," Patterson said. "I'm a card-carrying Republican, and I'll support him."
Some GOP insiders may quietly sit out the race, while others may decide they have little choice but to back Bentivolio, said Tom Shields, a Lansing political operative. If he doesn't measure up during his first term, a more established candidate can challenge him in 2014, Shields said.
"Whoever wins that district, odds are he's one and done," he said. If Taj scores an upset, "you'd have Republicans coming out of the woodwork to run against him two years from now."
Bentivolio also may draw support from tea party and pro-Paul independent groups. Liberty for All, a political action committee based in Austin, Texas, spent $658,000 on a media blitz for Bentivolio, founder John Ramsey said.
Taj, 65, who practices internal medicine in Dearborn, said the district isn't as solidly Republican as some believe and could prove receptive to a moderate Democrat. He hopes to frame the race as between a right-wing extremist and a "forward thinking physician with a proven track record of success."
Frendewey said Taj was "a wealthy doctor" who favors putting health care in the hands of "bureaucrats in Washington."
AP reporter Henry C. Jackson in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.