Updated, 3:50 p.m.
During the press conference at which he announced he will not run for re-election, Bart Stupak made only passing allusion to the hailstorm of controversy he’s endured since voting for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. The nine-term incumbent said his decision was spurred by a desire to spend more time with his family after passing legislation he framed as a capstone to his career. Flanked by his wife, Stupak noted that when he was elected to Congress 18 years ago, he pledged to secure health-care reform for his constituents, and he devoted much of his podium time on Friday to extolling the bill’s benefits. In a post to his blog, the Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza writes that sources “describe him as burned out from the long fight over health care,” which is perfectly understandable. Recall that just weeks ago, before the honor was stripped as retribution for his health care vote, Stupak was to be the recipient of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List’s “Defender of Life” award. For a committed anti-abortion lawmaker who was often marginalized within his party for this stance, being vilified as a “baby killer” and caricatured as a pro-choice poster boy and Pelosi stooge can only be incredibly galling.
And yet, despite Stupak’s statement that he bowed out now to provide Democratic congressional hopefuls “ample opportunity” to consider mounting a bid for his seat before the May 11 filing deadline, the timing of the decision burnishes claims that Stupak capitulated in the face of virulent opposition. In the aftermath of the health care vote, Tea Party groups zeroed in on Stupak as one of their primary targets, pouring into his sprawling district for protests and sinking $250,000 into ad buys calling for his ouster. “The story is going to be that the Tea Party has claimed its first big scalp after the health care reform vote,” says Bill Ballenger, editor of Inside Michigan Politics. “There’s no Democrat in the country who would be more of a poster child for Democrats throwing in the towel in a tough environment than Stupak. This is going to be huge.”
Opponents’ reactions were predictably gleeful. Tea Party Express political director Bryan Shroyer issued the following statement:
“The surprising announcement that Congressman Bart Stupak is abandoning his campaign for re-election shows the power of the tea party movement. Stupak was not longer able to hide his betrayal of conservative principles because the tea party movement was determined to educate the voters in his district of his vote of betrayal for Obamacare.
“During the past few weeks the Tea Party Expresss put together a formidable campaign to defeat Bart Stupak. Two days ago we began a $250,000 TV and radio ad blitz. For weeks we’ve been organizing tea party rallies specifically targeting Stupak for defeat.
“Last night in Ironwood, MI, some 400+ people turned out for a rally against Stupak, which is almost 10% of the city’s population. We are currently en route to Escanaba, MI, where a giant rally is planned.
“People in this district are furious with Bart Stupak. He betrayed his constituents and his own principles. Those who helped him win electoral victories of more than 60% in the past were now working to defeat him.
“There has not been a similar national push in the Upper Peninsula and Northern Lower Michigan as is currently underway by the Tea Party Express. This effort is historic, and it has been possible because of the disgust voters have towards Stupak’s betrayal of those he was supposed to represent.
“Just as Scott Brown was propelled to victory in the U.S. Senate thanks to the Tea Party movement, now Bart Stupak appears to have succumbed to the movement’s strength as well.
“Our movement is real – it is not Astroturf, and we’re not going away. November 2010, here we come!”
For their part, the National Republican Congressional Committee hailed Stupak’s decision as a harbinger of the difficulties Democrats will face in the fall. “The political fallout over the Democrats’ government takeover of health care has put the political careers of many Democrats in jeopardy thanks in part to Stupak’s decision to abandon his alleged pro-life principles,” said Ken Spain, the NRCC’s communications director.
Ballenger notes Stupak’s retirement forces the party to parry a powerful Republican challenge in a district it would have been likely to hold, if largely because of the advantages incumbents possess while campaigning in a district as vast as Michigan’s First, which encompasses the state’s entire Upper Peninsula and parts of the Lower Peninsula. “Stupak didn’t walk on water,” he says, but “it’s impossible to beat an incumbent in that district. This is the second biggest land-mass district east of the Mississippi, and there’s no central media market.”
In addition to Dan Benishek, a surgeon whose swelling war chest has been a beneficiary of anti-Stupak sentiment, Ballenger says Jason Allen, a state senator from Traverse City, could be a Republican contender, in part because his district – the 37th – is favorably situated near the nexus of the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Ballenger also mentioned Tom Casperson, who Stupak trounced in 2008. “God knows who the Democrats may nominate,” he says, but he warns against running Connie Saltonstall, the Charlevoix County Commissioner and a progressive Democrat who positioned herself as an abortion-rights challenger to Stupak. “If she’s the nominee, I’d say for sure the Republicans win the seat,” says Ballenger. “That’s almost a joke.”
Democratic Congressman Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, Stupak’s roommate and closest friend in the House, flatly rejects the suggestion that opposition to Stupak’s health care vote contributed to his decision not to seek re-election. “I know Bart would have been re-elected,” he tells me. “People know who he is, and a bunch of outsiders coming in yelling and screaming wasn’t going to change that.” Of the Tea Party Express claim that the timing of Stupak’s resignation reflects the group’s growing clout, Doyle says: “They’re completely irrelevant in one’s decision-making…If he left a week ago, they’d say they drove him out. If he left during the campaign, they’d say they drove him out. They’re gonna say what they’re gonna say. There’s no way to stop that. I don’t think Bart’s going to run his life based on what groups say or think.”
Doyle says that in a lengthy recent conversation, Stupak cited both health care reform’s passage and family considerations as reasons he was contemplating stepping aside. “It was just cumulative. This health care thing didn’t force him to quit,” he says. One of Stupak’s sons committed suicide in 2000, another recently moved to California, and Doyle says Stupak was both eager to spend more time with his wife — who has been the target of threats in the past several weeks — and weary of the campaign grind, which requires constant canvassing across a sprawling district. “I think a lot of people don’t realize it’s a tough, tough grind in a huge district like Bart’s,” he says. And while it may not have been a factor in the decision, escaping the torrent of criticism must have been appealing. “We all have thick skin,” he says. “We understand what kind of job we have, and that things can get tough…[still], the death threats, the calls to his wife…you shouldn’t have to take your phone off the hook or change your number every month. What was done to him on the left and the right was unfair.”