Michigan Rep. Fred Upton, who was one of the 10 Republicans that voted to impeach Donald Trump last year, announced Tuesday that he would not seek a 19th term this fall. Upton emailed his supporters that he believed “it is time to pass the torch,” though the person who will most likely be claiming that beacon in the new 4th Congressional District is his colleague and would-be primary foe, Trump-backed Rep. Bill Huizenga.
While it’s possible that Upton’s departure will entice someone else to run against Huizenga in the August GOP primary, they’d need to collect at least 1,000 valid signatures by the April 19 filing deadline. No notable Democrats have entered the race so far for the new version of the 4th, a southwestern Michigan seat Trump would have carried 51-47 in 2020.
Huizenga announced back in December right after the state’s new congressional maps were completed that he’d be seeking re-election in the new 4th, and he earned an endorsement from Trump last month. Upton, by contrast, spent months keeping the political world guessing whether he’d go up against Huizenga in the primary or retire, though until Tuesday, he’d sounded likely to run again. Upton in February even launched a $400,000 ad campaign where he told viewers, “If you want a rubber stamp as your congressman, I'm the wrong guy. But if you want someone committed to solving problems, putting policy over politics, then I'm asking for your support.”
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Upton, though, said he was still undecided about 2022, and his retirement announcement proves he wasn’t just playing coy. On Tuesday, he insisted that redistricting mattered more to him than any backlash from his impeachment vote, saying, “My district was cut like Zorro—three different ways.” However, it was Huizenga who, at least on paper, was more disadvantaged by the new map: While about two-thirds of the residents of the new 4th are currently Upton’s constituents, Huizenga represents only about one-quarter of the seat he’s now the frontrunner to claim.
Upton’s decision ends a long career in politics that began in the late 1970s when he started working for local Rep. David Stockman, and he remained on his staff when Stockman became Ronald Reagan’s first director of the Office of Management and Budget. Upton decided to seek elected office himself in 1986 when he launched a primary challenge to Rep. Mark Siljander, who had succeeded Stockman in the House in 1981, in an earlier version of the 4th District.
Siljander was an ardent social conservative well to the right of even Reagan: Among other things, he’d unsuccessfully tried to torpedo Sandra Day O’Connor’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1981 because he didn’t feel she was sufficiently conservative, and he even threatened to vote against the White House’s properties to try and stop O’Connor. Siljander, though, had taken just 58% of the vote in his 1984 primary, which showed that a significant number of primary voters were unhappy with him.
Upton argued that, while both he and Siljander were “conservative Republican[s],” the incumbent had ignored his constituents to focus on international issues. Upton, by contrast, argued that he’d work better with the party’s leadership and seek committee assignments that would allow him to direct his energies to domestic concerns. The race took a truly nasty turn late in the campaign when audio leaked of Siljander telling local clergy members to aid him in order to “break the back of Satan,” arguing that his loss “would send a shock wave across America that Christians can be defeated in Congress by impugning their integrity and smear tactics.”
Upton ended up dispatching the congressman 55-45, a wide result both sides attributed to Siljander’s comments. Upton’s team, while denying that the outcome represented a loss for the religious right, predicted, “Fred’s tactics will be much more moderate and more reasonable.” Upton easily prevailed in the general election and had no trouble winning for decades: Siljander, for his part, was last in the news in late 2020 when Trump pardoned what an angry Upton described as “a series of federal crimes including obstruction of justice, money laundering and lobbying for an international terrorist group with ties to Osama bin Laden, al-Qaida and the Taliban.”
Upton in 2002 easily turned back a primary challenge from state Sen. Dale Shugars 66-32 in what was now numbered the 6th District, but he was more vulnerable to an intra-party challenge in 2010 when the burgeoning tea party turned its wrath on the longtime establishment figure. His opponent was former state Rep. Jack Hoogendyk, who had badly failed to unseat Democratic Sen. Carl Levin two years before but argued that Upton was insufficiently conservative. The congressman outspent Hoogendyk by an 18-to-1 margin but prevailed only 57-43, which enticed Hoogendyk to try again in 2012.
However, while the anti-tax Club for Growth ran commercials this time against Upton, who by now was chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee, the incumbent worked hard to emphasize his opposition to the Obama administration and won by a larger 67-33 margin. That was the last time he faced a serious primary challenge at the ballot box, but in 2014 he went through his first expensive general election campaign when a law professor Larry Lessig directed his Mayday PAC, which he called his “super PAC to end super PACs,” against Upton.
Mayday spent over $2 million to aid a previously-unheralded Democrat named Paul Clements, and while Upton didn’t come close to losing in that red wave year, Democrats hoped his 56-40 showing meant he could be beaten in a better political climate. Clements sought a rematch in 2016, but Upton won by a 59-36 spread.
In 2018, though, he faced a considerably tougher battle against physician Matt Longjohn at a time when the GOP was on the defensive nationwide. Upton got some surprising help during that campaign when Joe Biden delivered a speech in his district that was paid in part by an Upton family foundation; Biden, who was apparently motivated to praise Upton because of the congressman's work on a bill called the 21st Century Cures Act, declared the congressman was "one of the finest guys I've ever worked with" and "the reason we're going to beat cancer." Ultimately, the congressman prevailed 50-46 in what was by far the closest race of his career.
Democrats hoped they could finally take him down in 2020, but Upton returned to form and beat state Rep. Jon Hoadley 56-40 as Trump was carrying his seat 51-47. Two months later, Upton responded to the Jan. 6 attack by voting for impeachment, a vote that arguably did more than anything else to close out his lengthy time in Congress.