LANSING, Michigan — State Democratic Party Chairman Lon Johnson will step down and run against Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek in the 1st Congressional District, a competitive northern Michigan seat that Democrats hope to swing in their favor with increased Democratic turnout in the 2016 presidential election.
The 44-year-old Johnson, whose resignation is effective July 11 when a new leader is expected to be picked, has headed the party since 2013 and has a residence in Kalkaska County east of Traverse City. He unsuccessfully ran for a state House seat in 2012 after working for a private equity firm and in politics — with stops at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and former U.S. Rep. John Dingell's campaign.
Emphasizing that his family has "five generations of northern Michigan history," Johnson said in a statement that he would focus on "investing in and protecting our three greatest resources: our people, our land and our Great Lakes." He formally launched his candidacy at the Marquette County Democrats' summer picnic in Ishpeming on Thursday.
The sprawling 1st District includes the entire Upper Peninsula and all or part of 17 counties in the northern Lower Peninsula.
Democrats recently accused the 63-year-old Benishek, a former surgeon who won election in 2010, of violating a pledge to not seek re-election for a fourth two-year term. In 2010, he criticized "career" politicians and favored term limits, saying "three terms and you're retired seems about right to me."
The GOP pointed to Johnson's past work for Democratic candidates and a liberal political group while noting he does not live in the district full time. His wife, Julianna Smoot, is a top Democratic fundraiser who was President Barack Obama's deputy re-election campaign manager.
Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel called Johnson a "Lansing insider" who would be too liberal for the district. Benishek campaign spokesman Ted Prill said he is focused on helping veterans and growing the economy by stopping Obama's "burdensome" regulations.
Benishek defeated Jerry Cannon 52 percent to 45 percent in November. In 2012, when Democratic turnout was higher, he won by fewer than 1,900 votes, a 0.5-percentage point margin.
Democratic state Rep. Brandon Dillon of Grand Rapids said Thursday that he wants to become the next party chairman. Veteran Democratic operative Lavora Barnes, Oakland County's deputy clerk and register of deeds, would assume a high-ranking party job, too, in the transition.
"I have an interest in working with Lavora to bring a strong partnership to the MDP that we both think could be beneficial to the party," he said.
Dillon, who cannot seek re-election to the Michigan House because of term limits, said it would be "very presumptuous" to say if he would resign his lawmaking job after becoming the party leader.
Associated Press writer Alisha Green in Lansing contributed to this report.
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