Gary McDowell retired as a UPS driver in 2003, so you'd think he'd be driving less now. But McDowell, a Democrat running for Congress, is putting even more time on the road; 150,000 miles on his Ford Focus, many of them crisscrossing a sprawling northern Michigan House district as he campaigns for votes.
The race against surgeon Dan Benishek is considered a toss-up and has drawn ads paid for by the national party committees. Republicans and Republican-leaning groups have outspent Democrats there.
But McDowell believes his message of job creation and Social Security and Medicare preservation can win against a Tea Party-backed candidate whose positions McDowell calls "extreme, extreme out-of-mainstream."
McDowell's conservative social stances, like those of outgoing Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak, match his district. He has an NRA endorsement and shares support from Right to Life of Michigan with his opponent. McDowell says he is committed to working with Republicans.
Michigan's First Congressional district is vast, rural and conservative, and while President Obama won it in 2008, he did so with less than 50 percent of the vote. McDowell is in the same difficult position in which many Democrats find themselves during this angry, anti-incumbent political season, trying to hit just the right balance of support for government programs that constituents like, without opening himself to more attacks from a strongly anti-Washington Republican.
McDowell, 58, still works on a hay farm he owns with two of his brothers and has said government is not a bad thing across the board. Michiganders, he said, wanted certain services the government can provide.
"They want good roads, they want good schools, they want good health care, good public safety, and those are things that the government does collectively for all of us," McDowell said in an interview from one of his campaign offices in Gaylord, Mich.
"Of course, the government cannot get too intrusive, cannot start to control our lives. I want to find that right mix. I want government to be the right size, to work for us."
Meanwhile, 59 percent of Americans said that the federal government has "too much power," according to a Gallup poll released Wednesday.
A Fan of Social Security and Medicare
McDowell emphasized that he will work to sustain two government programs that, he said, are important to people in his district: Social Security and Medicare.
"Of all the 435 Congressional seats, this ranks No. 8 eight on the amount of people who are getting their benefit from Social Security," he said.
"And I pledged to maintain and protect Social Security, not just for this generation but for future generations. And my opponent has repeatedly and repeatedly stated that he's going to privatize and abolish Social Security and Medicare. And that's just so far out of the mainstream."
Opponent Benishek vehemently denied such accusations.
"That's simply not true," campaign spokesman Trent Benishek said. "Dr. Benishek has repeatedly said, 'Social Security is a promise made to those over the age of 62 by their government and it must be honored 100 percent.'"
Benishek, 58, is supported by Tea Party activists, although he won the Republican primary by only a tiny margin. Benishek is running on a conservative platform of minimalist government and received the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin Monday.
She called him "the kind of commonsense voice we need in Washington."
But McDowell does not seem impressed by the celebrity boost for his opponent. "I don't know what the impact will be," he said of Palin's endorsement. "Probably more from people outside the district, don't you think?"
In a web ad, Benishek says that he hears from the people of the first district that "they want less government in the their lives."
The Republican promises to cut spending, bring reform to Congress and repeal the Democratic health care overhaul.
McDowell, who was elected to the Michigan State Legislature in 2004, said it's too soon to judge many of the provisions in the health care law because they will not be implemented for years. But, he emphasized, the parts that have already gone into effect were a net positive.
GOP Outspends Democrats
"Insurance companies can't drop you when you get sick ... [and] if you have a child born with diabetes or epilepsy, now they will be covered," he said. "Keeping our children on until they are 26 years of age. Helping seniors cover that donut hole for prescription drugs. These are good. And these are what people want."
But, he said, work remains. "I know there is a lot of work to do on this bill," he said. "I know a lot of it probably won't work, needs to be corrected. And I want to be part of that. I want to make this work."
McDowell, who noted that he has been outspent by Benishek and his Republican-leaning allies in television ad buys, said he will win by campaigning harder and bringing a message of collaboration across the partisan divide.
Washington can only accomplish things "by coming together and working together to find common solutions that will bring us together. ... My logo is a bridge," McDowell said, "and a bridge connects people and brings people together. That's what I'm going to do."