Running for First: Marine Corps general shakes up race in 1st Congressional

Mar 23, 2016

Lt. Gen. John W. Bergman

There’s a new Republican in the race for northern Michigan’s seat in U.S. Congress — a former three-star general named Jack Bergman. The retired Marine Corps officer says he will soon officially register to run in the competitive 1st Congressional District.

“Marines don’t come to just kind of finish second,” Bergman says. “Marines come to win.”

Bergman is a political unknown, but he’s running in a district - and in an election year - when an outsider could have success.


‘I’m a leader’

This is the first time Jack Bergman has ever run for political office. He retired from the Marine Corps in 2009. Bergman lives in a small town in the western Upper Peninsula called Watersmeet, just a handful of miles from the Wisconsin border.

He says voters should take a look at him in the primary if they are sick of the way things work in Washington.

“I’m a leader,” Bergman says. “The kind of person that you want to fight for you whether it means fighting with arms which I did as a Marine, or fighting the battles of decision-making in our country that need to be done.”

Bergman is entering a Republican primary field that includes two political heavyweights: state Sen. Tom Casperson and former state legislator Jason Allen.

Both Casperson and Allen have run for this House seat before. Both lost, but they have decades of experience between them in electoral politics.

Bergman has been touring the district for several weeks, speaking with voters and collecting signatures to get his name on the primary ballot this August.

He is touting himself as a bona fide conservative. Bergman says reining in spending would be his top priority as a congressman.

“The debt that our country is saddling our grandchildren with is insurmountable,” Bergman says. “When you combine that with the safety and security issues that our country is facing, we need to send a different type of person to Washington D.C.”

Outsider candidates

The Republican primary doesn’t have any other candidates running as conservative outsiders right now.

Susan Demas, the editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, says Tom Casperson and Jason Allen are both establishment figures who have more moderate voting records in the state legislature.

Demas says there is room for somebody like Bergman to do well.

“You’re seeing in the Republican presidential race that anti-establishment candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have really dominated the process,” Demas says. “And conservative voters often make up a majority of the Republican primary electorate.”

Jack Bergman’s decorated military record also makes him a unique candidate, Demas says.

But he does have some challenges.

Demas says not many voters in the district know who he is right now. He will have to work on that quickly, as Casperson and Allen are already well-known.

“It’s not clear at the moment how Bergman’s entry might affect the other candidates levels of support,” Demas says.

‘Nobody knows who he is’

It was only six years ago when another outsider candidate shocked Republicans in the 1st Congressional District. That was Rep. Dan Benishek, who was a political novice when he edged Jason Allen in the 2010 Republican primary.

And with the success of outsiders like Donald Trump in national politics, perhaps 2016 is setting up to be a year like 2010 in the 1st District.

But not everyone thinks Bergman would cash in.

“Jack Bergman is no Donald Trump,” Dennis Lennox, a political consultant, says. “Nobody knows who he is.”

Lennox doesn’t think Bergman will have much of an impact on the race. He says Bergman is strong on paper but will need to get his name out there — and that will take a lot of money.

“If you’re going to run a serious campaign in a competitive primary, let alone eventually the general election, you’re going to need at least $250,000 to be competitive in the primary,” Lennox says, “and I suspect closer to $500,000 to actually win this race.”

Lennox says Bergman’s opponents are experienced fundraisers. For example, it took Tom Casperson just two months to raise more than $150,000.

It’s unknown what kind of fundraiser Bergman is. What we do know is that federal law stipulates that you have 15 days to file as a candidate once you raise $5,000 or spend $5,000. And Bergman says he only recently entered that 15-day window.

Dennis Lennox is skeptical Bergman will be able to raise enough cash. He says campaigning in this district costs a lot because of its size.

“This is 31 counties, two time zones,” Lennox says. “TV markets in Traverse City and Marquette, Green Bay and even Duluth if you really want to buy media —  as well as even the Saginaw-area for that sunrise part of the state.”

Lennox admits that Bergman could surprise in this race. He says four months is an eternity in the political world.

The Republican primary election is August 2.