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For Fred Upton, politics can be reduced to some pretty simple math: either you have the votes or you don’t.
It’s how the Michigan Republican got a massive update to health care regulations and mental health services to President Barack Obama for signature. It’s how he beat wave elections in his southwest Michigan district over and over again. And it’s why he so strongly spoke out against Donald Trump’s influence on the GOP, even as Upton voted with Trump’s legislation almost 80% of the time.
“We’re not going to win unless we’re a big tent. And we’re not going to win unless we add to our base, not subtract from it,” he said last year, urging his fellow Republicans not to chase the bogus claims of election fraud embedded in Trump’s Big Lie.
Well, the Reagan Administration aide and 18-term Congressman did the math this week and came to a decision with a Midwestern sensibility. On Tuesday, the long-serving Republican took the floor of the House, where he first walked as a Hill staffer in 1976, and announced he wouldn’t run for another term. With visible emotion, one of the last members of the disbanded Main Street Coalition of moderates started the process of winding down a remarkable political career that made him the only lawmaker in history to have voted to impeach two different Presidents.
“Even the best stories have a last chapter. This is it for me,” Upton said. “Hopefully civility and bipartisanship versus discord can rule and not rue the day.”
Naturally, Trump claimed Upton’s as his political scalp. The 45th President had endorsed another candidate in the primary against Upton in retribution for Upton’s vote to impeach him in the 2021 probe that focused on his role in the failed Jan. 6 insurrection. Upton found himself one of the lone voices trying to warn colleagues that their fealty to Trump was not just bad for the country but also bad for their long-term political ambitions.
But the math back home probably had more to do with Upton’s choice than anything Trump could menace. While Upton remains well liked in his Kalamazoo district—neighbors simply call him “Fred” after such a long tenure—his home turf got cut in a tricky way after the 2020 Census. His district got mashed up with the Grand Rapids-based neighboring district, where incumbent Republican Bill Huizenga is running for another term with Trump’s endorsement. To run again, Upton would have had to campaign against Huizenga.
Upton may well have survived a primary. His Rolodex is ripe after so long in Washington and money wasn’t an issue; he started the year with about $1.5 million banked in his campaign account. Even as late as Monday, he was sounding very much like a candidate during an interview with NBC News on Capitol Hill. “If we run, we’re going to run my own race. I’m not changing,” he said. “If we’re going to be in the majority, we have to appeal to more than just the Trump voter. They’re not a majority in the country. They may be a majority in our party.”
But being a Trump nemesis in the Republican Party can be a grueling hell. A day later, Upton had revisited the political math. He now becomes the fourth Republican who voted against Trump during his second impeachment to decline to seek re-election, and Trump is working to defeat the other six.
Upton’s not alone in confronting a new reality from redistricting chaos. Michigan’s bipartisan redistricting effort faced a real challenge in redrawing lines in a fair way to deal with the loss of one House seat because the state didn’t grow as quickly as places like Texas. Michigan’s new lines are forcing Rep. Debbie Dingell to move from Dearborn to Ann Arbor to stay in Congress. Rep. Haley Stevens plans to move and switch districts, too. Yet to their credit, Michigan’s team actually got the maps approved before the deadline, unlike Ohio, where mapmakers are trying to convince the state Supreme Court they shouldn’t be held in contempt over gerrymandered district lines. And in New Hampshire, Florida, and Missouri—among others—the maps aren’t even drawn yet for incumbents to know if they need to ditch fundraisers in favor of real estate open houses.
Democrats have long eyed the Upton district as winnable. But Upton proved durable in a district he knows well. He refused to drink the Trump Kool-Aid and kept his bipartisan credentials at the fore. In 2018, a year when Republicans nationwide took a walloping, Upton ran an aggressive campaign in his district and actually ran ahead of Republicans’ voter-registration advantage there. In other words, despite massive headwinds, he still outperformed. (The fact the Economic Club of Southwest Michigan paid Biden $200,000 to speak at an event in the district three weeks before Election Day 2018 didn’t hurt, either; Biden called Upton “one of the finest guys I’ve ever worked with” at the event, funded in part through an Upton family foundation.)
That’s the thing about Upton, a buttoned-down, old-school politician who used a friendship forged at a Bible study to recruit a Democratic partner in crafting a bipartisan health care agenda in 2016. Even as Upton railed against Obamacare and did everything in his power to dismantle it, he also recognized the way the country approves new treatments and treats mental health and addiction could use an update. Through hard work and aggressive courtship, Upton managed to deliver one of the last legislative compromises of the Obama era—one that paved the way for fast-track vaccine development during the COVID-19 crisis.
Upton stood united with Republicans during Trump’s first impeachment, the one over the President’s withholding of foreign aid to Ukraine unless that country delivered dirt on the Biden family. But the Jan. 6-based sequel was too much for Upton, who watched the mob march from his office’s Capitol Hill balcony. Upton voted to certify the results of the election, including Trump’s loss in Michigan, and later voted to impeach Trump.
More recently, he was among a handful of Republicans who backed Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure plan. For reporters, Upton played the death threats that followed.
“I have no second thoughts or regrets about the votes that I’ve cast, whether it be for the Jan. 6 commission to get to the bottom of it, whether it was impeachment. He said he did everything totally appropriate. I disagree, and the facts will come out when the report is done,” Upton told reporters just off the House floor on Tuesday.
The dean of Michigan’s House delegation, Upton is liked across the aisle—so much so that Rep. Dingell made a point of being the first Democrat to speak on the floor after Upton announced his retirement. The pair is about as politically different as can be, but she noted the two never made their disagreements personal. After all, she said, Upton was among her late husband’s best friends in Congress.
Now, it’s likely the redrawn district will have its voice in Washington coming from a figure elected during the Tea Party wave of 2010 and probably returning to D.C. with a blessing by the former—and perhaps future—President. Upton’s brand of compromise was already a fleeting quality in Washington. It might deserve to have its status updated to endangered.
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