TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Shortly after newly elected Rep. Dan Benishek arrived in Washington, staffers raised a banner that proclaimed to visitors in his Capitol Hill suite: "If you are here to ask for more money, you're in the wrong office!"
The message was fitting for a tea party favorite who had railed against federal spending and a "nanny-state mentality" during the 2010 campaign that led to a Republican takeover of the House. But it was something new for his constituents in northern Michigan, a largely rural area where a spirit of self-reliance coexists with the reality that government – popular or not – is a crucial economic player.
For decades, Michigan's 1st Congressional District elected representatives who sided with conservatives on social issues like abortion while energetically seeking federal dollars for local projects – most recently Bart Stupak, a Democrat who retired after nine terms.
But Benishek aimed to fully embrace the conservative ideal. And now after two years in office, he finds himself in an unusual predicament, a politician taking heat for staying true to his campaign rhetoric rather than failing to do so. Whether he wins a second term will offer clues about how well the less-government-is-better philosophy actually plays out in the countryside and small towns where the staunchly conservative movement has flourished.
He isn't the only tea party freshman caught between the cut-government philosophy and the expectations of constituents. First-term Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle is in a close rematch with Democrat Dan Maffei in western New York. Republican Reps. Bobby Schilling of Illinois and Allen West in Florida are also fighting for their seats.
Benishek, a political newcomer and plainspoken surgeon from Michigan's Upper Peninsula town of Crystal Falls, has experienced a sometimes rocky first term punctuated by awkward meetings with constituents, conflicting attitudes and strained attempts to find common ground between the sharp edges of ideology and the practical demands of public service.
He created hard feelings by voting to phase out federal subsidies for airlines serving small airports, even though they benefited six airports in his territory. He jolted local development officials by refusing to support continuing a federal scholarship program for student-athletes at an Olympic training center that began in the 1990s.
Some local leaders grumbled that he showed little interest in them or in tackling problems that weren't on the tea party's national agenda.
"They are sick of Benishek," Larry Inman, a Grand Traverse County commissioner, told the Traverse City Record-Eagle in January after being recruited to challenge Benishek in the next primary election. Shortly afterward, the two made peace. And the freshman politician has raised his profile in the district, but the complaints may have taken a toll.
He won by a double-digit margin two years ago. But his rematch with former Democratic state legislator Gary McDowell is considered among the tightest House races. State and national organizations are pumping money into the contest.
"We're very excited about prospects of beating Dan Benishek," Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer said.
Benishek, 60, acknowledges his first term has been a learning process. But he says he's done more on local issues than many realize, including sponsoring a measure that will boost logging of national forests in his territory. He's toured the district for gatherings dubbed "house calls with Dr. Dan."
People back home want their share of federal money but also want the federal deficit brought under control, he says.
"Northern Michigan elected me to reduce federal spending and ensure that our children and grandchildren have the same opportunity for the American dream that we had growing up," he said. He added that House Republicans are "trying to make some reasonable cuts in the budget and still maintain the services that we depend on."
Michigan's 1st district, one of the largest east of the Mississippi River, is a sprawling expanse of forests, farms and villages framed by three of the Great Lakes – Superior, Michigan and Huron. Its biggest city, Marquette, has just 21,000 residents.
Harsh winters and vast distances nurture a sense of independence and suspicion of big government, especially in the remote Upper Peninsula, where many feel so alienated from the state capital of Lansing that half-serious proposals to secede from Michigan occasionally pop up. Yet public institutions are economic pillars in the region, from the U.P.'s three state universities to national parks that support tourism.
Census data for the years 2006-2010 show about 16 percent of the district's workers – and 21 percent in the Upper Peninsula – had government jobs, compared to 10 percent statewide. Nearly 40 percent of the district's residents have publicly funded health care, largely because the population is disproportionately elderly.
Benishek's two immediate predecessors, Stupak and Republican Bob Davis, embodied the "all politics is local" adage. Davis helped win approval of a national park celebrating the region's mining heritage. That has drawn visitors to the remote Keweenaw Peninsula that has struggled since copper mining faded in the last century. Stupak sought funding for a Coast Guard icebreaking vessel, for upgraded navigational locks at Sault Ste. Marie and for the Olympic scholarships named for his deceased son, along with other projects.
"People up there aren't looking for a free ride, but they do expect government to lend a helping hand," said Stupak, now an attorney in Washington. "If you're a community of maybe 3,000 people and the EPA says you need a new sewer system because the pipes are broken and there's danger of E. coli, how are you going to afford that without federal help?"
Benishek's anti-government message resonated during his 2010 campaign, especially at tea party rallies, where Stupak was reviled for his key role in winning enactment of President Barack Obama's health care plan. But after Benishek took office, not all welcomed the contrast with his predecessor.
Amy Clickner, CEO of the Lake Superior Community Partnership, which promotes development in Marquette County, was taken aback when Benishek refused to push for continued funding of the Olympic athletes scholarship program, saying it was an example of the much-criticized lawmaker "earmarks" for pet projects.
"We wrote letters, talked to him," said Clickner, "but he was very strong in his beliefs on that."
Benishek told The Associated Press recently he supports the scholarships and is looking for other ways to fund them.
His 2011 vote against the rural airports subsidy prompted protests from communities in his district. And he said afterward he would try to find a way to continue them. This year, he voted against a proposal by a fellow tea party conservative to slash the program.
McDowell, his Democratic opponent, said Benishek was only trying to avoid political damage.
"He's putting a rigid ideology ahead of what's right for northern Michigan," McDowell said.
Duane Duray, manager of the Gogebic-Iron County Airport, which relies on the subsidies, said he thinks Benishek is learning some political lessons the hard way.
"'He hit the ground ready to change the world," said Duray. "Well, you find out pretty quickly that you're not there to change the world, you're there to help the U.P."
But tea party activist Bob Lamb of Alpena said many in northern Michigan still want Benishek to break the old model, even if it causes some hurt feelings.
"I think they'd just as soon see the strings cut and do their own thing," he said.