In April, Michigan officials who oversee elections kicked Democrat Matt Morgan off the congressional ballot, leaving the Republican incumbent, Rep. Jack Bergman, to run unopposed in the general election.
That was the plan, at least, until primary day on Tuesday, when more than 30,000 Democratic voters cast write-in ballots in Michigan’s 1st Congressional District. That’s nearly eight times as many votes as Morgan needed to be resurrected and placed on the November ballot.
Morgan, a progressive Marine veteran, pulled off the successful turnaround without help from the national party or progressive organizations set up to support veterans. Instead, he had filmmaker Michael Moore and a team of hundreds of volunteers who made sure voters knew that even though there was nobody on the ballot, they could still vote for Morgan.
In Marquette County, in fact, Morgan got nearly as many votes as Bergman did. The county credited him with 4,388 votes to Bergman’s 4,522, even after disqualifying a chunk of votes.
The candidate was booted from the ballot based on a technicality: His petitions listed a post office box rather than a physical address. His campaign turned the petitions in on March 6. An official got back to the campaign on April 29, explaining the address snafu, and said they had until the end of the day to withdraw or they were likely to be disqualified, said Joe Vanderbosch, Morgan’s spokesperson.
They refused to withdraw, so the Michigan Board of State Canvassers booted Morgan. The campaign took the decision to the Michigan Court of Appeals and lost in a 2-1 judgment. Instead of appealing further, the campaign turned to the write-in option instead. “We wouldn’t have ever chosen to do business this way, but when we look back on it, it has been a great opportunity,” Morgan told The Intercept. “It kicked our field program off, it incensed voters, it really turned people out.”
In order to make it onto the ballot, Morgan needed to win 5 percent of the total votes cast in the district for governor on the Democratic side, a figure that came to roughly 3,700 votes. His Marquette County total alone should qualify him for the ballot.
“It appears that Republican voter suppression in Michigan’s 1st Congressional District has failed in an historic way!” Moore wrote on Twitter. “Republicans on the election commission kicked the lone Democratic candidate off the ballot, so thousands of us mobilized.”
Making it through the November general election will be a more challenging task, though by no means impossible. Michigan’s 1st District has been on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s battleground since 2017 (though Morgan said he has gotten little interest from the party so far). Bergman won comfortably in 2016 by 15 points, in a district that the Cook Political Report says has a nine-point GOP advantage. Donald Trump won Michigan in 2016 by just over 10,000 votes.
The 25,000-square-mile district covers rural northern Michigan, and it was last represented by a Democrat in 2010, when Blue Dog Rep. Bart Stupak, House Democrats’ most outspoken anti-choice lawmaker, retired rather than facing the tea party wave. Now, Morgan is running a progressive campaign, focused on dialing back American military interventions overseas and bringing about universal health care, rather than hewing to the center. He is backed by the progressive group Justice Democrats, which heavily supported Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and despite being pro-choice, he also has the endorsement of Stupak.
While many veterans who run for Congress tout their military experience in justifying a more aggressive or expansive foreign policy, Morgan said one of his top concerns is repealing the post-9/11 authorization for use of military force. Presidents have been using the AUMF, as it is known, for a decade and a half to justify new military commitments around the globe unrelated to its original purpose of waging war against the group responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“One of the biggest issues veterans are concerned about today is that, when I first deployed to Iraq in 2003, I was newly married and had no children. Today I have a 13-year-old son, and the idea that we are still deploying our kids overseas on an AUMF that was passed four years before he was born, and we’re now four years before he’s eligible to serve, is the despicable reality of where we are today,” said Morgan, a retired lieutenant colonel. “I’m running against a guy that touts the fact that he’s the highest-ranking military official elected to Congress. He wears his military service on his sleeve, but he cannot step forward and say our Congress needs to be in front of this.”
Morgan added that his campaign has not yet found support among Democratic groups who aim to get veterans elected. “I am deeply frustrated that the organizations supporting veterans have not done more to support my candidacy, and my sense is they’re standing back because I’m running against another veteran,” he said. “But I think it’s really important: Jack Bergman and I are not the same.”
Rep. Seth Moulton, a Massachusetts Democrat, has endorsed and funded a string of veterans across the country. He has had several conversations with Morgan, though he hasn’t yet endorsed him. (Moulton has endorsed a significant number of moderate to conservative candidates, but also some progressives; his spokesperson said Moulton has no ideological litmus test.)
Morgan said the No. 1 issue he hears about on the campaign trail is health care. When he explains his own experience with single-payer health care in the military and argues that Medicare should be expanded to cover everyone, he said, he rarely finds any objections from voters. “The only people opposing that are the lobbyists in Washington. I do not see Americans in Michigan opposing the idea of Medicare coverage. They want it fixed, and the price tag isn’t keeping them up at night,” he said.
He has also been asked about about whether he would support California Rep. Nancy Pelosi to be Democratic leader in the next Congress, he said. His response is that it is time for new leadership. The values of the people in his district in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are the same as those of the people in New York’s 14th District, where Ocasio-Cortez won her primary, he said, and they’re ready for something different. He added, “It’s time for a new generation of leadership in the Democratic Party. Candidates like me may not look like the candidate in New York’s 14th, but we all share progressive values,” he said.