DETROIT — He chairs one of Capitol Hill’s most powerful committees, won his 2010 race with 62 percent of the vote and even boasts a niece who graced Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit-edition cover. But all that hasn’t saved Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan from a strong Republican primary challenge fueled by restive party conservatives who say he is too moderate.
Mr. Upton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was first elected to Congress in 1986 and has won re-election easily 12 times, usually pulling in 60 percent or more of the vote from the Kalamazoo-area 6th Congressional District.
But his GOP challenger from 2010, former state lawmaker Jack Hoogendyk, is taking on the veteran congressman again in the Aug. 7 primary. This year, the tea party-backed favorite has garnered increasing support from staunchly conservative groups, including the powerful Club for Growth, the Eagle Forum and the Madison Project political action committee.
“At a time when we are lambasting [President] Obama for his ‘Solyndra-style’ energy policy, this is not the sort of Republican we need to represent us,” said Madison Project political director Drew Ryun, referring to the failed solar-panel company.
Eagle Forum head Phyllis Schlafly said: “Now more than any other time in our history, we need solid conservatives, not just ‘go along to get along’ politicians in Congress.”
Last week, the influential conservative website RedState urged Michigan Republicans to “Dump Upton.”
Redistricting has done little to change the southwest Michigan district that includes Cass, St. Joseph, Van Buren and Berrien counties, as well as part of Allegan County. It remains about 54 percent Republican.
But some think Mr. Upton, 59, must mount a more aggressive fight if he hopes to avoid the fate of other Republican incumbents this cycle, most notably Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Rep. Jean Schmidt of Ohio, who lost primary races this year to candidates backed by the tea party.
“To me, if you are Upton, you either react like John McCain in Arizona or maybe Orrin Hatch in Utah, and you just get out early and you spend money massively, and you just beat the crap out of your challenger,” said Bill Ballenger, a longtime publisher of Inside Michigan Politics.
“Or you are like Dick Lugar, who just doesn’t get it, who doesn’t seem to think that there is really any threat and anything that could happen to cause any trouble. Well, Lugar got wiped out thinking like that. And it’s unclear to me where Upton is psychologically and emotionally on this thing.”
Mr. Ballenger said the “moderate” label affixed to Mr. Upton is misleading.
“I think the right wing has always had it in for Upton,” he said. “And … 25 years later, they are still at it. They have more adrenaline pumping now than they have for a long, long time.”
Conservative critics point to a string of votes by Mr. Upton over the years, from support for a higher minimum wage and increased federal funding for Amtrak to opposition to President Bush’s Iraq troop “surge” in 2007. He has voted for embryonic-stem-cell research, President Obama’s “Cash for Clunkers” car-buying subsidies and — in a vote that has cost several prominent Republicans their jobs — the $787 billion TARP Wall Street bailout in late 2008.
When Republicans recaptured the House in 2010, a battle for the chairmanship of the House Energy and Commerce Committee erupted within the GOP caucus. Mr. Upton won out over three conservative challengers, but only after such national conservative voices as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck came out publicly against him.
Through the first quarter of 2012, Mr. Upton — named one of the 50 richest members of Congress by Roll Call, with an estimated net worth of $7.93 million — has raised $2.5 million and spent $897,000, according to the campaign-finance website OpenSecrets.org. Mr. Hoogendyk said he reported about $76,000 in campaign contributions from January through March, outpacing the $62,000 budget he had two years ago for his entire campaign.
Mr. Hoogendyk, 56, said he thinks that the national attention the race has drawn will help him raise enough money to stay competitive and that he doesn’t need $2 million to win. After all, he pulled in 43 percent of the primary vote in 2010, even though he was outspent $2 million to $62,000.
“The reasons why this race is so competitive is because we have a finger-in-the-wind, moderate-to-Democratic Republican in a district filled with people paying attention like they never have before,” Mr. Hoogendyk said. “They have gone from angry to scared about the future of this country. They realize what is going on in this country is not working. We have a congressman who is not serious about reducing government.”
The former state lawmaker, who is self-employed and runs a 501(c)(4) nonprofit called Citizens Alliance for Life and Liberty, said the key issues this year are jobs, the economy and the nation’s mounting debt. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2006 and for the U.S. Senate in 2008.
Those repeated runs for public office give Michigan voters a reason to reject the challenger, Upton spokesman Joe Wicks said: “Voters are getting tired of his perennial candidacy.”
Mr. Wicks said Mr. Upton’s record is proof of the congressman’s conservative credentials.
“Fred is leading the charge to repeal Obamacare, expand American energy production, cut trillions in spending and hold the Obama administration … accountable for their job-destroying regulations. On the other hand, Jack Hoogendyk voted for [Michigan Democratic] Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s billion-dollar stimulus, higher property taxes, higher gas taxes and subsidies for Hollywood fat cats.
“Fred has received 100 percent ratings from the U.S. Chamber [of Commerce], National Right to Life, and National Rifle Association this Congress, and is endorsed by the Family Research Council PAC headed by Tony Perkins,” he said.