Trump wants 10 GOP lawmakers gone. This one may prove tricky.

Cliff Owen/AP/File
Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 8, 2016. Representative Upton, who has served in Congress since 1987, is one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach President Donald Trump.

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Republican Fred Upton has represented southwestern Michigan in Congress since 1987. He’s a genial conservative with a reputation for delivering for constituents and working across the political aisle. Even former opponents he’s beaten in elections say he’s a person of integrity who works hard and mostly represents his 6th Congressional District’s views.

But with midterms nearing, he’s become a target for former President Donald Trump. Representative Upton was one of 10 Republicans who voted to impeach Mr. Trump for his role in inciting violence in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. The former president wants all 10 defeated in primaries: “Get rid of them all!” he said in February.

Why We Wrote This

The fate of GOP Rep. Fred Upton, a fixture in Michigan politics, could reveal how much control former President Donald Trump still exerts on the base of the Republican Party.

Will Representative Upton be defeated by his own party? Trump-supporting opponents are lined up to run against him.

But right now, Representative Upton looks strong. He represents a swing district where he outperformed Mr. Trump by 11 percentage points in 2020. Many voters appreciate the money and benefits he brings, he says.

“Our district, and I think this is a lot of the country, they don’t care if you have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to your name,” says Mr. Upton from his Capitol Hill office. “They just want the job done.”

Even Fred Upton’s former opponents like Fred Upton.

For more than three decades, Congressman Upton has represented Michigan’s 6th District, the southwest corner of the state, stretching from Lake Michigan to Kalamazoo to the Indiana border. And every two years, Mr. Upton has sailed through reelection with a coalition of supporters across the political spectrum.

Dale Shugars, a Kalamazoo County Commissioner who lost a primary challenge to Mr. Upton in 2002, calls him “a person that has integrity.” He “works hard and represents most of the views of the area,” Mr. Shugars says, adding that “he votes, for the most part, very well for Southwest Michigan.”

Why We Wrote This

The fate of GOP Rep. Fred Upton, a fixture in Michigan politics, could reveal how much control former President Donald Trump still exerts on the base of the Republican Party.

By “most,” Mr. Shugars is referring to Mr. Upton’s January impeachment vote, which has roiled 6th District Republicans and made the congressman a target for many members of the national GOP.

After mobs of angry Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 10 Republicans joined House Democrats to impeach President Donald Trump for his role in inciting the violence. Mr. Upton was one. Rep. Peter Meijer, from Michigan’s neighboring 3rd district, was another.

Since then, many of those Republicans have been censured by their state parties or county groups, amid calls for their resignation. Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney lost her leadership position in the House. Nine of the 10 already have Trump-backed primary opponents, who are framing the 2022 midterm election as a referendum on support for Mr. Trump.

But in Mr. Upton’s district in southwest Michigan, it’s not that simple. The region has long been a stronghold of Dutch Americans, who settled in the area beginning in the mid-1800s, and the Dutch Reformed Church.

It’s similar to Utah, founded by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in the sense that it has a unique sense of morality and an appreciation for politicians who can deliver for constituents.

“I don’t think it was the right thing to do,” says Mr. Shugars of Mr. Upton’s impeachment vote, sitting in the Kalamazoo County GOP office, a camouflage “Trump 2024” flag behind him. “But having said that, Fred’s office was very instrumental in getting $750,000 from FEMA for the area that was flooded out.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by many Trump supporters here, who say they still plan to back their longtime congressman, whether the former president attacks him or not.

“Our district, and I think this is a lot of the country, they don’t care if you have an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ next to your name,” says Mr. Upton from his office on Capitol Hill. “They just want the job done.”

“We can’t wait.”

Recently for Mr. Upton, getting the job done has meant working on a bipartisan infrastructure bill as a member of the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus. It’s the type of practical legislating he gets excited talking about, hands laced behind his head, one foot propped up on his coffee table.

He expresses concern about Mr. Trump’s many statements urging Republicans not to do an infrastructure deal with Democrats, instead waiting until “after we get proper election results in 2022.”

“If we don’t get this done, nothing is going to happen,” says Mr. Upton, who has been working on the bill since April. “We can’t wait. Our roads suck.”

Joan Hillebrands, Mr. Upton’s chief of staff who has worked for him for over 30 years, interrupts. This is why, she says, Republicans in the 6th Congressional District can disagree with Mr. Upton’s impeachment vote but still support him: It’s things like the roads that they really care about.

“They see Fred and they see him working on the real issues that they are lying awake at night worrying about,” says Ms. Hillebrands, pointing to legislation Mr. Upton introduced earlier this year with Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Dingell to protect drinking water from harmful chemicals, and his leadership on the Cures Act, a law signed by President Barack Obama in 2016 that increased the National Institute of Health’s budget for developing cures and vaccines.

Michigan’s 6th is a swing district, divided between Democratic Kalamazoo, which makes up almost half the district’s voters, and five Republican counties to the west and south. For the past three decades, Mr. Upton has won reelection with sizable margins, even as the state backed Democratic presidential candidates. In 2016, Mr. Upton surpassed Mr. Trump’s winning margin by 14 percentage points in the district; in 2020 he surpassed Mr. Trump’s winning margin by 11 percentage points.

The surrounding region is generally socially conservative, but wasn’t with Mr. Trump from the beginning, says Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research and Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University.

Like the Mormons, the West Michigan Dutch population is a religious minority that is socially conservative but is also pro-immigration and pro-refugee, says Professor Grossmann. Their churches are, at least.

“But of course, we are in an era where supporting Trump’s views and being a Republican are fused together,” Professor Grossmann says. “Even if there are distinctions and these different views on issues, they are harder to manage.”

A number of district Republican voters say they wish Mr. Upton had voted differently on impeachment, but say the past 30-plus years he’s spent responding to constituents and traveling back home to his district mean something.

Larry Ladenburger, a retired county government worker from the Allegan area, says he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and 2020 and has supported Mr. Upton since he first ran for office. When asked if he’d no longer support Mr. Upton following his impeachment vote, Mr. Ladenburger lets out a sigh. He pauses for a few beats.

“No, the vote doesn’t change my support for Fred,” says Mr. Ladenburger.

“He has done well for this area of Michigan,” he adds, referencing Mr. Upton’s bipartisan work on the Cures Act. “And I know he walks a difficult line.”

Difficult votes

Walking a difficult line means taking difficult votes for a GOP member of Congress.

In 2019, Mr. Upton was one of seven Republicans to vote with Democrats to end a government shutdown, and later that year he was one of four Republicans to condemn Mr. Trump’s tweet that several Democratic congresswomen “go back” to other countries. Earlier this year he was one of 11 House Republicans who voted to strip fellow Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of her committee assignments for making incendiary statements, and then he was one of eight Republicans to support expanding background checks for gun purchases.

But he has also been at the forefront of some conservative causes, and has often agreed with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Upton, the former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has called the regulation of greenhouse gas emissions an “unconstitutional power grab.” Under Mr. Trump, the congressman voted several times in favor of repealing the Affordable Care Act. And during the four years Mr. Trump was in office, he voted in line with the president 79% of the time – which, according to the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight, is more than expected given Mr. Trump’s 2016 margin in the 6th District.

The congressman remains a member in good standing of the Michigan state GOP. A party committee voted against censuring him and Mr. Meijer earlier this month.

But that doesn’t mean Mr. Upton’s path to reelection is free and clear. He and Mr. Meijer both already have three Republican primary opponents apiece, even though the 2022 midterms are more than a year away. Michigan’s other five Republican representatives have none.

Mr. Trump is a big reason for that. The former president has made the 10 impeachment-voting Republicans a top target, recruiting and endorsing primary challengers to run against them. “Get rid of them all,” said Mr. Trump at a Conservative Political Action Conference in late February, during which he called out all 10 by name.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
First lady Jill Biden is greeted by Rep. Peter Meijer of Michigan as she arrives at Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Michigan, May 27, 2021. Representative Meijer, a freshman and a veteran, is one of 10 Republicans – two from Michigan – who voted to impeach President Donald Trump.

Mr. Meijer and Mr. Upton’s challengers are leaning on Mr. Trump’s directive, often advertising themselves as the race’s “only real supporter” of the former president. Mr. Meijer’s opponents include Audra Johnson, who made news in 2019 for her MAGA-themed wedding, and Mr. Upton’s opponents include Jon Rocha, a Mexican American Marine Corps veteran who was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

“Upton is one of those politicians, those Republicans, who say, ‘Well I guess we could bend a little bit.’ That type of thinking needs to be removed,” says Mr. Rocha. “The Trump impeachment added fuel to that fire.”

And plenty of Republican voters in the district agree with Mr. Rocha.

“The other grassroots people I’m talking to, we feel like Upton betrayed his constituents,” says Steven Kuivenhoven, a GOP precinct delegate who lives in Kalamazoo and is backing another Upton challenger, state Rep. Steve Carra.

“We felt like [Upton] was impeaching us when he impeached Trump,” says Mr. Kuivenhoven.

But the number of Mr. Upton and Mr. Meijer’s primary challengers, and the fact that they are running similar campaigns, helps the two incumbents. So too does the fact that Mr. Trump, despite the CPAC callout, has not yet made either of the congressmen a direct focus like he has of other pro-impeachment voters like Representative Cheney.

Voted to impeach two presidents

Mr. Upton is quick to pull out his cell phone and show pictures of his grandson. But scrolling a little bit farther back, he finds photos of a crowd approaching the Capitol steps on Jan. 6 – an overhead view from the balcony of his office.

He was in his office when he saw the news on the TV, and then out his window. Mr. Upton heard the flash grenades and locked the doors of his office. He turned off the lights so it would look like the room was empty.

“It was real,” says Mr. Upton. “And it was pretty scary.”

But it was Mr. Trump’s comments afterward, when he said that his speech before the riot was “totally appropriate” – Mr. Upton does air quotes here – that made the congressman vote in favor of impeachment.

“People know that I’m not afraid to oppose or support any president,” says Mr. Upton. “I’ve served with what – eight presidents now?” The congressman looks at Ms. Hillebrands and begins to count on his fingers: Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden. He corrects himself: seven presidents.

One of Mr. Upton’s first votes, for example, was to override President Reagan’s veto on a federal highway funding bill in 1987. Before assuming office, Mr. Upton had worked for Mr. Reagan in the Office of Management and Budget. He still has a framed photo of the two of them in his office. But contrary to what his former colleagues in the Reagan administration had hoped, Mr. Upton voted against his old boss because, as he says with a shrug of his shoulders, “highways are important.”

“My successor at OMB ... he goes, ‘Well Fred, you’re going to be with The Gipper on this, right?’ and I said, ‘Well, no,’recalls Mr. Upton, chuckling. “It’s who I’ve always been. I haven’t changed.”

And with his vote to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998 and then Mr. Trump in 2021, Mr. Upton holds another superlative: the only U.S. Representative in the country’s history to have voted to impeach two presidents.

When I start to ask Mr. Upton about this, he closes his eyes and nods his head before I’ve finished. He learned this stat recently, in one of the letters he received from angry constituents since January. Mr. Upton responded to this letter himself, as he does all others, citing his 100% ratings with conservative groups and strong conservative voting record.

Then he signed it, as he does with all his mail: “Fred.” 

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