Dingell race tightens

Broadcaster-friendly Energy and Commerce vet in a fight for Democratic nomination

After nearly 50 years in Congress, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), the top Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the senior member of the House, is running the toughest race of his life.

After House Republicans successfully redrew the boundaries of his district, Dingell suddenly found himself in a tight race with fellow Democratic incumbent Lynn Rivers, a working mother of two who wasn't even born when Dingell was first elected to Congress in 1955.

A poll, conducted two weeks ago by Dingell's pollsters, Garin Hart Yang, showed him ahead by 12 percentage points. But two other, slightly more recent polls show Dingell and Rivers running neck and neck.

The winner of Tuesday's primary faces a poorly funded Republican candidate in a Democratic district and is virtually guaranteeing the seat.

If the standard, unwritten rules about campaigns hold true, Dingell has the edge. His name recognition in his district (his father held the seat for 15 years before him) is 10% higher than Rivers's; he is the longest-serving member of Congress; and he has plenty of money flowing into his campaign.

"There are very few voters, whether they are new to being in Dingell's district or not, who have not heard of Dingell or seen him supporting the United Auto Workers, the National Rifle Association or healthcare since they were little children," says Andrew Schwartzman, president of non-profit law firm Media Access Project.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of June 3, 2002, Dingell had received $857,912 from political action committees, compared to Rivers's $106,400. At the end of June, Dingell had raised $2.38 million to Rivers's $1.26 million, and none of that counts undisclosed money spent on campaigns by interest groups.

The Walt Disney Co. has given $11,000, making it Dingell's biggest media contributor. Other media companies/organizations include Viacom, $8,000; the NAB, $6,000; NCTA, $4,999; MPAA, $3,000; Universal Studios and Charter Communications, $2,000 each; and AOL Time Warner, ASCAP, Paxson and Sony, $1,000 each.

Media companies are also supporting him because they fear the ascension of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to the chairmanship, though that would be no shoe-in, even with a Dingell loss. The Democrats would have to win back the House and Waxman would have to choose Energy and Commerce over his other committee, Government Oversight. Waxman has been a frequent media critic, including grilling network news heads and NBC in particular, over 2000 election coverage.

The only media-related organization backing Rivers is AT&T, which gave her campaign $3,000. AT&T is an old foe of Dingell, who tends to take the regional phone companies' sides in disputes.