TROY, Mich. — In one of many races that added to Democratic majorities in Congress yesterday, challenger Gary Peters beat out eight-term Republican incumbent Rep. Joe Knollenberg.
Peters, a former Michigan state senator, was leading Knollenberg by a 51-43 margin with 82 percent of the precincts reporting, as of late Tuesday night.
In a brief acceptance speech before Oakland County Democrats at the Troy Hilton late Tuesday night, Peters said his election to Congress was only a tiny wave in a nationwide current.
“I’m just so honored to be here with you, to be part of a bigger movement across America that elected Barack Obama,” he said.
Peters said that because of the efforts of his supporters, he can now go to Washington to help the people of Michigan.
“Thanks to you, we’ll be able to reinvest in our economy to get Michigan moving forward again,” Peters said to a roar from the crowd. “Thanks to the work of everybody in this room, we’ll be able to fight for the auto industry and not for the oil companies.”
Peters thanked his family and supporters for their work throughout the campaign, which he characterized as a grassroots effort.
He said the campaign had knocked on almost 400,000 doors and made over 300,000 phone calls, and had 5,700 individual contributors to the campaign.
Peters ended his speech abruptly, sensing that his supporters in the room had more interest in hearing a speech from president-elect Sen. Barack Obama, who is slated to become the nation’s first black president.
The 9th District, which includes some of Detroit’s wealthiest suburbs, like Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham, had a history of supporting Republican candidates like Knollenberg, who’d represented the area since 1992. It twice voted for President George W. Bush, though by slim margins both times.
Knollenberg’s seat had been long targeted by Democratic officials. In 2006, Democratic challenger Nancy Skinner lost to Knollenberg by five percent. Riding the wave of support for Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama in Michigan and the McCain campaign’s decision to pull resources out of the state, the 9th District was considered especially vulnerable for Republicansthis year.
In an interview after the party, Peters said he was going to be an aggressive advocate for the auto industry in Washington.
“We got the best workers; we got great Universities like the University of Michigan and great students,” he said. “To capitalize on that strength is our opportunity to be the world leader in the auto industry.”
Peters said he plans to create more jobs in Michigan so college-aged Michigan residents can stay in the state after graduating.
“I would want as many students to stay in Michigan as possible,” he said. “As a parent, I fear like any other parent that when our sons and daughters go to college and graduate there aren’t jobs for them here in Michigan.”
He also said he plans to deal with rising college costs and work to make college affordable for middle class students.
Though he trailed Knollenberg in total money raised for the campaign, Peters was armed with funding and advertisements from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which funneled more than a $1 million into the race in the last few weeks of the campaign.
Adding to Knollenberg’s troubles was the decision in mid-October by the National Republican Congressional Committee, to cancel the purchase of nearly $320,000 in ads for the district — a clear sign that the Republican establishment had concerns over Knollenberg’s viability in the last throws of the race.
The rowdy crowd in the hotel ballroom last night cheered at every state Obama claimed in the presidential election. After Peters’s victory was announced, the place went wild.
After Peters’s speech, Royal Oak resident Eileen Orlanski, a Peters volunteer, said that having him in Congress means Michigan is getting back on course again.
“Gary will be able to generate enthusiasm and also new jobs for the auto industry,” she said.
Peters volunteer Anthony Ivone, 21, said that Peters’s election is a step in the right direction for both Michigan and the country.
“(Peters’s victory) will allow us to create positive change,” he said. “It will allow for the revitalization of Michigan.”
Ivone also said that like Obama, Peters can be an inspiration to an entire generation of young people.
“Gary’s win gives us hope,” he said. “If an ordinary guy like Gary can win and go to Congress, it let’s everyone else know they can make a difference too.”