NORTHVILLE, Mich. — It seemed things couldn't get more muddled after U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, a Republican who appeared destined for easy re-election in his suburban Detroit district, shockingly failed to qualify for the ballot this summer and then resigned.
Putting aside initial reservations, party leaders closed ranks behind the other Republican in the race, Kerry Bentivolio, a Vietnam and Iraq war veteran, reindeer farmer and Santa Claus impersonator with libertarian leanings. Democrats countered with a local physician, sensing a rare opportunity to capture a congressional seat in normally reliable GOP territory.
But less than two weeks before the election, a sense of the bizarre still permeates the campaign – and the outcome appears no more certain than when McCotter's political career imploded in July. Either the Democrats will cash in on a fortuitous fluke, or the GOP will avoid the political equivalent of having its pocket picked.
The situation illustrates how candidates' personal stories and quirks can take center stage in some races closer to home, even as the nation grapples with far-reaching issues such as terrorism and the debt crisis while choosing a president.
"It's been a weird election. I want somebody who is going to make the economy start ticking but it's hard to know what either of them would do about it," said one confused voter, Sharon Vesche, 37, who normally backs Republicans.
Bentivolio, 61, is running a low-key campaign and at times has been hard to find as opponents dig up questionable details about his past and portray him as an unstable extremist. Meanwhile, the Democrat, Syed Taj, who emigrated from India and serves on a town board, is short on the charisma and experience needed to lure disaffected Republicans. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which gave him staff assistance to help him exploit his opportunity, doesn't list the race among its top takeover prospects.
A voter listening to exchanges between the two sides might think the choice is between a right-wing buffoon and a radical leftist with suspicious foreign ties.
Mark Brewer, chairman of the state Democratic Party, called on GOP leaders last week to disavow Bentivolio as unfit to serve. "Sending him to Washington would be an embarrassment for the Michigan Republican Party and for the voters of this entire state," he said.
"Shame on the Democrats for attacking a war veteran while supporting a candidate with ties to Islamic extremism," retorted Dave Agema, a Republican National Committee member. He was referring to a donation Taj received from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington-based Muslim advocacy group. Bentivolio's campaign made a similar allegation in comments to The Oakland Press, a local newspaper.
Taj's campaign said the remarks were racial and religious slurs, which Bentivolio's spokesman denied. Taj, 66, is a Muslim who came to the United States three decades ago.
Bentivolio's biggest challenge remains overcoming a reputation for odd behavior and fringe opinions. It didn't help that a fellow Republican – former state Sen. Nancy Cassis – labeled him "Krazy Kerry" and denounced his role in a low-budget satirical movie released last year that made thinly veiled references to a conspiracy theory about the Sept. 11, 2011, terrorist attacks. Cassis mounted a write-in campaign after McCotter's withdrawal left Bentivolio as the only Republican on the August primary ballot, but Bentivolio won easily.
In a recent phone interview with The Associated Press, he said he's been unfairly caricatured by political insiders who "don't think an average guy should run for office."
"I'm a Ronald Reagan Republican. They called him crazy, too," said Bentivolio, who previously has spoken admiringly of libertarian Ron Paul and is supported by tea party groups. In an earlier interview, he said he'd never expected to unseat McCotter but became a candidate because he didn't think the incumbent was tough enough on government spending.
Brewer, the Democratic chairman, raised other character issues about Bentivolio, including a report by the Detroit Free Press that he resigned this year as a teacher at Fowlerville High School after being reprimanded for intimidating behavior in the classroom. Bentivolio told the AP the disciplinary action was politically motivated and provided copies of recommendation letters from several colleagues.
Bentivolio filed a libel and slander lawsuit in 1993 involving a business matter. During legal proceedings, he discussed his part-time venture called Old Fashion Santa, for which he makes appearances in a Santa Claus outfit with the reindeer he raises. He testified at one point, "Actually, I'd like to say I'm really Santa Claus and I play somebody else the rest of the year."
Brewer said that statement and others from the case suggest Bentivolio is mentally unstable. Bentivolio told the AP the comments referred to his desire to seem authentic when appearing as Santa in public.
He contends Taj is the real extremist in the race – a leftist who supports government-run health care.
Taj says he's a moderate who cooperates with Republican colleagues on the Canton Township Board of Trustees. "I'm a good example of the American dream," he said. "I was told I'd never win in this town because I'm a Democrat and not a Caucasian, but I did."
The crossfire over credentials and character has overshadowed the candidates' positions on issues such as spending and taxes.
Sue Campbell, 51, a Democrat from neighboring Novi, said she was supporting Taj because "he sounds like a reasonable guy, from what I've read." But she said the contest didn't seem to be generating much interest. "It really is a strange race," she said. "People aren't sure what to think."
Vesche said she's not sure what she'll do.
"I always go Republican but I want to sort things out this time and see which is more qualified," she said.