DETROIT (AP) - Republicans are heading into Election Day with a two-seat majority in Michigan's congressional delegation and high hopes of maintaining the edge, but three surprisingly close races have Democrats eyeing a previously unexpected opportunity to erase the advantage.
The GOP has had reason for optimism: The party registered big wins during the 2010 midterm elections, then had majorities in the Legislature to redraw the state's congressional districts. Republicans also saw the prospect of native son Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy aiding down-ballot races.
Then a Republican incumbent in a safe congressional seat unexpectedly resigned amid a petition-gathering scandal, Democrats put forward capable candidates in a handful of potentially close races and Romney focused his attention on other states.
Now Democrats are focusing on three key districts - the 1st, 3rd and 11th - in their effort to wrest control of the delegation.
The voting habits of freshman Republican, Rep. Dan Benishek in northern Michigan's 1st District, also have become an issue in his re-election bid - primarily because Benishek has governed as he said he would.
The tea party favorite ran in 2010 on the dangers of out-of-control federal spending. But some in his district, which has counted for years on a helping hand from Washington from time to time, weren't thrilled when Benishek followed through with votes to cut spending on things such as rural airport subsidies that had long benefited communities in his district.
As a result, Benishek, a surgeon from Crystal Falls, is facing a stiff test from former Democratic state legislator and hay farmer Gary McDowell, whom Benishek soundly defeated during the last election.
"It's interesting - (Benishek) was elected by double digits two years ago as a budget-cutter, and he has followed through on that, yet he's in danger this time," said Dave Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University. "It gets back to a fairly predictable refrain: Americans hate pork except when their district benefits."
The 11th District seat most recently belonged to Livonia Republican Thaddeus McCotter, who failed to qualify for the primary ballot after his campaign submitted bogus signatures on nominating petitions. McCotter subsequently resigned amid an investigation of his staff's actions.
McCotter had been considered a shoo-in for re-election in the Republican-leaning district, which covers parts of Oakland and Wayne counties and became even more GOP-friendly after its boundaries were redrawn following the 2010 census.
But the 11th District now is considered up for grabs after GOP voters nominated the only candidate who managed to get on the ballot - Kerry Bentivolio, a tea party-backed reindeer rancher, military veteran and former teacher from Milford who has been accused from even inside his own party of espousing extreme views.
Former state lawmaker Nancy Cassis, who ran an unsuccessful write-in campaign for the Republican nomination in August, had dubbed Bentivolio "Krazy Kerry" and denounced his appearance in a low-budget film that explored a conspiracy theory regarding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Bentivolio's Democratic opponent on Tuesday is Syed Taj, a physician and Canton Township trustee. Taj also has drawn attention to the film in an ad that says Bentivolio is "unfit" for voters.
Nevertheless, Bentivolio said he feels good about his chances in what he calls a "very good Republican district."
Another traditionally Republican area of the state - Grand Rapids - is the site of the contentious 3rd District race between freshman Rep. Justin Amash and Democratic challenger Steve Pestka, a former state lawmaker and Kent County judge who runs a family real estate business.
Pestka argues the incumbent's conservative belief in a very limited role for government is far too rigid for the western Michigan district, a region that has a history of sending moderate Republicans to Washington.