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Don't underestimate Stabenow, again

Feb 20, 2017

Well, it is still deep winter, even if it doesn’t feel like it. The Super Bowl is over, and the baseball exhibition season hasn’t gotten started.

So naturally, the restless minds of those interested in politics are turning to the next election, or make that, elections. State Senator Coleman Young Jr., who is term-limited and will need a new job, has announced he is running for mayor of Detroit.

Sure they do. Nearly every group has its own marvelous illusion. There are those poor souls who think the Detroit Lions may go all the way. There are tattered remnants of little American Marxist parties still waiting for the great proletarian revolution. And every five years or so, Republicans talk about beating Stabenow.

What’s most remarkable is that this has gone on for more than forty years, since she first ran for a seat on the Ingham County Commission. She was sneered at, in often clearly sexist terms, when she ran for the state house and the state senate, and then for Congress and the U.S. Senate, both times against incumbent Republicans. And then she won, every time.

Stabenow, who isn’t conventionally charismatic or flashy, has two characteristics that are often underrated. She works very hard, and politically, is very smart. Nobody gave her much chance the first time she ran for the U.S. Senate. She was down by a dozen points with less than two weeks to go. But she had saved her money for a TV advertising blitz at the end.

She won a narrow upset victory. Six years later, Republicans ran longtime popular Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard against Stabenow.

Republican leaders assured me she was vulnerable. President George W. Bush came to Michigan to raise a million dollars for Bouchard. The GOP found an unflattering picture of Stabenow next to a sign that said “Dangerously Incompetent.” They made fun of her weight.

On Election Night, Stabenow won by almost six hundred thousand votes. She even took Bouchard’s Oakland County. Six years later, the GOP nominated Pete Hoekstra, a respected former congressman who had been head of the House Intelligence Committee.

There were even some early polls showing him beating her. The eventual result was a slaughter. Debbie Stabenow won by nearly a million votes. She won every county in the Upper Peninsula, where four years later, Hillary Clinton would lose every county except one.

Part of her success was due to her patient work on behalf of agriculture in the state; she even won the endorsement of the Michigan Farm Bureau. Well, she is expected to run for a fourth term, in a year in which historically there’s likely to be a tide against the party in the White House.

And there’s an interesting pattern in what Republican leaders are saying about the race. Big names like John Engler are happy to tell you she is vulnerable. But when asked if they might be willing to run themselves, the answer is always “nonononono.”

Of course, in politics as in life, there’s never a sure thing. But if you were thinking about betting against Debbie Stabenow next year, my advice is: Save your money.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.