A Senate Surprise

Aug 12, 2011

Well, yesterday was not a great day for Pete Hoekstra, the former congressman from Holland. Two days ago, he was seen as the all-but-certain Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate next year.

With the nation’s economic crisis continuing, and more and more voters worried about the future, there seemed to be a growing chance that incumbent Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow may be vulnerable. Hoekstra, who got into the race last month after initially declining to run, thought he had a clear shot.

There were a few minor candidates, but they lacked funding or name recognition. But then yesterday, three longtime Michigan GOP heavyweights staged a coup of sorts. Two former state party chairs, Betsy DeVos, wife of Amway heir Dick DeVos, and Saul Anuzis, joined former U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham in endorsing a candidate.  And it wasn’t Pete Hoekstra.

Matter of fact, it wasn’t even someone who is formally in the race yet, though that will quickly change. The Big Three came out strongly for Clark Durant, a Grosse Pointer who is the founder of Cornerstone Schools, a group of charter schools in Detroit.

You might have expected Betsy DeVos not to endorse Hoekstra. There has been bad blood between the DeVoses and the former congressman for some time. Betsy and her husband Dick, who ran for governor five years ago, didn’t endorse Hoekstra in last year’s GOP primary for governor, even though they are all West Michigan figures of Dutch descent. The DeVoses instead endorsed former Attorney General Mike Cox, who finished a bad third.

Afterwards, Hoekstra, who finished second behind Rick Snyder, called the DeVoses “Lansing insiders” and said he was an independent thinker, not an apparatchik.

As you might expect, the DeVoses didn’t like that. But there’s more to this attempt to push the relatively unknown Durant than that. Some Republicans have concerns, not about Pete Hoekstra’s competence, but about his electability. He is neither charismatic, nor a brilliant speaker. Nor has he been very good at raising money -- and Republicans are going to have to scare up millions to have a chance at beating Ms. Stabenow.

Clark Durant is a solid conservative with a track record in innovative, private education issues. Some see him as a stronger potential candidate than Hoekstra, a man who is, like Stabenow, a longtime Washington insider.

But this announcement doesn’t mean Pete Hoekstra is toast, not by any means. For one thing, very few people know who Clark Durant is. He lost a U.S. Senate primary more than twenty years ago, but since then has stayed mostly in the background.

And Hoekstra’s troops can, if they wish, point out that Betsy DeVos and Spencer Abraham are a big part of the reason Stabenow is in the senate. Eleven years ago, when DeVos was party chair, she got a notoriously unpopular educational voucher amendment on that year’s statewide ballot. That brought an unusually high number of Democrats flocking to the polls to defeat it.

They did, and in the process helped Stabenow win a narrow upset victory over Abraham, who did not run a good campaign. What the three-way endorsement does guarantee is a much more expensive and harder-fought Republican primary next year.

And, for us voters, a more interesting race.