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The senatorial agony of the Michigan Republican Party

Jan 11, 2018

For Michigan Republicans, running for the U.S. Senate has become an exercise that reminds me of a group of single guys who go off to the bar. They are happy, relaxed, they’ve just been paid, and they sit there and drink and talk about all the worlds they will conquer.

But the hours go by and dawn approaches, and in the morning, they trudge back to work in the cold gray half-light of reality. That’s what we are starting to see now, in Michigan Republicans' attempts to win the seat held by U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow.

Last summer, they were confident and excited and happy. No-names like Lena Epstein, and famous ones like former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Robert Young, jumped into the race. Fred Upton, the longtime congressman from Kalamazoo, was rumored to soon follow suit.

Republicans have a long history of sneering at Stabenow a year before every election. They started 44 years ago when she ran for the Ingham County Commission against an incumbent who dismissed her with contempt as “that young broad.”

She beat him in the fall. She then went to the state House and the state Senate, and then to Congress and the U.S. Senate. She lost a Democratic primary for governor once, almost a quarter century ago, but has never lost in a head-to-head race to a Republican.

Stabenow has been one of the most consistently underrated politicians in Michigan history. Sexism has had something to do with this. She is not glamorous or flashy. Her father was a small-time auto dealer in Clare, and she went to Michigan State to become a social worker.

Her persona is that of “nice Debbie, the warm neighbor lady.” But she has been an absolutely formidable behind-the-scenes political force, rising to become head of the Senate Agriculture Committee when Democrats had the majority.

The last time she ran, she even got the usually Republican Michigan Farm Bureau to endorse her. That year, Republicans were fairly confident. They nominated Congressman Pete Hoekstra to beat her. They spent $6 million, and he got 38 percent of the vote.

In Michigan’s modern history, Republicans have a hammerlock on the state Senate. Starting in the 1960s, they’ve controlled the governor’s office more than two-thirds of the time. But they have lost 13 of the last 14 races for the U.S. Senate. Their lone winner, Spencer Abraham, was wiped out after a single term by … Debbie Stabenow. Now that we’ve reached the actual election year, the GOP is starting to sober up. Upton decided to stay in Congress. Bob Young couldn’t raise any money, and skedaddled.

Even most of the no-names dropped out.

Republicans are now left with a choice between two candidates most voters never heard of: John James, a young African-American war veteran who has the support of most of the political establishment, and Sandy Pensler, an entrepreneur from Grosse Pointe who has a lot of money and yesterday threw $5 million of it into the race.

There are seven months left before the primary, and it will be interesting to see if cash trumps connections. But you can predict the national GOP will spend pretty close to zero here.

Perhaps the world will be different in six years. That’s when they’ll get to try again.

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.