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TV ads aren't enough; Land may need to rethink reluctance to debate Peters

Oct 3, 2014

Michigan is an unusual state politically. Republicans have controlled the state Senate for more than 30 years, and now solidly hold the lower House as well.

We’ve had Republican governors more often than not. But the last time Michigan voted Republican for president, the World Wide Web hadn’t yet been invented and the Soviet Union was still going strong.

And Democrats have utterly dominated our U.S. Senate races. Republicans have won just once in the last 42 years. This year, Michigan had a rare open seat, thanks to the retirement of Sen. Carl Levin. GOP hopes of finally breaking through were strong.

But … maybe not.

They ended up with a candidate who seems allergic to the normal processes of campaigning. After what seems to have been a traumatic experience on Mackinac Island in May, Terri Lynn Land has avoided reporters, ignoring all interview requests, except from a few sympathetic conservatives in carefully controlled situations.

Nor has Land campaigned openly much. She sometimes shows up for parades or other events, but usually doesn’t announce her schedule in advance. Instead, she seems to be relying on a multi-million dollar TV ad campaign.

Her Democratic opponent, Congressman Gary Peters, is considerably different. He invited me to have coffee with him yesterday morning. “I’ve never shied away from the public,” he said, laughing.

“You can actually talk to me and not my press secretary.”

Peters has become a far better campaigner since a wooden performance narrowly lost him a race for attorney general a dozen years ago. The old joke was that if you asked the time, he would tell you the history of the watch industry.

While he still does some of that, he now tends to do it in a way that interests people. He is rightly proud of managing to hang on to his seat in Congress during the Republican landslide four years ago.

Now, he wants to go to the Senate. Though he had a long career as a finance executive, what I found him most concerned about was transportation. For months, he has nagged the Obama administration to approve funds for the needed customs plaza for the new international bridge.

So much so, in fact, that when he saw Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson at a recent social event, the secretary threw up his hands and said, laughing “I know. Customs plaza! It’s a priority!”

Beyond that, however, Peters wants a new rail tunnel under the Detroit River, to replace the current century-old one, and dreams of converting the old tracks to handle high-speed passenger rail.

My sense is that he would focus more on Michigan issues, particularly manufacturing, than Sen. Levin, who was more identified with the Senate Armed Services Committee.

And I found Peters worried about what politics has become, and frustrated he doesn’t have an opponent willing to debate issues. He said, “their strategy seems to be just to bombard the airwaves with negative commercials.

“The more negative they are, the more they depress turnout. If people don’t turn out, they win.” Nevertheless, his camp is still negotiating for at least one debate with his opponent.

With two new polls yesterday showing Land dramatically behind, it will be interesting to see if she decides she has little choice.