NOVI, Mich. - They wouldn't say so on the record, but a year ago, even some top Michigan Republicans expected to lose their U.S. Senate seat this time.
Five years after winning in the 1994 Republican landslide, freshman U.S. Sen. Spencer Abraham, now 48, was still not well known in the state, had a doctrinaire right-wing voting record, and was not, to put it kindly, charismatic in any way.
The state's Democrats, famous for inter-party feuding, united early behind U.S. Rep. Debbie Stabenow (D., Lansing), 50, a longtime state legislator known for the warmth of her personality and her cross-party appeal. Four years ago, she took on a well-funded GOP incumbent, U.S. Rep. Dick Chrysler, and the result wasn't close, or pretty, if you happen to be a Republican. Many of her signs then said, simply, “Debbie.”
Yet today, barring a last-minute turnaround, it looks as if Mr. Abraham may be on his way to another term. Though the margin has been narrowing in the last two weeks, the senator now leads by 47 to 40 per cent in the state's most respected poll. Internal Democratic Party polling shows a closer, but still negative, four-point edge. What happened?
“Money,” Ms. Stabenow said last weekend over coffee on her way to rehearse for the campaign's only two debates. “I still think we can win, and we will win,” she said, but confessed that her opponent's ability to blanket the airwaves had been frustrating.
“Abraham is running the slickest con ever seen in a Michigan Senate contest - and it's working,” noted Bill Ballenger, a former Republican state legislator who now publishes an influential political newsletter, Inside Michigan Politics.
“They've taken the concept of `spin' to dizzying heights,” distorting her record without penalty because she hasn't had the cash to fire back. “It's almost as if voters are looking for an excuse to take the incumbent out, but the challenger simply can't get up enough speed to do the deed,” he added.
The main weapon in the senator's attack has been television. Through the end of September, he had outspent his rival 5-1 on TV, and his ads were far more effective than the few she did have. Ms. Stabenow's ads had no clever slogans or catchy jingles; they made it appear as though she were running for lunchroom monitor. Nor did she define herself as a personality with whom voters could identify.
However, Mr. Abraham's ads are hard-hitting, featuring unflattering pictures of his rival, with LIBERAL in big letters and harsh attacks on his opponent's record. Money has been a main factor. According to the last official filing, Mr. Abraham has spent $8.2 million to $4.8 million for Ms. Stabenow.
But Democrats say that doesn't begin to tell the story, that, “Senator Abraham and his special-interest friends have spent more than $15 million on negative advertising alone,” much in the form of unregulated “soft money.”
The Wall Street Journal last week reported that the Microsoft Corp. has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Abraham campaign, primarily, perhaps, because of the GOP senator's efforts to pass laws granting visas to thousands of new foreign workers with computer and other high-tech skills.
Republicans claim, without offering specifics, that Ms. Stabenow has also taken special-interest money. But even they don't pretend spending has been equal.
Still, she remains gamely optimistic. After refusing for months, her opponent finally debated her twice, once - in a non-televised debate - before a heavily Republican crowd at the Detroit Economic Club, and, last Sunday, in a debate in Grand Rapids that was televised - but at 7 p.m., on PBS. Though Ms. Stabenow did well, the viewership was minuscule.
Democrats have conserved their resources, and have newer, more hard-hitting TV ads for the final push. As their candidate notes, Michigan voters can do rapid turnarounds; Gov. John Engler trailed 54-40 in the final poll before being elected governor in 1990.
She hopes to finally get her message across in the campaign's final days, hammering on a few key issues: “Putting doctors back in charge of medical decisions through a patient's bill of rights. Quality schools for our children, and school safety, and common-sense on guns - closing the gun show loophole, for example.”
That, and the keystone of her campaign, a plan to lower prescription drug costs for seniors. “I think, in the end, I will win in a very close race - maybe by as little as 1 per cent,” she said. “And then we are going to make history, because Michigan has never had a woman senator.” That could still happen. But as of today, the polls indicate the voters may instead elect the most expensive one money can buy.
Jack Lessenberry is The Blade's ombudsman and a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. E-mail him at OMBLADE@aol.com or call 1-888-746-8610.