Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Michigan GOP's chance of unseating Stabenow slender

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Last week, Sen. Debbie Stabenow sat down for coffee before she drove off to tour vegetable and fruit farms in western Michigan.

"Are you running for re-election next year?" I asked. She responded: "Yes, I am running, but we really haven't started that yet. There's just too much going on right now."

Well, then, what is her top priority this year?

"Jobs," she answered. "It all comes back to jobs. I've got two major focuses. I don't think you can have a middle class in this country unless you make things and grow things, and that's what we do.

"If you make it here and grow it here, the jobs will stay here," she said. "And that's my basic philosophy. As for my priority, that is manufacturing and agriculture."

For years, conservatives have bashed the Democratic senator, who chairs the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, with a baffling, nasty intensity, especially on their blogs.

Some of this seems clearly misogynistic, coupled with tasteless swipes at the weight problem she has battled for years. Today, the senator is pretty close to slender.

Two of the kinder insults are "backbencher" and "ineffective." Curiously, some of her enemies denounce her for being incompetent and for foisting a vast liberal agenda down the throats of the American people.

However, if there is anything more curious than the intensity of the venom poured out against the two-term incumbent, it is that, for all their strident bashing, the GOP hasn't been able to find a credible challenger this year.

A year ago, top-ranking Republicans vowed to give her the fight of her life in 2012, and some flatly predicted she was a goner. But so far, every candidate with a glimmer of name recognition has said thanks, but no thanks.

U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter decided against taking her on. So did last year's gubernatorial primary runner-up, Pete Hoekstra; former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, and former state party chair Saul Anuzis, among others. Even Detroit talk radio host Frank Beckmann couldn't be induced to make the race.

As of now, the GOP field includes businessman Peter Konetchy and Randy Hekman, a former probate judge from Grand Rapids. Both are virtual unknowns.

This pattern is not new. Opponents have been underestimating Ms. Stabenow, 61, since she beat an Ingham County commissioner when she was 24. Since then, she has been elected to the state House and Senate and knocked off an incumbent congressman.

Four years later, she came from a dozen points back to beat incumbent Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham in 2000, although she was outspent by more than $5 million. This year, Ms. Stabenow has at least that much in her war chest, enough to discourage some potential challengers.

Five years ago, Michigan Republicans thought they had a video that would win them her seat. It showed Ms. Stabenow, looking extremely portly, standing by a sign that was the same color as her unflattering outfit. "Dangerously Incompetent," it read.

Weeks later, she won re-election by a 57-to-41-percent landslide against popular Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard.

What's the secret to her success?

Despite the partisan venom, voters like and seem to be able to relate to Ms. Stabenow, the daughter of an Oldsmobile dealer from the mid-Michigan town of Clare. She received two degrees in social work from Michigan State University, earning money by singing folk songs in a coffeehouse.

She isn't flashy, and wasn't a great success when she got the opportunity to climb the Senate leadership ladder as secretary of the Democratic caucus. But she works hard at, and passionately for, causes she believes in.

Michigan's senior senator, fellow Democrat and Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin, for years has focused on Pentagon-related issues. But Ms. Stabenow has made Michigan and Great Lakes concerns her cause. She's led the fight to ban Canadian trash carted to U.S. landfills, and grabbed headlines by taking busloads of senior citizens to Canada to buy cheaper prescription drugs.

She's been a vocal critic of Chinese currency manipulation and attempts to steal U.S. patents, although she says she supports efforts to attract Chinese business to America.

She is proud that she is the first Michigan senator to chair the agriculture committee since the 1880s. She called agriculture Michigan's second-biggest industry, but the state hadn't even had a senator on the committee since the mid-1970s.

Ms. Stabenow is overflowing with ideas to boost farm income, from tabletop "vertical farming" to trying to get Detroit Eastern Market designated a "kitchen incubator" for startup restaurant and food-processing businesses.

All of this, coupled with steadfast, to-the-last-nut-and-bolt support for the U.S. auto industry, has resulted in a lot of goodwill.

The Michigan Republican Party has compiled a stunning record of futility in recent U.S. Senate contests: 10 defeats in 11 tries. Nothing in politics is ever certain. But right now, there seems little to justify betting that the GOP will break its streak next year.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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