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Published: Friday, 7/22/2011

COMMENTARY

Hoekstra's return enlivens Michigan's U.S. Senate race

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

From a civics standpoint, Michigan voters, no matter what their politics, should be happy that former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra has decided to run for the U.S. Senate after all.

That's because voters ought to have a choice not only between ideas and ideologies, but between candidates -- assuming that Mr. Hoekstra wins the GOP primary -- who clearly are qualified for the job.

Mr. Hoekstra, who won high marks when he chaired the House Select Committee on Intelligence in the years after the 9/11 attacks, is that.

Increasingly, well-funded incumbent senators have tended to face token contenders who are hard to take seriously as legitimate opponents. The last two times Michigan's senior senator, Carl Levin, ran, the best the state GOP could muster was two term-limited state legislators. Only days ago, it looked like the state party was coming close to virtually abdicating next year's contest as well.

One by one -- beginning with Mr. Hoekstra -- major Michigan GOP figures came up with reasons why they couldn't run against two-term incumbent Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Wanting to "spend more time with the family" was a popular excuse. U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter of Livonia ducked out to launch a quixotic run for president.

Terri Lynn Land, Michigan's popular former secretary of state, said, in a burst of candor, that she wasn't running because it was clear that neither the national nor the state party was ready "to make this a priority" race, meaning: Help come up with the millions of dollars needed to knock off a well-funded, well-entrenched incumbent.

When even football commentator-turned-columnist Frank Beckmann said no, it left a GOP field that consisted of a former probate judge from Grand Rapids, an unknown accountant from rural Michigan, and the Oakland County water resources commissioner.

But then Mr. Hoekstra unexpectedly decided to re-enter the race. Some said he felt the debt-ceiling crisis would be a game-changer. Others noted that a recent EPIC/MRA poll showed a sudden jump in Ms. Stabenow's unfavorability rating, and a dramatic decline in the percentage of voters who approve of her job performance.

Whatever the reason, there's reason to think Mr. Hoekstra, a 57-year-old from Holland, Mich., could give the senator a tough race.

Twenty years ago, as a young furniture executive, he decided to challenge entrenched incumbent congressman Guy Vander Jagt in a GOP primary. Mr. Hoekstra, campaigned across the district on a bicycle, captured voters' imaginations, and won easily.

Two years ago, dismayed by Democrats' retaking the House, he left Congress and launched a campaign for the GOP nomination for governor. He was an early favorite, especially since he was the only major candidate from west Michigan.

But he seemed miscast. Congressmen who have made their reputation on national issues often find it hard to connect with voters on state and local concerns. Mr. Hoekstra was no exception.

He was drawn into what looked like a nasty fight with Mike Cox, then the state attorney general. While they bludgeoned each other, Rick Snyder waltzed off with the nomination. Mr. Hoekstra finished a distant second.

Running for the Senate seems a much more natural fit. Mr. Hoekstra has demonstrated competence in Washington. He could argue that he would do more for Michigan, if Republicans recapture the Senate in 2012.

That's something that has been seen as increasingly likely, given that many more Democratic seats are at stake.

That doesn't mean that Mr. Hoekstra is a sure thing to win even the GOP primary, although he'll be a heavy favorite. And regardless of what recent polls show, he is bound to be an underdog in the general election.

Michigan Republicans have a long history of disparaging Ms. Stabenow in sometimes blatantly sexist terms. They call her ineffectual and clueless, and sometimes openly mock her off-again, on-again weight problems. But time and again, when the votes are counted, she wins -- usually by large margins.

She has proven to be a very effective fund-raiser, something that in the past hasn't been Mr. Hoekstra's strength. But if Mr. Hoekstra is the nominee, she will have to raise more and campaign more than she may have expected.

The candidates will almost certainly have a series of debates, and both will have to explain and defend their records and votes on a wide variety of issues. That will be good for the voters.

Mr. Hoekstra is taking a considerable risk by entering this race. Should he lose, that would be two statewide losses in two years. And that likely would mean the end of his career as a candidate for office.

However, the election is more than a year away. Odds are that this is going to get more interesting.

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.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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