The irreplaceable Carl Levin


DETROIT — The last time I interviewed U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, he met me in Detroit at an International House of Pancakes, about as modest a restaurant as you can imagine.

He drove himself, showed up without aides, ate a waffle without syrup, talked candidly for an hour, and drove off to see constituents in Dearborn. Sometimes on weekends, I’ve seen him in my neighborhood grocery store, wearing dungarees and an old shirt.

I asked the 20-something cashier at the restaurant whether she knew who he was. “I think he works for the government,” she said.

My guess is that she may not have known who he was, but if she voted at all, she voted for him. The last time he ran, the Detroit Democrat became the first person in Michigan history to get more than 3 million votes in any race.

But last week, Michigan learned that he has won his last election. Mr. Levin announced he won’t run for a seventh term next year.

Republicans had stopped seriously contesting his re-election bids. Two election cycles ago, I sat down one night with a former state legislator who wanted to be that year’s sacrificial lamb. I asked: Why in the world would you want to do this?

Well, it seemed that he wanted to get his girlfriend to marry him, and he thought he might have a better shot if he could at least say he was a major-party candidate for the U.S. Senate. I don’t know how his courtship turned out, but I hope he did better in that than he did in the election.

Nobody else from Michigan has ever served as long in the U.S. Senate as Mr. Levin has. Had he wanted another term, the GOP likely would have put a term-limited lawmaker on the ballot, gone through the motions, and not given the nominee any money.

Mr. Levin was, as everyone knew, a class act. He served in the Senate with Strom Thurmond, who had no idea who or where he was toward the end of his career. Mr. Levin will be 80 next year, and would have been 86 before his term ended. Few men that age can keep up with the demands of a job that requires frequent commuting and sometimes hopscotching the world, and he knew it.

Who will succeed him?

The odds, at first glance, favor a Democrat. Michigan Republicans have a stunning record of failure in U.S. Senate elections. They have won once in their last 13 tries.

Their lone victory was in 1994, when Spencer Abraham won an open seat. That was the year the GOP captured both houses of Congress, and won every open Senate seat in the nation. Mr. Abraham lasted one term before losing to Democrat Debbie Stabenow, who has since won re-election twice by whopping margins.

Next year, however, the GOP may have a chance — depending in part on national conditions. Traditionally, off-year elections favor the party that does not hold the presidency.

Add to the mix the fact that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder presumably will be running for re-election, and there is no well-funded, top-tier Democratic challenger in sight.

Michiganians long have been ticket-splitters, willing to give a governor from one party and a senator from another landslide victories on the same election night.

So it may come down to the candidates. Democrats have an early front-runner: U.S. Rep. Gary Peters, 54, a three-term congressman from suburban Detroit. A relentless campaigner, he has learned a lot since losing — some would say blowing — a close statewide race for attorney general in 2002. He is interested, and is the early favorite.

The GOP picture is muddied. The party could face a choice between one or more establishment candidates and a Tea Party darling. The latter likely would be two-term U.S. Rep. Justin Amash, whose district includes Grand Rapids.

Mr. Amash, 32, has made a name for himself as a maverick who has often voted no on bipartisan compromises. On dozens of bills before the House, he often has cast the only no vote, because he says he refuses to vote for legislation he hasn’t read.

More-conventional Republicans are hoping that either U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers or Lt. Gov. Brian Calley will run.

Mr. Calley, 36, conceivably could seek the nomination, lose the August, 2014, primary, and be renominated for lieutenant governor at the party’s convention the following month.

Mr. Rogers, on the other hand, would have to give up a safe seat in the House, where he is chair of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Another possibility is former Michigan secretary of state Terri Lynn Land, 54. She was popular, doesn’t now have an office she‘d risk, and has a family with considerable money.

Other candidates may test the waters. Two things, however, are clear: A race that could have been a sleeper is now likely to suck up tens of millions of campaign dollars. And whoever wins may be Mr. Levin’s successor, but that person won’t be his replacement.

Nobody could be. In terms of stature, seniority, and clout, Michigan in January, 2015 is bound to be a little bit poorer.

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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