The brain trust of the Michigan Republican Party, energized earlier this year by the surprise retirement of Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, quickly set out to accomplish twin objectives: Recruit an electable, well-financed Republican candidate, and do it quickly so that Rep. Gary Peters, the de facto Democratic nominee, was not afforded a free pass to campaign uncontested.
With Labor Day around the corner, Republicans in Lansing are failing on both fronts.
Party heavyweights poured themselves into courting the only top-tier candidates on their bench: Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Dave Camp, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Rogers, after some extended deliberation, announced in June that he would stay in the House. And Camp, who back in April all but ruled out a run, now says he's reconsidering. But many Lansing insiders don't expect Camp to run, and those who do concede that he's not likely to launch a campaign until sometime after the new year.
Meanwhile, Peters, who announced his candidacy May 1, has been barnstorming the state for the past three months and building a campaign infrastructure to support his statewide efforts. The third-term congressman, who represents the vote-rich Detroit suburbs as well as the city's eastern half, has been expanding his political presence—and his fundraising operation—to other areas of the Wolverine State. Two months after launching his campaign, Peters announced raising $1 million and having nearly twice that sum in his war chest.
It's still early and state Republicans caution that traditionally there is little movement until the biannual Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference in September. But without a top-tier candidate—and watching helplessly as the opposition organizes and funds its operation—the Michigan GOP may be fumbling away its best chance in two decades to win a U.S. Senate seat.
"They're in trouble; they're always in trouble when it comes to the U.S. Senate," said Inside Michigan Politics Editor Bill Ballenger, referring to the Republican Party's historical ineptitude at winning U.S. Senate races. "The only time they've won since 1966 is Spencer Abraham in 1994. And only two different Republicans have won since Eisenhower was elected president. So, they're always in trouble."
But it's not just history working against the Michigan GOP. The state has turned decidedly blue in recent years, with the Democrats winning there in each of the past five presidential elections. The statewide infrastructure that secured President Obama's electoral victories in 2008 and 2012 is still in place. And although Obama won't be atop the ticket in 2014, Michigan Democrats will be utilizing the same donor lists and voter-turnout operation that achieved double-digit wins for Levin in 2008 and Sen. Debbie Stabenow in 2012.
With so little margin for error, Michigan Republicans recognize that they won't win with a mediocre candidate. But as of now, party elders say, that's all they've got.
Former Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, the only major declared candidate on the GOP side, is well-liked and has been a party stalwart for decades. But she inspires little confidence among the donor class, and top Republicans still cringe at her short-lived gubernatorial bid in 2010, which she dropped after a terrible debate performance. Land has been meeting with top GOP donors and assembling a campaign operation, but party insiders have not coalesced around her candidacy. They are, instead, holding out hope for a headliner candidate, someone with national gravitas who can raise serious money and put Democrats on the defensive.
Enter Dave Camp.
The Ways and Means chairman, who will give up his gavel after this congressional term because of term limits, has emerged as the last best hope for the Michigan GOP. Camp is smart, seasoned, and well-respected across the aisle. He represents one of Michigan's most geographically expansive congressional districts, meaning he has name recognition across a variety of media markets. Most importantly, Camp is a proven fundraiser, with more than $3 million in his congressional account that could be transferred to a U.S. Senate campaign.
Camp is seriously considering the race, and people close to the congressman say there's a very real chance he runs. But they also say he won't decide anytime soon. This gives hope to party leaders in Lansing; it also temporarily relieves the pressure of needing to produce a top candidate.
"It's still a wait-and-see. Just because we haven't coalesced around a single candidate doesn't mean it's a negative at this point," said former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis, who is actively recruiting Camp into the race and says the congressman would "instantaneously become the front-runner" if he gets in.
Anuzis said he and fellow party leaders feel "no urgency" at this point because of the time frame Camp has given them for making his decision. "We all know that Camp will not make a decision before end of year or early next year," he said. "So there's an understanding that we still have a three-to-four month window, maybe more, to wait out his potential candidacy."
Top Republicans have no choice but to accommodate Camp's timetable, but they appear comfortable with it nonetheless. That's because he has the luxury of entering late with lots of money, whereas other candidates starting from scratch need to spend the summer meeting donors and building a war chest.
Aside from Land, the list of potential alternative candidates include Holland Mayor Kurt Dykstra, who is expected to announce his bid at next month's Mackinac gathering; Oakland County District Court Judge Kim Small, who has met with GOP officials in Washington about a run; and physician Rob Steele, who has floated his candidacy for various offices since losing a 2010 congressional race.
The X-factor continues to be Rep. Justin Amash, the libertarian Republican who has long been considering the race. Amash, whose political profile has been raised in recent weeks thanks to debate over the National Security Agency's surveillance policies, was once seen as a likely candidate but is increasingly viewed as unlikely to leave the House. Amash has not been specific about the timing of his eventual announcement. But he, like other prospective candidates, is being urged by the state party to accelerate his decision-making process after the Mackinac gathering in late September.
If Amash were to run, he would be the beneficiary of massive outside spending from tea-party and libertarian-allied groups.
This article appears in the August 16, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.