Terri Lynn Land is officially her party’s nominee for Michigan’s open Senate seat, and Republicans are less than inspired. Not that that should come as any surprise.
There’s one simple reason Michigan Republicans worked feverishly to recruit someone other than Land to run: She is not a top-tier candidate. The last few months of her campaign is proof, revealing the warts and weaknesses that her allies have always known could ruin the GOP’s best opportunity in two decades to take a grab at this Senate seat.
Certainly, Land has some things going for her. The former secretary of state is a woman in a male-dominated party. She’s known by GOP donors nationwide after serving on the Republican National Committee, and has raised impressive sums of money, self-funding roughly one-third of her campaign. She also won two statewide elections with healthy majorities, giving her solid name identification.
But on the nuts and bolts of campaigning — operational tactics, articulating policy specifics, messaging through advertisements and media — there were serious doubts about whether Land could compete. With partisan control of the Senate up for grabs, Michigan’s race this year is a nationally significant one. Republicans who know Land were concerned about her lack of exposure to the national spotlight, and whether she could survive the scrutiny of such a campaign.
Those fears are now being realized.
“There have always been doubts about whether she can do it; whether she has command of the issues, the forensic skills, whether she can deal with the media,” said Bill Ballenger, a former Republican state legislator and founder of the newsletter Inside Michigan Politics. “She has done, in my view, some things that simply underscore all the doubts and qualms about her — not only from Democrats and the media but from people in her own party.”
Ballenger added: “Frankly, she’s going to have to overcome those things. And maybe she can’t. And if she can’t, she’ll lose.”
Land once led Rep. Gary Peters, the uncontested Democratic nominee, in early polling of the race, prompting conservative pundit George Will to fawn about her “musical name” and giving Republicans legitimate hope of winning a U.S. Senate race in Michigan for the first time in 20 years.
But Land’s campaign has stumbled in recent months, thanks to a blend of bizarre advertisements, stilted media encounters, intentional under-exposure, stale policy prescriptions, and lingering questions over the legality of her campaign finances.
Once ahead in the polls, Land has spent the last several months trailing Peters. Since Mid-April, only one of 14 surveys showed Land ahead — and it put her up a single point. Peters has hardly pulled away; all of the polls contain his advantage to single digits, and only one had him hitting the 50-percent mark.
Still, as Land formally assumes the role of Republican nominee, that drop-off in polling — compounded by a recent string of damaging headlines about her campaign finances and reluctance to commit to debating Peters — is prompting some Republicans to revisit the concerns they aired a year ago.
“She wasn’t anybody’s first choice, for a variety of different reasons. And we’re seeing why,” said one longtime Michigan GOP heavyweight who asked not to be identified because of his friendship with Land.
Land entered the race last July fully aware that the party establishment preferred several other candidates — Reps. Mike Rogers and Dave Camp topped the list — and were actively recruiting them. But as they waffled over whether to seek a promotion to the upper chamber, Land began raising money and building an operation. And when those more-attractive options eventually passed on the race, Land was suddenly left as the de facto GOP nominee — and Republicans realized they’d better make lemonade.
Despite her known weaknesses as a candidate, Republicans couldn’t help but support Land’s candidacy. She’s been a party loyalist for decades, and is as well-known and well-liked as anyone in the state GOP. Perhaps her greatest strength is her availability.
“There is nobody who works the grassroots like she does,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga, a West Michigan congressman who has known Land for years. “If you needed a speaker for a Lincoln Day Dinner in February in the [Upper Peninsula], Terri was there.”
“She’s not a bad candidate. She’s just not a great candidate,” the Michigan GOP veteran conceded. “We’re in a situation where she’s got the money, and the name ID, and she’s liked among party activists around the state. So she’s got all the makings of a successful candidate.”
Indeed, on paper it appears that Land would be a formidable contender. But there’s something missing. While Land has “the makings of a successful candidate,” she finds herself behind in the polls and on the verge of giving away an eminently winnable race. The explanation, Lansing insiders say, is that she lacks the intangible political talent needed to run an above-average campaign.
Land is undeniably decent and kind, but also passive to the point of being a pushover — which can present a unique set of problems when dealing with the media scrutiny of a federal campaign. Smartly recognizing this, Land’s team made a concerted effort to avoid reporters early and often.
The cat-and-mouse game couldn’t last forever, though. And sure enough, Land’s friends who predicted she would struggle with the media were proven correct in May, when she encountered a press scrum after addressing a business gathering on Mackinac Island. According to reporters involved, Land looked like a deer in the headlights when confronted with basic questions about net neutrality, the Affordable Care Act, and the Detroit automaker bailout.
“Land was absolutely dreadful. She came across like a high school student who had memorized a speech,” veteran reporter Jack Lessenberry wrote for Michigan Radio, adding: “Worse, when surrounded by reporters and bombarded with questions afterwards, she clearly panicked. She was a frightened Sarah Palin in sensible shoes, and everybody knew it.”
Detroit Free Press reporter Kathleen Gray wrote of Land’s media scrum: “At one point, looking slightly panicked and clearly uncomfortable, she pushed microphones away and said: ‘I can’t do this. I talk with my hands.’”
Predictably, Land has gone into a shell since that disastrous incident. She limits her exposure to fundraisers and photo-ops. She makes no appearances that allow for unscripted interaction with voters. And she has essentially ended all engagement with the media (including with this correspondent, who, for purposes of disclosure, has known Land for years and cited her as a source when reporting on Michigan and national politics.) Land declined to comment for this story.
“Land is running her campaign from a bunker. It’s been more than year now and she hasn’t held a single event that’s open to the public,” said Peters spokeswoman Haley Morris. “She’s on the run from reporters and she’s hiding from voters.”
But people close to Land argue that she’s sticking to a well-formulated gameplan. They say she understands her weaknesses and is doing what’s necessary to minimize her mistakes and make the campaign a referendum on Peters — whose support for President Obama, vote for the Affordable Care Act and decision to march in Detroit’s “Occupy Wall Street” rally make him vulnerable.
“She’s tactically doing what makes the most sense right now,” said Saul Anuzis, former chairman of the Michigan Republican Party. “We’re in a purple state, we’re in a position where we’ve got a candidate with issues going her way, and the last thing she wants to do is give her opponent any ammunition to use against her in the process.”
That strategy, however, has bred a strange set of circumstances. As the home stretch opens, it’s Peters — the consistent leader in public polling — who is calling on Land to participate in debates.
“In his position the playbook says don’t seek more debates, because they give the frontrunner chances to trip up,” said another Michigan Republican, who asked not to be named because of his involvement in a campaign this year. “But Peters is challenging Land to five or six debates — and there’s a reason for that. There’s an assessment on their side about how those debates will go.”
But none if it — awkward interviews, sloppy campaign finances, debate performances — may end up mattering. Even with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder atop the ticket this year and poised to win reelection, Land’s allies acknowledge her climb is a steep one. Her best chance of winning, they suggest, is keeping her head down and hoping for a GOP landslide.
“Everyone agrees Michigan is going to be one of those races that depend on the national mood. We’re a purple state that can go red under the right circumstances. So her best bet is to ride the wave,” Anuzis said.
“I don’t think anyone thinks she’s going to be Number 50,” he added, referring to the amount of Republicans in the Senate. “But she could be 53 or 54.”
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