Republicans Are Losing Faith in Their Michigan Senate Candidate

Terri Lynn Land is exactly who the GOP thought she was, and that’s a problem ““ for her and the party’s push to grab the seat.

National Journal
Tim Alberta
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Tim Alberta
Aug. 6, 2014, 1:42 a.m.

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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