Michigan GOP Poised to Botch Senate Pickup Opportunity

While the Democratic candidate builds his brand and his bankroll, state Republicans are still recruiting, and will be for months.

Terri Lynn Land speaks in Detroit, Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
National Journal
Tim Alberta
Aug. 15, 2013, 2 a.m.

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.

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