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GOP Sees Opportunity in Michigan Senate Race

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Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow narrowly leads Michigan Republicans in early polls for her re-election bid. She’s had a long stretch of successful wins in the state, but Republicans think she might be vulnerable in 2012.

At this point in the 2010 election cycle, longtime Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold (D) seemed like a lock for re-election, but today a Republican political novice holds his seat. In neighboring Michigan, Republicans are hoping for a similar victory over two-term Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) in 2012.

Republicans had a big year in both states in 2010: In each, the GOP picked up House seats and now controls both chambers of the state Legislature as well as the governor’s mansion.

Bill Ballenger, editor of the nonpartisan newsletter Inside Michigan Politics, said Feingold’s fate should be a warning to Stabenow.

“If Russ Feingold proved to be vulnerable in Wisconsin” and ultimately lost when nobody would have thought such a thing were possible, “certainly Stabenow fits the same profile,” he said Tuesday.

Ballenger pointed to both states’ narrowly Democratic lean and the two Senators’ liberal profiles as similarities. Stabenow, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, served in Democratic leadership in the Senate and supported Democrats’ priorities, including health care reform and the stimulus. Republicans say those factors and their allies’ enthusiasm following the 2010 elections will bolster their nominee and encourage donors who may have withheld contributions in past elections because they believed Stabenow would be impossible to beat.

“We’ve got a very engaged electorate right now,” Michigan GOP Chairman Bobby Schostak said. “They’re highly focused on the success of the last election.”

In a December Public Policy Polling survey, Stabenow barely led a pair of potential GOP challengers: Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra trailed her by just 1 point and Rep. Candice Miller was 2 points behind. Former Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land and former Gov. John Engler trailed Stabenow by single digits, as well.

Roll Call Politics rates this race Leans Democratic.

Though no one has jumped into the race yet, a laundry list of Republicans have been mentioned as potential opponents. Two of them, businessmen Tim Leuliette and Al Pease, have similar backgrounds to now-Sen. Ron Johnson, the GOP businessman who unseated Feingold. Neither has run for office before. Pease, the former CEO of Perceptron Inc., said he wouldn’t be able to self-fund in the same way Johnson or new Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) did in 2010.

Pease told Roll Call that he will make a decision about the race by April or May.

But several others are considering the race, including Land, former Michigan GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis and former juvenile court judge Randy Hekman.

Anuzis, a runner-up for the Republican National Committee chairmanship in 2009 and 2011, said this race would be different from anything he has done before. “The reality is party politics is pretty different than electoral politics,” he said.

Anuzis was first elected chairman of the Michigan GOP in 2005 and re-elected in 2007. He now serves as Michigan’s national committeeman. Though he may not have broad name recognition in Michigan, he referred to Republican Spencer Abraham’s 1994 Senate win after losing a bid for RNC chairman. Anuzis told Roll Call that his connections with donors and GOP activists would give him an advantage most first-time candidates don’t have.

Hekman was elected judge in 1974 and left in 1990 to start the Michigan Family Forum, he told Roll Call. He currently works for a church and some scientific nonprofits. He said he has made a number of calls to Republicans and other potential candidates and plans to make a decision about the race by March 1.

“I just sense that we need God in our country,” he said. “I’m just going to be very blunt. We don’t need more government.”

Hoekstra, who came in second in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010, has said he’s considering the race, but he recently took a job at a law firm in Washington, D.C. The Republican members of the House delegation may be motivated to consider the statewide race since reapportionment means Michigan will have one less House seat in 2012, but none of them have begun moving in that direction.

Stabenow has some formidable strengths and could be boosted by sharing a ballot with President Barack Obama.

At the beginning of the cycle, she has $2 million on hand, one of the best totals among Senators up for re-election in 2012. Over a political career that started in 1975, she has lost only once, in a Democratic primary for governor in 1994. She steadily climbed the political ladder in Michigan, serving on a county commission and in both chambers of the state Legislature before losing the 1994 race. She rallied in 1996 to win a House seat and then went on to defeat Abraham in 2000.

Stabenow’s office said she has no campaign manager or campaign structure in place this early in the cycle.

“Sen. Stabenow is not focused on the next election. She’s working on the job Michigan families sent her to do. Right now leaders ought to be working together to solve problems and create jobs, not already fighting over an election that is two years away,” spokesman Cullen Schwarz said in an e-mail.

The number of Republicans who are interested in the race may be a step ahead of where Republicans were in 2006, said Dave Doyle, a Michigan-based Republican consultant who served as chairman of the state party in the 1990s.

“As I recall, it was a fairly difficult recruiting process in that people didn’t view her as vulnerable back then, and it went a long time before a candidate emerged,” he said.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard, the former state Senator who lost to Stabenow by 16 points in 2006, says whoever is nominated will have a better shot at winning than he did.

“In essence, 2006 for Republicans was like 2010 for Democrats,” he told Roll Call. “Existing and sitting Senators all over the country were losing, and the whole campaign for every Democrat was, ‘He’s George Bush’s friend.’”

Republicans feel good about how circumstances have changed, but 21 months is a lifetime in politics.

Just ask Feingold.

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