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Rothenberg: Why I Rate Michigan's Senate Seat As 'Safe' for Democrats

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Although Levin won’t seek re-election, Democrats still have a good chance to hold onto his seat, Rothenberg writes.

Moments after the Rothenberg Political Report reiterated its “Safe” rating of the now open Michigan Senate race, I started hearing complaints. Some of the questions raised were reasonable — so reasonable that I thought I’d use this space to explain why my colleagues and I decided not to move the race immediately to a more competitive category.

Republicans had no chance of defeating Democratic Sen. Carl Levin next year, so his retirement certainly improves their prospects. But does it improve the GOP’s chances enough to warrant a change in the race’s rating? Not yet. Michigan’s fundamentals still pose major problems for Republicans. Democrats have won the past six presidential elections and 11 of the past 12 Senate elections in the Wolverine State.

The sole Senate victory came in 1994, when a huge national Republican wave helped Spencer Abraham win retiring Democratic Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr.’s open seat. Abraham lost the seat, albeit narrowly, six years later to the seat’s current occupant, Democrat Debbie Stabenow.

Three of the last four GOP Senate nominees — Andrew “Rocky” Raczkowski in 2002, Jack Hoogendyk in 2008 and Peter Hoekstra in 2012 — failed to reach the 39 percent mark, while the fourth — 2006 nominee Mike Bouchard — drew just more than 41 percent against Stabenow. That roster of recent GOP Senate nominees got my attention. While some were stronger than others, as a group it wasn’t intimidating. In other words, Michigan Republicans have had a hard time finding strong candidates.

The closest presidential race in the state since 1988 (when George H.W. Bush carried it comfortably) was in 2004, when Democratic challenger John Kerry defeated President George W. Bush by about 3.5 points at the same time that Bush was being re-elected nationally by about 2.5 points.

Mitt Romney’s performance in Michigan (one of his home states) is particularly noteworthy. President Barack Obama carried the state by about 450,000 votes, winning by almost 9.5 points. Obama won nationally by fewer than 4 points, so his margin in the state was much larger than his margin nationally. Obama’s winning margin was smaller in 10 states than it was in Michigan, and Romney’s winning margin in both Arizona and Missouri was less than the president’s winning margin in Michigan.

But Michigan’s governor, secretary of state and attorney general are all Republicans, and the party controls both houses of the state Legislature. Doesn’t that prove the state is competitive and the GOP has a reasonable chance of winning an open Senate seat, particularly during a midterm election?

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