Fish Again in Michigan

GOP Recruiting Drive for Top Stabenow Challenger Stalls

Posted April 4, 2005 at 6:32pm

Republicans have high hopes of knocking off freshman Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) next year. But when another sought-after GOPer sidelined himself last week, political watchers began wondering if those hopes were misplaced.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee insists a top-notch candidate will still emerge and that Stabenow is beatable.

“It’s still very early,” NRSC spokesman Brian Nick said. “There’s already been a lot of interest but there’s been extenuating circumstances,” which have prevented some candidates from emerging, he said.

This is “certainly a race that we can win,” Nick said. “We should be able to pick this seat up.”

Part of what makes the Republicans confident is the close race Stabenow had in 2000, when she narrowly defeated then-Sen. Spence Abraham (R).

But Democrats look at the same facts and also have reason for optimism.

Despite being outspent by more than $5 million, Stabenow, then a Congresswoman, prevailed over Abraham 49 percent to 48 percent.

Since then, Republican recruiting has not proceeded according to plan.

Rep. Candice Miller (R) resisted entreaties from even President Bush, firmly deciding to remain in the House despite her showing as one of the state’s most proven votegetters during her two terms as Michigan’s secretary of state.

Similarly, Rep. Mike Rogers (R) has shown no willingness to give up the seat he won by 111 votes in 2000 when Stabenow vacated it to challenge Abraham.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox and current Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land would both have to give up their offices, to which they were elected in 2002, to seek the GOP Senate nomination.

Land has not completely ruled a Senate bid out but she basically has said that she would run only if no other credible Republican comes forward.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard pulled an in-and-out move in February, joining the race and then pulling the plug on his nascent campaign a week later, citing unspecified health problems.

Just last week the GOP’s latest darling, Peter Cummings, opted not to run, citing family obligations.

A wealthy real estate developer, Cummings said the recent death of his well-known father-in-law, Max Fisher, will require him to spend more time dealing with his family’s financial interests and philanthropic work.

“They’ve had some bad luck,” said Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter.

State Republicans are more upbeat.

“I think we will have a top-notch candidate,” said state GOP Chairman Saul Anuzis. “This is no different than just the process working itself through.”

Anuzis mentioned the Rev. Keith Butler, a former Detroit City councilman, who is expected to officially file later this month. Party leaders, especially in Washington, D.C., are still hoping to coax Domino’s Pizza Chief Executive Officer David Brandon into the race. And Jane Abraham, wife of Spence Abraham, is seriously mulling a bid.

Speaking of Butler, Anuzis said he thinks the pastor “will be a very credible candidate.”

Jane Abraham, with whom he met on Friday, has the benefit of high name recognition and could count on financial help from conservative groups such as the Susan B. Anthony Political Action Committee, a group that opposes abortion rights, he said.

Though she has not lived in the state since her husband was a Senator — he served four years as President Bush’s Energy secretary — “a lot of people would welcome her back with open arms,” Anuzis predicted.

The chairman also said he spoke with Brandon on Monday and that the pizza chief “is looking at the race very seriously.”

Ballenger said Brandon, who also serves as a University of Michigan regent, would be the strongest candidate by far and that most of the others would be longshots at best.

“Many people just find it hard to accept [Abraham] as a credible candidate, she hasn’t been living here, she really has only been a party activist,” he said. “The idea that she would just try to capitalize on her husband’s name ID and reappear in Michigan … if that’s the best the Republicans can do” they are in trouble, he opined.

Butler faces the stigma of following two other high-profile black candidates who ran statewide and flamed out badly, Ballenger said.

Furthermore, “Butler is a very conservative guy. In terms of the Republican base, he probably has solid credentials but in terms of having appeal in a general election in a state like Michigan … he’d have a real problem.”

Troy industrial engineer Bart Baron (R) has already declared his candidacy, but Ballenger said he “cannot be taken seriously” because he previously ran for office as a Democrat.

On Monday, the Detroit Free Press reported that Nasser Beydoun, a Wayne County construction company executive and former director of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce, was considering running as a Republican.

The paper noted that he has donated to Democratic candidates in the past, including Stabenow.

Stabenow ended last year with more than $2 million in the bank and has looked strong in public polls.

The most recent, conducted in March by a Lansing-based firm, showed her favorability at 50 percent. In hypothetical matchups, she garnered more than 50 percent against four would-be Republican challengers.

“The bottom line is they’re having trouble getting an opponent because Debbie Stabenow has been an effective Senator,” said Phil Singer, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “They also see that she is remarkably strong politically and that it will be a difficult race.”

Ballenger said that no Republican officeholder is willing to do what Stabenow did to get where she is — give up a safe seat to take a risk.

“She’s a gambler,” Ballenger said of Stabenow. “She’ll roll the dice; these people just aren’t willing to do it.”