Sheriff’s On His Way

GOP Still Searching in Michigan

Posted October 24, 2005 at 6:23pm

The Republican Senate field in Michigan is expected to get more crowded this week but whether that is good for the party is being debated by GOP strategists.

It also could have implications for national Republicans’ ongoing efforts to appeal to black voters.

Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard (R) is reconsidering his February decision to not challenge Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) next year.

He got into the race last winter only to jettison his campaign because of unspecified health concerns.

Bouchard was in Washington, D.C., Monday, meeting with National Republican Senatorial Committee officials and other Republican leaders to discuss the possibility of rejoining the race. Bouchard said he has dealt with his health problems, which he described as non-life-threatening issues involving high blood pressure and cholesterol, and plans to make a decision “within a week.”

Bouchard said he received “very positive feedback” from national Republican leaders and that he gave the race another look after supporters back home in Oakland County, a large, affluent suburb outside of Detroit, asked him to reconsider.

As to whether the NRSC or other national party officials recruited him, Bouchard would only say: “They all have been very supportive — whether they called me first or I called them is not really relevant.”

The issue may become relevant, however, as two Republicans were already vying for the nomination when Bouchard began having second thoughts.

Keith Butler, a Christian minister and one-term Detroit city councilman, has been the frontrunner against Jerry Zandstra, a minister who is on leave from his job with a Western Michigan think tank.

Butler has assembled an impressive list of endorsements and collected $1.4 million since launching his campaign early this year.

He has spent a lot — he ended the third quarter with a little more than $760,000 in the bank — to raise that much and he is still little known outside of the Detroit area.

All of that has led national leaders to continue searching for a top-tier candidate, according to people familiar with the race.

The NRSC was high on several people who declined to run, including Rep. Candice Miller (R-Mich.) and Domino’s Pizza CEO David Brandon, before it seemed that a consensus had formed around Butler.

“It doesn’t speak that well of Butler’s candidacy” that national GOP leaders are now talking to Bouchard, said Bill Ballenger, editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “Even though [his team] has done an incredible job of creating this bandwagon effect, but he’s spent a lot to raise a lot. He doesn’t really have much cash on hand.”

And that opened the door for Bouchard, said one Republican operative in Michigan who did not want to be identified.

“He’s showing that he’s weak,” the source said. “He doesn’t have the right people on board; he doesn’t have the right team. People are worried about how much he’s spending.”

Whether Bouchard, who served eight years in the Michigan Senate before becoming sheriff, is any stronger remains to be seen, Ballenger said.

“I just think it’s a mess and I don’t know that Bouchard is necessarily going to be that great of a candidate; he’s an unproven commodity,” Ballenger said.

In a poll taken by EPIC/MRA of Lansing, Mich., when the sheriff was in the mix of Republican candidates, Bouchard did not fare any better against Stabenow than Butler or Zandstra have recently.

What further complicates things for the Republicans is an effort by national party figures, led by Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, to attract black voters and candidates.

The perception that Republicans are throwing over Butler, who is black, in favor of a white candidate could undermine Mehlman’s pitch, Ballenger said.

The machinations over Michigan come just as Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R), who also is black, is prepared to formally enter that state’s Senate race with scores of national GOP leaders supporting him.

If a lot of the heavy-hitters who endorsed Butler flee to Bouchard: “It’s going to look like a craven act of desertion of a black candidate who hasn’t even shown any signs of weakness,” Ballenger predicted. “He hasn’t made any mistakes. He hasn’t done anything wrong, He’s doing everything he should be right now.”

Others disagree.

“I think more candidates running is a good thing,” said Danny Diaz, a RNC spokesman. “I think more African-American candidates running is a good thing. The candidate with the most focused agenda, the most refined issue stances, should be the person who” wins, he added. “We’re encouraged that people feel they can run and be successful in the state and help us pick up a Senate seat.”

The NRSC echoed the sentiment that a robust primary is good for the party.

“We’ve thought all along that Michigan would be an extremely competitive race because Sen. Stabenow is vulnerable,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Nick. “This is going to be a close race regardless of who the nominee is going to be.”

Phil Singer of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee disputed that Stabenow is vulnerable.

“Sen. Stabenow has $5 million in the bank, a 20-point lead over all her challengers and outstanding approval ratings,” he said. “The idea that Bouchard is some kind of major threat is bunk.”

Michigan Republican Party Chairman Saul Anuzis as recently as last week said he thought the field of Senate candidates “was set.”

Given that, the emergence of Bouchard seems to be something that was stoked from the outside, said another Republican operative in Michigan who did not want to be named.

“The state party wasn’t looking for an alternative” to Butler, the source said. “Michigan Republicans were not the ones pushing this. They were happy with Butler.”

Butler refuses to let the Bouchard chatter bother him.

“We’ll wait and see but no matter what it really has no impact on our race, we’re moving forward full speed ahead,” said David Doyle, Butler’s campaign spokesman.

Alvin Williams, president of Black America’s PAC, a Washington-based political action committee dedicated to electing black Republicans, said Bouchard’s decision will have no bearing on the outcome of the Republican primary.

“Rev. Butler is the clear frontrunner in this primary and I don’t think that [Bouchard] will upset Rev. Butler getting the nomination,” he said.

Williams dismissed the notion that Bouchard’s entrance would hurt the larger Republican effort to attract black voters.

“This is an open race; this is democracy in motion, if you will, these matters have to play out,” Williams said. “But the good news is that Rev. Butler is still the frontrunner so that bodes well for the party in general and Michigan in particular.”

One of the Michigan operatives disagreed.

“We had a moment to really do something significant in Michigan and now,” the source began, without finishing the sentence.