Sunday, August 12, 2012

Michigan U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

Michigan U.S. Senate

August 12, 2012
86 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2008 Presidential Result: Blue State (Midwest)

Outlook: Leans Democrat

Much of the past ten years plus has been very good for Democrats running in Michigan, but with a seriously struggling economy, the state voted for change and took a big step towards the GOP in 2010, that included electing a Republican as Governor. With that in mind, there was much anticipation that this year's Senate contest there could be one of the nation's top battleground races, but a serious campaign error in judgment by the Republican front-runner, way back in February, may have ended that possibility right then and there.

Democrat Debbie Stabenow is seeking her third term in the U.S. Senate, having defeated an incumbent Republican in 2000, and then easily surviving a 2006 reelection challenge, in what was originally supposed to be a very difficult race. While typically a reliable vote for her party on Capitol Hill, it does not seem as if she has really accomplished much of a positive definition for herself at home, as her approval ratings were a bit mediocre.

Despite the strong GOP year of 2000 in Michigan, many Republicans passed on the opportunity to attempt to unseat Stabenow and by the end of 2011, the clear frontrunner for the nomination was former Congressman Pete Hoekstra. A native of the Netherlands, like many in his part of Michigan, Hoekstra came to the United States at age 3, and as an adult rose through the business ranks before mounting his first bid for elective office in 1992, when he shockingly defeated a nationally prominent GOP Congressman in a primary and went on to be elected to the House of Representatives. During his time in Congress, Hoekstra became established as an expert on foreign policy and intelligence manners, and would eventually become the top Republican on the important Intelligence Committee.

Considering that policy background, it was perhaps a bit of surprise when Hoekstra decided to not stay in the House or wait for a chance to run for the Senate, but instead sought his party's Gubernatorial nomination in 2010. He came in a distant second in a crowded primary, but that statewide run would go on to help make him the party's frontrunner to run against Stabenow in 2012.

Some early polls showed Hoekstra with a very good chance of potential success, but his campaign made headlines for all the wrong reasons in February, when an ad ran in Michigan during the Super Bowl, in which the Hoekstra campaign took Stabenow to task for what they said was her voting record in favor of profligate government spending. It was perhaps a fair charge, but the tactic of using an Asian-American actress portraying an accented Chinese woman riding a bike in a rice paddy thanking "Michigan Senator Debbie Spenditnow" for in effect harming the United States and helping China was perhaps the wrong tactic. The ad was decried as xenophobic and racist and Republicans were not willing to defend it. While the ad only ran once, and Hoekstra stood behind the substance of it, his campaign eventually pulled down an Asian themed website targeting Stabenow's spending record. It did not take long for the incumbent to go out to a larger lead over her chief Republican opponent in the polls.

Despite all the talk about Hoekstra being "damaged goods", a serious effort to deny him the nomination never really took off and he went on to win last Tuesday's primary by a pretty decent sized margin against lesser known opponents, but not anywhere near what he would have likely gotten without the controversy.

The general election is now set, but there were a couple polls taken in the state back in July. In those by the Democrat affiliated PPP outfit, Stabenow. In a poll by Rasmussen Reports, which Democrats say often overly favors Republicans, taken at around the same time, Stabenow's lead is just six points and she is running a few points below the 50 percent threshold,indicating the the race still has the potential to be quite competitive.

I think it will be worth waiting to see additional public opinion data, but I would be somewhat surprised if Hoekstra winds up running much better. If a future Rasmussen survey shows Stabenow with an even larger lead, this race should then easily be classified as "Likely Democrat." Until then, I suppose there is still time for Hoekstra to make up ground by focusing on the issues, but the state is still pretty Democrat leaning at the federal level, and the GOP candidate is not exactly a warm and fuzzy politician who will win many people over by his personality on the television airwaves.

Hoekstra is highly intelligent and has always been well respected on Capitol Hill, but by approving a campaign message to run, that any decent political professional should have realized would have created a backlash worth far more than any benefit the issue message could have provided, he really put himself in an unnecessary  political hole too early.

Hoekstra, aka "Pete Spenditnot" campaign link:

2012 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 8 D, 3 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 38 D, 40 R