Susan J. Demas: Republicans Could Make a Real Run at Stabenow in 2018

 Debbie Stabenow at the Michigan Democratic presidential debate in Flint, March 2016/ Susan J. Demas.

Debbie Stabenow at the Michigan Democratic presidential debate in Flint, March 2016/Susan J. Demas.

Could Donald Trump’s unlikely Michigan victory make it easier for Republicans to finally capture a U.S. Senate seat here in 2018?

That’s something the party hasn’t been able to achieve since 1994 with Spencer Abraham, who was defeated six years later by Debbie Stabenow. The Democrat has held the seat ever since and was recently promoted to the No. 4 slot in her caucus. She’s up for re-election in 2018.

Most recently, the GOP failed to win an open seat in 2014 –– a stellar GOP year –– with Democrat Gary Peters handily defeating popular Republican Terri Lynn Land.

But Republicans are hopeful that ‘16 has signaled a sea change in Michigan politics, with Democrats finally faltering in federal elections.

Michigan GOP Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel is a logical choice to take on Stabenow. Republicans believe the Romney name is still an attribute in Michigan and a female nominee would probably run better against the Democrat.

And there’s the fact that McDaniel is in an interesting political pickle. She’s facing a strong challenge in February from Trump’s Michigan campaign director, Scott Hagerstrom. You’d expect this sort of infighting from the Dems after taking a beating this election. But oddly, the Republican civil war I wrote about prior to the election –– which most us thought would be fueled by a Trump loss –– is still burning brightly.

 Ronna Romney McDaniel

Ronna Romney McDaniel

McDaniel’s problem isn’t her lack of loyalty to Trump. From the beginning of her term, she valiantly tried to straddle the various factions in her party. But she quickly realized the importance of appeasing Trump diehards. Even before he won the nomination, McDaniel pledged to be his delegate at the Republican National Convention. Weeks before the election, she ousted Christian conservative Wendy Day from her post as grassroots vice chair for refusing to endorse Trump. And by all accounts, McDaniel was a faithful soldier, working hand-in-glove with the RNC on Trump GOTV efforts.

But Hagerstrom clearly sees an opening to run as the true Trump candidate. As the former head of the Americans for Prosperity state affiliate, Hagerstrom wasn’t a likely fit as Trump’s Michigan campaign head. The national group, which is guided by billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, failed to endorse Trump, whose policy agenda is more ethnonationalist than traditionally conservative. Still, Hagerstrom can brag he boarded the Trump Train earlier than McDaniel.

This serious threat to McDaniel’s position could make her more likely to run for Senate. Losing her chair re-election fight would be a big blow to her nascent political career. In contrast, challenging Stabenow is a low-risk proposition. Even if McDaniel fails, she’ll win points with both her donor base and the party faithful for putting herself out there. And she could win this thing if the circumstances are right.

There are certainly other top-tier potential GOP Senate contenders. Republicans have long dreamt of former U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers –– who was just booted from the Trump transition team –– taking the plunge. But he has a highly successful syndicated radio show he’d have to abandon.

They’d also do anything to get U.S. Rep. Candice Miller (R-Harrison Twp.) to run for higher office. But Miller just won the most expensive county race in Michigan history and is Macomb’s public works commissioner-elect. If she coveted the governor’s mansion or a U.S. Senate seat, there were certainly more direct paths available.

It wouldn’t surprise me if U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (R-Cascade Twp.) took a close look at a bid. He’s emerged as a potent Trump critic on his myriad business conflicts and his attorney general nominee, U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.). But Amash needs a Senate perch to exercise real clout. The conventional wisdom is that the libertarianish Freedom Caucus member wouldn’t have statewide appeal, but the victory of an unpopular outsider like Trump may scramble that calculus.

There are also the perennial rumors that a self-funding businessman could step up. How many years have we heard about former Domino’s CEO David Brandon or auto magnate Roger Penske running for something? Still, a deep-pocketed outsider would be a good bet in 2018.

You’ll know Stabenow isn’t a top-tier target if Republicans end up with placeholder-type nominees like former House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) or Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive), who Michigan voters couldn’t pick out of a police lineup.

It’s impossible to predict the contours of 2018 right now, of course. Trump hasn’t even taken office yet –– and he will almost certainly dictate the next election’s dynamics, for good or ill. If he notches a successful 18 months with popular achievements (no Obamacare bombs), Republicans could build on their momentum. The GOP also has the advantage of an electorate that has consistently turned out in recent off-year elections.

Another scenario, with historical precedent, is that Democrats could benefit in ‘18 as the party completely out of power in Washington. Trump also has a cult-of-personality following, much like President Obama. It will be an interesting test to see if the Trump bloc shows up when he’s not on the ballot, because Obama’s coalition never did in the necessary numbers to win.

Regardless, Senate Republicans will probably be taking a closer look at Michigan now, given Trump’s success here. They have some fat targets in a cycle that’s shaping up to be brutal for Democrats: U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), Claire McCaskill (R-Mo.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and Jon Tester (D-Mon.).

The drumbeat has already begun that the GOP can hit a filibuster-proof majority of 60. Knocking off a three-term senator like Stabenow could be part of that plan.

Even before any votes were cast in 2016, politicos were looking ahead to the open ‘18 gubernatorial race, as Republican Gov. Rick Snyder is term-limited. It doesn’t hurt that GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette and former state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) have all but declared their candidacies. And Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) aren’t far behind.

That had long overshadowed the U.S. Senate election. But now it’s game on.

Susan J. Demas is Publisher and Editor of Inside Michigan Politics, a nationally acclaimed, biweekly political newsletter. Her political columns can be found at SusanJDemas.com. Follow her on Twitter here.